WEIRDLAND

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Babylon (Hollywood) Revisited: F. Scott Fitzgerald & Charles R. Jackson

Paramount intended to make The Great Gatsby when the prevailing political and censorship restrictions were more liberal. In 1949, crime is to be obvious, not glamourised and well and truly punished on screen. Therefore, requiring some changes in the story, to satisfy the censors who were against letting the picture being made at all. Nevertheless, this film remains true to the novel's theme of power, greed, betrayal, love, the American dream and social class. Truly, a forgotten adaptation and yet according Alan Ladd's son, David, the character of Jay Gatsby most paralleled his father's life. They were both self-made men who pulled themselves up out of poverty.

According to his son David, The Great Gatsby was the film Alan Ladd was most proud of even though his favourite was the 1953 western classic, Shane. Paramount did not promote or push its acceptance, treating it as a low budget melodrama. Paramount did not allow copies of the 1949 version; future reproductions or promotions, including DVD, letting it slide into oblivion with the release of the 1974 Robert Redford film. As Redford's big screen adaptation is readily available; he is frequently compared with DiCaprio's portrayal of Gatsby. However, very few people have seen a DVD of Ladd's 1949 film. Warner Baxter was the first Jay Gatsby in Paramount Picture's 1926 silent version of The Great Gatsby. Only one minute of this film survives, preserved by the Library of Congress (AFI/Jack Tillmany collection) in the USA, and sadly makes it rather difficult to review Baxter's performance. However, the only adaptation made in his lifetime resulted in F. Scott Fitzgerald walking out on the film before it had finished. The history of the commercial release of Alan Ladd's 1949 adaptation of The Great Gatsby is as much of a mystery as Jay Gatsby himself. Source: www.weekendnotes.com

Maureen Corrigan, the “Fresh Air” book critic, seems eager to downsize Fitzgerald to contemporary tastes. In “So We Read On: How ‘The Great Gatsby’ Came to Be and Why It Endures” (Little, Brown & Co.), she has an infectious sense of excitement about the novel, the furthest thing from academic deadness imaginable. She can be shrewd and clear-eyed—rightly pointing out that Daisy, for all Gatsby’s idealization of her, is intended to be an empty shell, not a dream girl, a zero in whom Gatsby has overinvested. Corrigan has also done some terrific reporting; Sylvia Plath, she surprises us, was a Fitzgerald fan, densely annotating her copy of “Gatsby.”

Yet, though she loves the book, she seems reluctant to take it on its own terms. She devotes an entire chapter, called “Rhapsody in Noir,” to the notion that “Gatsby” is a herald and variant of the kind of hardboiled pulp fiction that was then coming into favor. Fitzgerald had an affection for pop fiction, including bad historical novels and detective stories, but there’s little evidence in his letters that he really emulated or learned much from such things as The Black Mask, the detective-story monthly that, Corrigan notes, H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan sponsored as a money-making alternative to their taste-making The Smart Set. The stylishly distinctive noir novels of Cain and Dashiell Hammett came out long after “Gatsby” was published and Fitzgerald’s style was fully formed.

She even reverse-engineers the connection from the noirish forties Alan Ladd movie version of the novel, which the studio tried to make look like a fashionable thriller of that later period. (At another moment, she repeats the idea that the long dash on the last page of “Gatsby” is a deliberate attempt to evoke Gatsby’s dock, thereby marking “one of the first graphic novel moments in American literature.”) In truth, Fitzgerald’s tastes and his ambitions for his writing, and for “Gatsby” in particular—as well documented as any writer’s have ever been—were resolutely high-minded and literary. His masters were the Edwardian novelists John Galsworthy, Compton Mackenzie, and Joseph Conrad.

It was Mackenzie’s Oxford novel “Sinister Street” (1914), with its sinuous, slightly overripe autumnal chiaroscuro, at once elegantly mysterious in its atmosphere and innocently romantic in its aspirations, that gave Fitzgerald the model for the self-consciously lyrical sections of “Gatsby”, while Galsworthy’s disabused take on middle-class manners is the tannins in the wine, and helped give Fitzgerald the courage to write the adultery sections with such blunt realism. “Gatsby” is a deeply Conradian novella, in its fable-like tone; in the play of dark and light between the ash heap and the parties, between the heightened, unreal action and the cool, mordantly ironic tone of the narration. What was seen as weak was exactly his strength. Romanticism under stress always becomes expressionism—what happened to Poe is also what happened to Fitzgerald. When a lyric writer cracks, there’s a new kind of dissonant music in the breaking. The best passages in Fitzgerald’s novels always worked better as fable and fairy tale than as realistic fiction. There is very little second-rate champagne in Fitzgerald. He lives in his sentences, which is where writing lives, in sentences and human sympathy. Source: www.newyorker.com


