Thursday, February 3, 2011

THE LOST WEEKEND Goes COLD TURKEY: “One’s Too Many and A Hundred’s Not Enough” by Team Bartilucci

This week, we of Team Bartilucci will take a look at substance abuse on film—the serious side and the satirical side, in that order!

Dorian’s Pick: The Lost Weekend (1945)
Films about people in the throes of substance abuse and all that goes with it usually depress and/or annoy me, especially since we’ve known alcoholics and other addicts of various stripes over the years. Sadly, some of these people were unable or unwilling to kick the habit until they became sick or dead, in spite of getting every possible form of treatment to overcome their demons (granted, treatment options have evolved over the years). But the frank, uncompromising 1945 movie adaptation of Charles R. Jackson’s searing novel The Lost Weekend (TLW) got under my skin because I’ve always found the story of protagonist Don Birnam’s painful lack of confidence (softened from the novel’s bisexuality) to be so movingly rendered in the screenplay by director Billy Wilder (one of my favorite directors) and Charles Brackett, and powerfully acted by Ray Milland in the performance of his career. Unlike cute, funny movie drunks like Dudley Moore as Arthur, or William Powell and Myrna Loy as The Thin Man’s hard-drinking yet endearing and high-functioning Nick and Nora Charles, Don is no lovable lush. The film follows Don as he’s nearing his lowest point, having been an alcoholic for the past six years and been on the wagon for the past ten days—until today. Don’s younger brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and his devoted girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman, three years before she won her own Oscar for Johnny Belinda), have been trying to be supportive in every possible way, including tough love, but despite his good intentions, Don falls off the wagon hard every time, and alas, this day is no exception. One thing leads to another, and Wick leaves town for the weekend without Don, with Helen only sporadically available thanks to her job at Time (not that it stops her from hanging around his door, worrying). Now the real story begins as Don hits rock bottom at the start of a long weekend in New York City—really a long, dark four days and nights of the soul, running the gamut from petty larceny to a terrifying night in Bellevue and an escape to home with only the DTs for company. The Lost Weekend is as dark and intense as a film noir. John F. Seitz’s moody Oscar-nominated cinematography captures the signs of Don’s addiction in quietly chilling images: wet glass rings multiplying on a bar surface over time; unsold liquor bottles in store windows, silently taunting him; the shadow of a hidden bottle in a light fixture in his apartment, which Don treats as no less than a miracle. Great cast, too, including Howard da Silva, Frank Faylen, Doris Dowling in her film debut, and in a small but crucial role, one of my fave character actors, Douglas Spencer  (Double Indemnity, The Thing…, Diary of Anne Frank, etc.). Despite the downbeat subject matter, the film was a hit with critics and moviegoers alike—and actually inspired some damn funny TLW spoofing, such as the chandelier gag near the end of My Favorite Brunette and the 1947 Bugs Bunny cartoon Slick Hare, where Milland pays for his drink with a typewriter and gets several tiny typewriters as change. TLW’s many awards included 4 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director for Wilder and Best Actor for Milland, with nominations also going to editor Doane Harrison and the haunting theremin music of one of my favorite composers, Miklós Rózsa. TLW balances tragedy, terror, and gallows humor so beautifully, I can’t take my eyes off it whenever it’s on TV. Despite being released in 1945, TLW still packs an emotional wallop today.

Vinnie’s Pick: Cold Turkey (1971)
In our last collaboration, I went on about the untapped potential of Dick Van Dyke in respect to his titular role (a term I just love saying, and so rarely get the opportunity) in Fitzwilly. In said piece, I quickly mentioned the 1971 satire Cold Turkey, and am pleased to have the opportunity to elaborate on such here. It's an oft-forgotten film, known mostly for being one of Randy Newman's first forays into songs for the films.  But thanks to the growing print-on-demand DVD industry, the film has been made available to the general public again.

It's based on the classic comedy trope that has brought us films like The Producers, The Mouse That Roared, and Bamboozled; that of an outrageous plan intended to fail, and the chaos that erupts when it accidentally succeeds.  Mervin Wren (Bob Newhart) is a PR flack for the Valiant Tobacco company.  He proposes a way to make Owner and CEO Hiram C. Grayson (Edward Everett Horton's last role; he passed before the film's release) as beloved to history as Alfred Nobel: offer a prize of $25 million dollars (a princely sum in 1971) to the first town that can quit smoking en masse for thirty days. The idea was that no town could achieve such a feat, so the money would never be collected, but the offer alone would make him appear a humanitarian.

But the little town of Eagle Rock, Iowa had grown so distressed over the loss of a nearby military base (and its requisite jobs) that they saw this as a godsend, or at least its spiritual leader, Rev. Clayton Brooks (Van Dyke) did.  Usually trying to whip his flock into a frenzy (and succeeding only in barely keeping them awake), he now whips the entire populace into a desire to quit smoking.  He ends up driving one unable-to-quit citizen out of town for the month, and the townspeople get the last holdouts to sign the pledge by hook or by crook.  By the time of the deadline, only Eagle Rock has succeeded in getting everyone to quit.

