As well as the alcohol industry badgering Paramount Pictures into not releasing the film, the studio was also besieged by temperance groups lobbying that the film shouldn't be released, as it would only encourage drinking. It was released on a limited engagement at Billy Wilder's behest. Reviewers fell all over themselves in their praise of it, thus prompting Paramount to take the plunge and give it a wide release.
Ray Milland actually checked himself into Bellevue Hospital with the help of resident doctors, in order to experience the horror of a drunk ward. Milland was given an iron bed and he was locked inside the "booze tank." That night, a new arrival came into the ward screaming, an entrance which ignited the whole ward into hysteria. With the ward falling into bedlam, a robed and barefooted Milland escaped while the door was ajar and slipped out onto 34th Street where he tried to hail a cab. When a suspicious cop spotted him, Milland tried to explain, but the cop didn't believe him, especially after he noticed the Bellevue insignia on his robe. The actor was dragged back to Bellevue where it took him a half-hour to explain his situation to the authorities before he was finally released.
The first film featuring a "theremin" on the soundtrack - a musical instrument which produces a strange "wailing" sound that later became familiar to 1950s science-fiction film audiences. Miklós Rózsa used it in composing the score for the nightmare sequences.
In 1944 Billy Wilder was traveling from New York to Hollywood by train and stopped off at the Chicago train station to buy some reading matter for the journey. One of these books was "The Lost Weekend". By the time he'd reached Hollywood, Wilder knew this would make the ideal basis for his next film.
The only film to win both an Academy Award for Best Picture and the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix du Festival International Film. (NOTE: Marty (1955) won both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Cannes Film Festival Palme D'Or (Golden Palm). In 1955, the Palme D'Or replaced the Grand Prix du Festival International Film as the highest award given to films at Cannes.)
The outdoor filming was done in New York City and the interiors were done in Hollywood. The latter included an exact duplicate of a Third Avenue bar, P.J. Clarke's, on Stage 5 at Paramount Pictures, complete down to the dusty stuffed cat on the top of the payphone. Ray Milland, who starred in the film, tells that for one week every afternoon at five o'clock the door of the set would open, a man would walk up to the bar (whether filming was going on or not), order a straight bourbon, chat about the weather, plunk down fifty cents, and stroll out. It was the writer Robert Benchley, who was homesick for New York.
Billy Wilder became infatuated by a brunette extra who was hired to play a coat check girl in the scene where Don Birnam gets thrown out of a bar for stealing money from a woman's purse. It proved to be a non-role for the extra, since only her arm can be seen giving a coat to Birnam, but no matter. The extra's name was Audrey Young, and she eventually married the smitten director.
Billy Wilder felt the need to tackle the subject of alcoholism as a direct result of his experience of working with Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity (1944). Wilder made the film as a way of explaining the condition to Chandler himself.
On March 10, 1946 - three days after winning the Academy Award - Ray Milland appeared as a guest on a radio broadcast of "The Jack Benny Show." In a spoof of The Lost Weekend (1945), Ray and Jack Benny played alcoholic twin brothers. Phil Harris - who normally played Jack Benny's hard-drinking bandleader on the show - played the brother who tried to convince Ray and Jack to give up liquor. ("Ladies and gentlemen," said an announcer, "the opinions expressed by Mr. Harris are written in the script and are not necessarily his own.") In the alcoholic ward scene, smart-aleck Frank Nelson played the ward attendant who promised Ray and Jack that they would soon start seeing DT visions of strange animals. When the DT visions appeared (with Mel Blanc providing pig squeals, monkey chatters, and other animal sound effects), Ray chased them off. "Ray, they're gone!" Benny shouted. "What did you do?" Milland replied, "I threw my Oscar at them!"
Studio advisers warned Ray Milland that this would be the death of his career. Milland himself was initially reluctant to take the part, as it had been turned down by many other leading actors of the day. However, Paramount was convinced that the only way they could sell such a film was with a matinée idol in the lead. Billy Wilder acquiesced to this only when it became clear that his first choice, José Ferrer, would not land the part.