The 100 best novels: No 51 – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). When Fitzgerald died in Los Angeles, from a heart attack, aged just 44, his publisher's warehouse still held copies of the first edition. There was, as Fitzgerald had predicted, no second act in this American life. Just immortality. The Great Gatsby, in short, becomes a tantalising metaphor for the eternal mystery of art. Hemingway wrote: "I did not know the terrible odds that were against him. We were to find out soon enough." The reviews were not as bad as people claim, and the sale of 20,000 copies was above average. Eliot, for one, was full of praise, but the novel did not match the expectations inspired by Fitzgerald's celebrity. Thereafter, Scott and Zelda's lives began to unravel. She had a breakdown and would end up in an asylum. He went to Hollywood to reverse his fortunes, completed Tender is the Night, and sold some confessional Esquire pieces, later published as The Crack-Up. "My God," he wrote to Zelda, "I am a forgotten man." Source: www.theguardian.com

In 1940, a New York Times editorial remarked that when the Americans of the turn of the century “spoke of the American Dream, they meant the American hope, the American aspiration, the American ideal. When people wrote of the American Dream after 1930, they meant the American mirage, the American illusion… the American lie.” In less than a decade, the American dream had been so absorbed into the national imagination that America’s paper of record thought it was a phrase that dated back centuries – that only recently had the American dream been revealed as a lie. But it was a recent invention, and as Adams predicted, each generation would need to relearn the lessons of inequality and disappointment, an innocence we keep losing anew. Fitzgerald understood in the midst of the 1920s what most would only see in retrospect: that “the dead dream” will always fight on, as we try to touch the intangible, “struggling unhappily, undespairingly” towards what we keep losing. Source: www.telegraph.co.uk

Other than one five-week stint in 1931, F. Scott Fitzgerald had not worked in a film studio since First National Pictures had paid him $3,500 to write a modern romance for its young star Constance Talmadge in 1927. Fitzgerald returned to Hollywood in 1937 after an absence of nearly a decade, determined to make a success of his third attempt at screenwriting. Fitzgerald and Zelda had spent several months circulating in Hollywood society, but they left after First National shelved the project, disappointed in his script. Once in Los Angeles, Fitzgerald earnestly schooled himself in scriptwriting and the visual language of film. “He liked pictures,” Budd Schulberg, his screenwriting collaborator and friend, later recalled, “and felt his talent was well suited to the medium.”

Robert Young, Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone in "Three Comrades" (1938), directed by Frank Borzage, scripted by F. Scott Fitzgerald from the book by Erich Maria Remarque

Acutely aware of the potency of the image, Fitzgerald – who as a young man had worked in advertising – could never quite promote himself to best advantage in the film industry, yet for all his misgivings he remained attuned to the glamour and power of cinema, and in three periods of his career he experienced Hollywood’s inner workings firsthand. Fitzgerald’s timing almost always proved prescient, and signature events in his personal life were often uncannily linked to the wider social scene.

In the 1920s, he would brand popular culture, an emerging youth culture, consumerism, and the Jazz Age into the American literary consciousness; his third novel prophetically warned an overindulgent, frenetic country of the hangover to come; and the unraveling of the Fitzgeralds’ personal lives almost perfectly coincided with national collapse at the onset of the new decade. While defining the writer’s lifelong connection with movies as “shifting and frequently ambivalent,” Ruth Prigozy observes that “no other author of his time was as enraptured with the medium as Fitzgerald,” charting the early trajectory from childhood matinees of westerns in Buffalo through frequent visits to Broadway movie houses during prep school and at Princeton, and his “worship” of silent-film director maestro D. W. Griffith. -"F. Scott Fitzgerald in Context" (2013) by Bryant Mangum

The parallels between Charlie Wales (protagonist of "Babylon Revisited", published in 1931) and Fitzgerald himself are the ones most marked and commented upon in biographies and criticisms of his life and works; Fitzgerald put his own past into Charlie Wales (alcohol is the number one connection between Fitzgerald and Charlie Wales, but Fitzgerald's preoccupation with money and his love of football emerge as well), and what he no doubt hoped might be his own future. Fitzgerald's disdain for homosexuals is shown in a 1930 letter to Edmund Wilson: "Paris swarms with fairies and I've grown to loathe it and prefer the hospital-like air of Switzerland where nuts are nuts and coughs are coughs"; this emerges in Babylon Revisited as: "Charlie watched a group of strident queens installing themselves in a corner. 'Nothing affects them,' he thought. 'Stocks rise and fall, people loaf or work, but they go on forever.' The place oppressed him."