The town turns to madness quickly, both as a result of the lack of tobacco and the sudden attention of the media their simple act has spurred.  The networks set up camp in town, and advertising opportunities stream in, along with tourists. Brooks becomes an overnight sensation, making the cover of Time.  And all along, Mervin Wren is madly trying to bollix up the town's low-nicotine situation. It ends bittersweetly, with helicopters, the President's cufflinks, and two people lying on the ground shot.  Like many films of the past, it is as topical today as it was upon its release.  The cash amounts are wildly larger now, but nowadays the tobacco companies are forced to finance their own negative campaigns via the multibillion dollar lawsuit that now funds (among many other things) the "Truth" ads you've seen for so long now.  People are still trying to quit, and the companies are still making it look like they want to help while all the while hoping they don't.  The news media has expanded its grasp as well, but they can still transform a town when they descend upon it for a story, and rarely for the better.

The script is simple, the directing capable, both the work of Norman Lear, approximately 18 minutes before All in the Family hit the air, and released shortly after.  The cast is a Who's Who of television soon-to-be stardom, including Jean Stapleton, Vincent Gardenia and Barnard Hughes.  But the film's three tentpoles (OK, technically four) are Van Dyke, Newhart and the comedy team of Bob & Ray. Van Dyke plays Brooks as an unswerving servant of God who slowly gets his head turned by the potential of fame this media circus has spawned.  Newhart is possibly the best Small Angry Man in film history.  His "slow burn" puts Edgar Kennedy on notice, the seething anger that whistles out his ears as his plans gang aft aglay is priceless.  Like Van Dyke and Andy Griffith, the roles he played in film were all but forgotten once he became a star on television, and that's a damn shame.  The dry humor of Bob & Ray threads its way through the film as they play the multiple roles of almost every member of the media we see on film, including parodies of Arthur Godfrey, Paul Harvey and Walter Cronkite. 
It's a vicious little film, filled with performances you never got to see these actors give again as their careers took such different paths.  And while many films look at such addictions with great seriousness, this one found a way to tackle a serious subject with humor, while still making the bad guys look like the bad guys.


  1. Dorian --- These days, whenever I think of THE LOST WEEKEND, I always recall all those old Warner Brothers "celebrity" cartoons where Ray Milland would show up at a bar and pay for his drink with a cash register. It was years (and with the kind assistance of TCM) before I finally got the joke. Now somebody again tell me that cartoons are only for children.

    Vinnie --- Yes, Dick Van Dyke's potential went woefully untapped. And any film featuring Bob & Ray should not be overlooked. But, if you're looking for true comedy, then how about that poster you used, where a Board of Censors classed the film as (Horrors!) ADULT ENTERTAINMENT??? Good Golly! Hide the children, Margaret. Better yet, let them watch Warner Brothers cartoons (as everyone knows they're strictly for children).

  2. Yes, Michael, like you, I've always found it ironic that Warner Brothers cartoons like "Slick Hare" (which you can watch right here right now by clicking on the orange "Lost Weekend" link in my segment of our blog post) were intended for adults, and yet today way too many people think that since they're animated, they must be for kids. The "GP" rating, even under the name "PG," has always left us bemused. Grownups! Who can figure them out? :-)

  3. Watching THE LOST WEEKEND, it's slyly ironic that everyone's wringing their hands over Don Birnam's drinking while he and pretty much everyone else in the film smoke like the proverbial chimneys! Yes, I know, nobody realized smoking was bad for ya, and besides, it looked cool, yadda yadda yadda... Of course, this makes this week's TotED double-bill of THE LOST WEEKEND and COLD TURKEY so perfect! :-)

  4. Team B., your reviews were interesting and informative (loved the info on TLW spoofs), but I'm not a huge fan of either film. I can put TLW in historical context and I get that it was an important film at the time. But it still seems like it tries to be important...and that dilutes the impact a little for me. I think there are more powerful films about alcoholism, such as THE COUNTRY GIRL and especially the depressing THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES.

  5. Hey, Classic Film and TV Cafe, thanks for sharing your thoughts about THE LOST WEEKEND! I see what you mean, and I agree that to contemporary eyes, TLW might seem like it's trying too hard. When I watch it, I try to see it through a 1945 viewer's eyes as much as I reasonably can. Love it or hate it, TLW was a movie milestone, and one of Ray Milland's best performances. That said, I must admit that I've always felt that DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES was both the most powerful and, as you said, depressing look at alcoholism in any mainstream movie. Incidentally, I performed a scene from ...ROSES in my college theater class many moons ago at dear old Fordham U. I got kudos from my teacher and classmates, but inhabiting Kirsten's shoes even for just one scene was so intense I decided to stick to writing! :-)