Preliminary plans for the film version of Fitzgerald's screenplay treatment of Babylon Revisited had Cary Grant in the role of Charles Wales, and "Scott strutted, mimicking the star's British accent" and said, "Baby, can't you see me as the gorgeous Cary Grant?" -"F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'Babylon Revisited': A Long Expostulation and Explanation" (1995) by Thomas A. Larson

Fitzgerald met Sheilah Graham less than a fortnight after coming to Hollywood at a party celebrating her engagement to the Marquess of Donegall. He saw her again a week later, at the Screen Writers Guild dance. On July 24 they had dinner together for the first time. Within a month they were lovers. Her engagement was called off, and, though they kept separate residences for propriety’s sake, they began to spend their evenings together. The arrangement lasted until Fitzgerald’s death. "I lost my capacity for hope on the little roads that led to Zelda's sanatorium," said Fitzgerald, by then sunk deep in debt.

In her blonde beauty, Sheilah resembled Zelda—that was what first attracted Scott—but she came from a totally different world. What’s more, she pretended to a status in that world Zelda did not have. According to her story, she had been born to an upper-class English family, but had become a showgirl and a journalist because she found society boring. Not entirely persuaded, Fitzgerald kept prying for details. Eventually she told him the truth. Her name was Lily Sheil. She’d been born in London’s East End slums and raised in an orphanage. She’d been married before, to a much olderman who urged her to go on the stage and did not object when wealthy men took her out, since it provided them both with an entree to the upper strata of society.

Attractive and bright, Sheilah was soon moving in those circles; she was even presented at court. With her marriage failing, she came to America and landed a job writing a syndicated column on Hollywood for the North American Newspaper Alliance. She was twenty-eight, made $160 a week on her column, and only dimly understood what she was getting into as Fitzgerald’s companion. When she first told him her story, he asked how many affairs she had had. Sheilah didn’t know what to say. Eight affairs, she told him, and “he was really quite shocked,” she recalls, and then intrigued, and then extremely jealous. In the course of her work she routinely met and talked to the leading actors and directors and producers in Hollywood.

Some of them, finding her attractive, flirted or made passes at her. When this happened—when John Boles or Randolph Scott or Errol Flynn indicated their interest in her—Fitzgerald became furious and resorted to an old method to punish her. He got drunk. At the end of a Sunday afternoon party he and Sheilah gave, Scott drunkenly ordered everyone home and told the last guests— screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and his wife—that he knew they’d never come back, since he was living with his “paramour.” It was a curiously stilted and old-fashioned word; on the back of his framed picture of her, he was more explicit: “Portrait of a Prostitute,” he wrote. These devastating accusations have been interpreted as examples of Fitzgerald’s puritanical streak, but he was also concerned about the impropriety of their relationship.

He sometimes spoke to Sheilah of divorcing Zelda and marrying her. On one occasion, he went so far as to seek reassurance about this plan from Nora Flynn. Go ahead, she advised him. Nora was sure he was doing the right thing. The time had come for him to have a life of his own, and she had “a strange feeling” that Sheilah was the right person for him. He’d be of more use to Scottie if he were happy and “living, so to speak, again.” But the mores of the times, his guilt feelings, and his sense of propriety all conspired against divorcing the woman who had once meant everything to him.

For Three Comrades, the prize-winning film that earned Fitzgerald his only screen credit, producer Joe Mankiewicz did the final polishing over Scott’s vigorous objections. Mankiewicz had removed “all shadows & rythm,” he felt. Fitzgerald summed up Hollywood policy toward writers in these terms: “We brought you here for your individuality but while you’re here we insist that you do everything to conceal it.” Subsequent assignments at MGM did not change his opinion, as he was put on a couple of projects that never reached the screen and pulled off others that did, notably The Women. The money he made from films would go to finance the serious writing that he’d been placed on the earth to do. And even though Hollywood itself was a dump, a “hideous place… full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement,” it generated the material for the first of those books. “My great dreams about this place are shattered,” he wrote in the spring of 1940, “and I have written half a novel and a score of satiric pieces that are appearing in the current Esquires about it.”

The satiric pieces focused on Pat Hobby, hack screenwriter; the novel on Monroe Stahr, producer and last tycoon. Moreover, in The Last Tycoon Fitzgerald established what John Dos Passos called “that unshakable moral attitude… that is the basic essential of any powerful work of the imagination.” Throughout his life Fitzgerald was driven by a strong sense of right and wrong. Katharine Tighe, one of his oldest friends in St. Paul, always thought of him “as someone intrinsically and deeply good.” Fitzgerald attacked the hypocrisy and stupidity of the older generation but not its basic values. Charlie Wales, the reformed playboy in Babylon Revisited, wishes he could “jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable element.” So did Fitzgerald, for all around him he saw people who “had no principles.”  During the worst moments of his Hollywood years, Sheilah Graham recalled, he even demanded reassurance from strangers. “I’m F. Scott Fitzgerald, the very well-known writer,” he’d brashly announce, and hope for a glimmer of recognition. But that nonsense stopped with his last bender. -"Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald" (2001) by Scott Donaldson

“He took down The Great Gatsby and ran his finger over the fine green binding,” Charles R. Jackson wrote of Don Birnam’s riveting lecture before a room of rapt, phantom students. “There’s no such thing,” he said aloud, “as a flawless novel. But if there is, this is it.” He nodded. The class looked and listened in complete attention, and one or two made notes. “People will be going back to Fitzgerald one day as they now go back to Henry James. Apart from his other gifts, Scott Fitzgerald has the one thing that a novelist needs: a truly seeing eye.” The Lost Weekend is set in 1936, and Fitzgerald had been dead for almost two years when Jackson began writing it in 1942. Thus, on one hand, Jackson retrospectively invoked the author as a cautionary figure, whereas in 1936 he’d actively worried about his hero’s wellknown alcoholism and wondered whether his latest novel, Tender Is the Night, would also prove to be his last. Indeed, to Jackson’s self-referential mind, the book seemed to mirror both Fitzgerald’s deterioration and his own, and to some extent The Lost Weekend was conceived in homage to that flawed, brilliant novel in particular.

When Tender Is the Night was published, in 1934, Jackson stayed up all night reading it (“It’s fatal to open the book at any page, any paragraph; for I must sit down then and there and read the rest of it right through”), and afterward managed to run the author to ground, by telephone, in the little town of Tuxedo: “Why don’t you write me a letter about it?” said a weary Fitzgerald, “I think you’re a little tight now.” In 1964 Jackson mentioned that phone call in a letter he wrote his family from Will Rogers Hospital in Saranac Lake, where he’d bumped into a former Princeton classmate of Fitzgerald; the man had mentioned that Fitzgerald had once been beaten by police in Rome, just like the drunken Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night, which left Jackson admiring his favorite author all the more for making “beautiful and heart-breaking” art out of such material. Fitzgerald’s work was almost entirely out of print when The Lost Weekend was published in 1944 and Jackson had meant to be “deliberately prophetic” in calling attention to a writer he considered the foremost chronicler of “the temper and spirit of our time.”

More than twenty years later he finally received credit for having played a key role in the so-called Fitzgerald Revival: “Indeed, no author has been more outspoken or more generous than Jackson in his admiration of Fitzgerald’s work,” wrote Henry Dan Piper in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Portrait (1965), which Rhoda gave Charlie for Christmas that year. While in Hollywood in 1944, Jackson got a call from a thirty-year-old novelist and Navy lieutenant, Budd Schulberg, who was drinking with his father at Romanoff’s, and wondered if Jackson would join them. Both father and son had “gone crazy about” The Lost Weekend, and now Budd regaled its author with the tale of his chaotic collaboration with Fitzgerald on the movie Winter Carnival (1939).

Ann Sheridan and Richard Carlson in "Winter Carnival" (1939).

F. Scott Fitzgerald, originally assigned to write the picture, was dismissed in a humiliating scene in front of the Hanover Inn during the 1939 Carnival. Budd Schulberg was also fired off "Winter Carnival" with Fitzgerald. It all started with two bottles of champagne that Budd's father, B.P. Schulberg, the former head of Paramount, had given to Budd and Fitzgerald as a bon voyage gift at the train station in Los Angeles as they headed east to Dartmouth. Schulberg did not know that Fitzgerald was a struggling alcoholic.

In the summer of 1944, Jackson was also summoned by the English gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, a total stranger who had been Fitzgerald’s mistress in his final years: “Well, we met—” Jackson wrote a friend afterward, “a three hour lunch at the Beverly Wilshire—and she poured it all out, poor girl: what he was like in bed, how big, how many times, and you’d be surprised.”

Also, while relaxing at the actress Patricia Collinge’s house, Jackson had pleasantly caught the attention of Bette Davis (“Who’s that sweet little man on the couch?”), with whom he’d be reunited in Hollywood. The MGM contract that would make this possible was still months in the future, but something of the sort was already in the air (“on account of the reputation the book will shortly earn me”) when Jackson demanded a raise of ten dollars per script from Blackett-Sample-Hummert. “Jackson’s purpose is to describe, not to explain,” the critic Granville Hicks wrote. “The result, it seems to me, is as extraordinary a study of psychosis as I have ever read.” Only Don can save himself, and yet (as William Seabrook and other fellow sufferers are apt to foresee) he almost certainly won’t. Already he’s passed the threshold where cumulative remorse becomes unbearable.

For The Lost Weekend (1945) Wilder and Brackett wanted Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, or Ray Milland, in that order, while Jackson had hoped for Robert Montgomery (the two had hit it off at a party chez Brackett), who, he thought, had the “charm” and “knowledge of 'psychopathia'” to do justice to such a difficult role.

Wilder knew how desperate Ray Milland (who had been a contract player at Paramount for a decade, considered a light comedian) was to be tested, even at the expense of forfeiting a glamorous image, and gave him a copy of Jackson’s novel. “I took it to bed with me that night,” Milland recalled, “but after a dozen pages I fell asleep.” Waking in the wee hours, he forged ahead, though he found the subject repellent: he himself “could not abide” drunks, and hardly ever took a drink himself. “Talk about neat, pat, cheap endings,” Jackson wrote a friend; “but also talk about betrayal.”

The Lost Weekend (the movie) now ended with Helen’s talking Don out of suicide by getting him to believe in himself as a writer again; when an inscrutable silence ensued,  Jackson wrote to Brackett & Wilder: "The final scene, as you sent it to me, with the hero working out his problem by writing a book (the implication being that the novel is the very movie we are seeing and the book we have read) is an out-and-out Judas kiss." Jackson was resigned, though he would “derive a small satisfaction” from an advance review in Variety, which mildly faulted the ending of what was otherwise hailed as an “outstanding achievement.” -"Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson" (2013) by Blake Bailey

-Don: Whatever became of your manicurist job? -Gloria: It's too tough on your eyes, all those little hangnails. He's just an old friend of the folks. Lovely gentleman. Buys me dimpled Scotch. -Don: He should buy you Indian rubies, and a villa in Calcutta overlooking the Ganges. -Gloria: Don't be 'ridic'. (Ray Milland as Don Birnam and Doris Dowling as Gloria in The Lost Weekend, directed by Billy Wilder)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ray Milland & co-stars video, Lost Golden Age


Ray Milland & co-stars video, featuring stills and pictures of: Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Doris Dowling, Jane Wyman, Audrey Totter, Jean Peters, Constance Moore, Lana Turner, Rita Johnson, Paulette Goddard, Anna Neagle, Ellen Drew, Elsa Lanchester, Olympe Bradna, Ann Todd, Dorothy Lamour, Marjorie Reynolds, Maureen O'Sullivan, Jan Sterling, Veronica Lake, Frances Farmer, Ginger Rogers, Patricia Roc, Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell, Joan Fontaine, Teresa Wright, Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, Grace Kelly, Hedy Lamarr, Barbara Britton, Florence Marley, Charles Laughton, Heather Angel, Steffi Sidney, Barbara Read, Rita Gam, Marlene Dietrich, Mary Beth Hughes, Gene Tierney, Susan Hayward, Patricia Morrison, John Hodiak, Sally Eilers, Wendy Barrie, Maureen O'Hara, Isa Miranda, Sonja Henie, Olivia De Havilland, Margaret Hayes, Ray Milland's wife Muriel Webb, etc. Soundtrack: "Lost Weekend" by Wall of Voodoo, "Lady Midnight" by Leonard Cohen, "You're the Reason" & "My Memories of You" by Hank Snow, "Ooh-Wee Baby" by Jeff Barry and "I'm gonna love you too" by Buddy Holly.

Another Billy Wilder masterpiece: The Lost Weekend tells the story of a writer whose creative output is stalled by a raging alcoholism that threatens to destroy him. The plot is straightforward, well structured, and well attuned to the narrative of degradation that it presents. Yet it is the way the film represents addiction and bipolarity that provides the real genius. Dialogue serves the purpose of the narrative in expressing the glorious highs of an alcohol-induced inebriation, comparing the artificiality of language with the unreal, transient experience of being drunk. Yet while it lasts we are absorbed into the flows and rhythms of some quite stunning monologues.

Birnam pours out his soul like a waster-Hamlet, justifying his excessive alcohol consumption with reference to a lost golden age of history, using the universal to present the particular, and drawing everyone into his own tortured world. The power of the spoken word momentarily moves us from a shabby New York bar to a hallucinogenic montage that ties together the most radiant examples of the genius reachable through alcohol consumption. Source: www.dioramamagazine.co.uk

In a 50-year film career, movie star Ray Milland made more than 150 films, including Dial M For Murder and an Oscar-winning performance in The Lost Weekend - but he said he wouldn't take his wife around the corner to see any of them. And when he died in 1986 the modest man's ashes were scattered quietly in the Pacific, with no funeral or memorial service. As a youth he went to live with his Aunt Luisa near Cardiff and was schooled at King's College before going to work as a clerk with his family's Tiger Bay shipping firm. Not long afterwards he decided to join the Army, and was enticed into the King's Household Guard because a friend had written from London that: "This is the best job in the Army. We get out with the best girls; we get the best of everything".

Three times British Army rifle champion, Milland had no problem standing off camera and shooting a hand mirror out of actress Lya de Putti's hand. By now he'd caught the acting bug - he bought himself out of the Army and changed his name to Ray Milland, after Neath's Mill Lands where he used to play as a boy. An MGM film executive spotted his potential, and in 1930 he was off to America. One time he accidentally punched out Clark Gable's dental bridge during a rehearsal, then made it all the worse by treading on it. He became good friends with John Wayne after appearing together in Cecil B De Mille's Reap The Wild Wind - but their friendship turned sour in Mexico in 1941 when Wayne stole Milland's mistress, Esperanza Baur.

Of course Milland had a wife at the time - he'd met and married tall blonde Muriel Webber in California in 1931. She gave him a son, David Daniel, and despite several separations the pair stayed together for the rest of his life. Milland always talked dismissively of the films he made, and over the years became increasingly disillusioned with the business. In his memoirs he describes the film capital as "this glittering pastiche, this Circus Maximus, this lubricious slave market". He once said: "I was under contract to Paramount for 23 years and you signed off a film on Friday night and signed on for the next one on Monday. I can't get excited about acting. So much of a film is dependent on other people."

"Weeks before the studio started shooting The Lost Weekend," he told Leader Magazine in March 1946, "I studied drunks in dozens of bars. It got so that I could tell an alcoholic from a drunk, a dipso from a sot. I watched the way alcoholics walked and talked, the way they screwed up their faces, hunched their shoulders, bent their heads. At the library, I studied alcohol and its effects on the human body. I asked doctors why men were driven to drink, how many different types of hangovers there were. I tried to get the feel of an alcoholic's wife. When I got my Oscar for The Lost Weekend my wife had to nudge me out of my seat at the ceremony.

I couldn't believe they were calling my name. Ingrid Bergman was handing them out that year. You are supposed to accept the Oscar with the left hand and shake hands with the right. I did it the other way round and then as I turned to come off walked right into a pillar." Towards the end of his life he told a relative that although he'd visited practically every country in the world, his happiest memories were of South Wales. Then in 1981 his son committed suicide with a shotgun to the head - and Milland was nearly destroyed. After that he visited his old Welsh haunts more and more often, every March making an annual pilgrimage to Pontypool to coincide with the anniversary of Daniel's death. -Jennie Bibbings for Wales On Sunday (2001)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Book and the Film: The 70th Anniversary of Charles R. Jackson’s ‘The Lost Weekend’

“Suddenly I could see the whole thing – the tragic sweep of the great novel, beautifully proportioned. But before I could really grab it and throw it down on paper, the drink would wear off and everything be gone like a mirage.” – Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend (1944)

It’s been 70 years since the publication (by Farrar & Rinehart) of the groundbreaking novel The Lost Weekend in 1944, written by Charles R. Jackson and praised as the seminal addiction study in American literature and “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of alcoholism,” a precursor to such works as Augusten Burroughs’ Dry and David Carr’s The Night of the Gun. Paramount paid $50,000 for the rights to adapt it for the screen.

The protagonist of the celebrated film The Lost Weekend (directed by Billy Wilder), released the next year, on November 16, 1945, is Don Birnam (a superlative Ray Milland), a writer who has never achieved the success he expected and has drowned his frustrations in rye whiskey. His brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and his girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman) have done everything possible to rehabilitate him, but it has been in vain and Don has no real hope of recovering. The film focuses on a weekend when Don is making a feeble attempt at writing whilst he recalls the beginnings of his relationship with Helen. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script conveys perfectly the feeling of irreversibility cast by clinical alcoholism, a terrifying spiral of self-destruction that leads Don to continue drinking and cheating without caring about anything else.

The film’s relentless depiction of Don’s moral decline explains why it has survived particularly well through today. Although Jackson reckoned Wilder’s sharp talents as responsible for improving on his novel on several points – a more sympathetic protagonist, more witty banter – he nevertheless complained that Wilder had drastically altered his original ending, having Birnam redeemed and beginning to write an autobiographical novel of his tortured long-lost weekend instead of the far bleaker alcoholic relapse depicted in the book. Wilder admitted to composing the screen version of Don’s story as a way of addressing Raymond Chandler’s peculiar influence, and also as an homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

At any respect, the movie was a huge hit and garnered four Oscars, including Best Actor for Ray Milland. Although previously he had played a mental patient in Fritz Lang’s The Ministry of Fear, Milland had been reluctant to accept this challenging role, considering the story very depressing. Brackett had commented on the novel: “It had more sense of horror than any horror story I have ever read – lingering like a theme in music.” Jackson continued to write sporadically over the next decades, publishing his final novel A Second Hand Life in 1967, an account of another kind of addiction (sexual) voiced by a nymphomaniac heroine. Sadly, Jackson never completely escaped the grips of alcoholism and his private torments, committing suicide in 1968.

Enhanced by John F. Seitz’s low-key lighting, Wilder’s mise-en-scène uses some objects as key dramatic signs. For example, the typewriter is the most important object of Don’s (the writer), so when he decides to sell it, he’s willing to bury definitively his future as a writer, defeated by his other part (Don the alcoholic). Paramount convinced Wilder that the only way they could sell such a film was with a matinée idol in the lead, so the audience would not be revolted by the sordid experience. Jackson had Robert Montgomery in mind to impersonate his tortured character. After Wilder’s first choice, José Ferrer, was rejected, other famous actors – Cary Grant, Alan Ladd – refused to tackle such a risky role. Encouraged by his wife Mal, Milland committed thoroughly to fleshing out what would be the most affecting character of his film career.

For the role of Helen, Jackson liked Jean Arthur – who had played opposite Milland in Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living – but the part (based on Jackson’s wife, Fortune's editor Rhoda Booth) was assigned to Jane Wyman, who offers one of her most memorable performances. By the time the novel was reprinted in 1963, Jackson had confessed it was autobiographical and only a couple of “minor incidents were pure invention” (Jackson did not pawn his girlfriend’s expensive leopard coat or stand up a goodtime girl as shown in the film). In this light, the parallels between Birnam and Jackson are astounding. In 1952, Jackson had attempted suicide and was confined to Bellevue Hospital. After his release, he went on an alcohol and paraldehyde binge while suffering from continuous writer’s block. In 1953, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and his wife got a job at the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies. Literary critic Philip Wylie termed Jackson’s novel “the most compelling gift to the literature of addiction since De Quincey,” referring to Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822).

In Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (2013) Blake Bailey recounts Jackson’s life and analyzes his soaked literature, revealing his bisexuality and wounded narcissism. Jackson’s idols were Shakespeare and Fitzgerald, and he saw himself destined for literary glory, “a kindred of Poe and Keats and Chatterton.” “Don is both tragic clown and audience staring back at the performer in silent contempt and ridicule, while hovering above is the triumphant novelist –Jackson – and hence the implicit irony of Don’s self-loathing,” muses Bailey. Every chapter in his book (“The Start,” “The Wife,” “The Joke,” “The Dream,” “The Mouse,” “The End”) is equally persistent narrating Don’s fight against “the old Demon of Ennui,” frantically approaching his conflicted concept of suicide: “a refusal to submit, to conform, a demonstration that the spirit with honor is unwilling to go on except in its own way… Romantic rubbish! An end like this was abject, immoral, worse than unmanly.”

The more grueling scenes related to Don’s delirium tremens are still wrenching seen today, aided by Miklos Rozsa’s theremin score (which replaced the original jazz soundtrack), provoking a nightmarish discomfort without using any modern tricks, just showing an attack by a bat on a panicky mouse stuck on the walls at Don’s apartment, as Don’s arcane fears lead him to imagine a mouse emerging from the hole in his wall. The moment of the bat leaving a trail of blood on the wall is bloodcurdling. That emblematic scene is interpreted cleverly by Jackson’s biographer Bailey: “In the early chapters there’s a kind of black comedy to Don’s misadventures, grading subtly into tragedy until the climactic horror of his delirium tremens as his wheeling, drunken bat-self murders and seems gruesomely to copulate with (‘the more it squeezed the wider and higher rose the wings’) the passive mouse. This is the consummation of Don’s narcissism, subject and object merging in death, though at the novel’s end we leave him alive, preparing for another binge. Birnam remains the definitive portrait of an alcoholic in American literature, a tragicomic combination of Hamlet and Mr. Toad.” As mentioned above, Jackson thought Wilder’s film opening was “brilliant” but protested the redemptive ending in the last scene.

Doris Dowling (Alan Ladd’s unfaithful wife in The Blue Dahlia scripted by Raymond Chandler) plays here a plucky hooker with élan. (Dowling, who had been suggested by Jackson to play Gloria during a lunch with the director, had an affair with Wilder during the filming.) Gloria relishes dishing out her hepcat jargon out – abbreviating words, as in “ridic” and “def” – and flirting incessantly with Don whom she considers more an eccentric gentleman than a self-destructive drunk. In the novel, Gloria is less funny, more of a pitiful creature clueless about Don’s haughty aspirations: “Gloria came out, her copper-satin dress shining in the dark back part of the room. She looked as pretty as a picture. Her orange-colored hair was as lively and vivid as her dress; she was color itself, yet with all that there was something pathetic about her. Child of nature, so unnatural.” Dowling’s Gloria is more cynical, sometimes bordering on a femme-fatale figure, especially in her presentation and her casual quips: “Goodbye, not” and “Thanks a lot, but no thanks.” She is intriguing and her entrances create a tension with Don’s character that is not merely sexual.

After Don’s intimacy with Gloria, it’s a bit strange he forgets to include her in his list of people who will receive copies of his anticipated cautionary-tale novel: “I’ll send one copy to Bim, one to that doctor who loaned me his coat, and one to Nat. Imagine Wick standing in front of a book store,” says Don, reassuring Helen of his new-found sobriety. In some ways, Helen symbolizes the comforts and moral establishment of America, whilst Gloria is the poster girl for the bohemian hustler scene.

Don oscillates between the two women, because his personality has become inconsistent due to his abuse of alcohol and subsequent loss of ambition. The horror scene of the bat flying over and killing the mouse can also be seen as a metaphor of Helen “killing” Gloria. Helen has always wanted to suppress Don’s suffering at any cost, but when she demands he stop drinking for good, she is also killing the part of his personality which is the source of his individuality and inspiration for writing. Article first published as The Book and the Film: The 70th Anniversary of Charles R. Jackson’s ‘The Lost Weekend’

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ray Milland video


Ray Milland video: A video featuring stills and pictures of Ray Milland and his co-stars: Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Doris Dowling, Jane Wyman, Audrey Totter, Jean Peters, Constance Moore, Lana Turner, Rita Johnson, Paulette Goddard, Anna Neagle, Ellen Drew, Elsa Lanchester, Olympe Bradna, Ann Todd, Dorothy Lamour, Marjorie Reynolds, Maureen O'Sullivan, Jan Sterling, Veronica Lake, Frances Farmer, Ginger Rogers, Patricia Roc, Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell, Joan Fontaine, Teresa Wright, Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, Grace Kelly, Hedy Lamarr, Barbara Britton, Florence Marley, Charles Laughton, Heather Angel, Steffi Sidney, Barbara Read, Rita Gam, Marlene Dietrich, Mary Beth Hughes, Gene Tierney, Susan Hayward, Patricia Morrison, John Hodiak, Sally Eilers, Wendy Barrie, Maureen O'Hara, Isa Miranda, Sonja Henie, Olivia De Havilland, Margaret Hayes, Ray Milland's wife Muriel Webb, etc.

Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland in Billy Wilder's comedy "The Major and The Minor" (1942)