Ray Milland doubted he had the acting chops to pull it off, but his wife encouraged him to take a chance. Additionally, Milland was tempted to star in the film because Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were currently riding high from previous successes. So the actor finally agreed to appear in what would become his most famous role.
When the film was given its first public showing at a sneak preview in Santa Barbara, California, the audience reaction to the intense film was not good. The audience laughed. Billy Wilder recalled, "The people laughed from the beginning. They laughed when Birnam's brother found the bottle outside the window, they laughed when he emptied the whiskey into the sink." The theater lost viewers like a broken sieve. Preview cards were handed out, and the opinions of the flick ranged from "disgusting" to "boring." Wilder even claimed that one patron left the theater proclaiming, "I've sworn off. Never again." "You'll never drink again?" he was asked. "No, I'll never see another picture again." Another preview card said that the movie was great, but that all the "stuff about drinking and alcoholism" should be omitted.
Some temperance unions incorrectly accused the film of promoting or publicizing drinking. The Ohio temperance board objected to a line in the script attributed to the sadistic orderly, Bim. He says, "Prohibition-that is what started most of these guys off." Bim also makes a slam against "narrow-minded, small-town teetotalers." Paramount refused to remove the line, but Ohio won in the end. Paramount was also warned that the delicate sensibilities of the British might be offended by the film. The studio nixed any potential trouble by adding a subtitle for the British release, The Lost Weekend: Diary of a Dipsomaniac, and producing a special trailer alerting Britons of the film's harsh subject matter. The disclaimer read: "Ladies and gentlemen, as this is a most unusual subject for screen presentation, we have been requested to warn you of the grim and realistic sequences contained in this unique diary carrying such a powerful moral."
Ray Milland had been a popular matinee idol for several years in Hollywood, making his mark in romantic comedies and adventure films, so the decision to cast him as Don Birnam was a surprise to many, especially him.
Miklós Rózsa was nominated for his scores for both Spellbound (1945) and this film the same year. A theremin was used in both scores. David O. Selznick threatened legal action against the use of the instrument in "The Lost Weekend" until it was pointed out that the mere use of a particular instrument could not be copyrighted. "Spellbound" won the Oscar although Rozsa considered "Weekend" the stronger score.
Ray Milland was given the novel to read by Paramount chief Buddy De Sylva, with a note attached reading: "Read it. Study it. You're going to play it." Milland read it, and was struck by its dramatic dimensions as a social document, but he could not see much of a film in the bleak story, nor could some of his friends and associates. If Milland took on the role, they felt he would be committing professional suicide.
Billy Wilder first read the book when he was traveling to New York by train. Upon arrival, the first thing he did was ring his writing partner Charles Brackett in Los Angeles to get him to see if the film rights could be obtained. Brackett rang him back later that day with the news that they were available. He also asked Wilder what did he see in the book that made him think it would make a good film, having just read it himself. Wilder replied that it would be a hugely important movie - the first to depict a real alcoholic as opposed to a comic interpretation of the condition.
Paramount were very nervous about releasing a film with such an adult theme and very nearly buried it when it didn't do too well with preview audiences. Ultimately, of course, it went on to become a major hit and Academy Award winner.
Don quotes twice from William Shakespeare when he is in Nat's bar. The first quote "Purple the sails, and so perfumed ... " is from Antony and Cleopatra: Act II, Scene 2. The second "Yea, all which it shall inherit ..." is from The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1.
In his video essay introducing the film for the Masters of Cinema edition on disc, Alex Cox expresses surprise that this film, made in 1945, makes no mention of the war. This is because the film takes place in either 1937 or 1938; we know this because Don tells Nat the bartender that he met Helen at the opera 'three years ago', and the poster in front of the opera house in the subsequent flashback to that meeting is clearly marked 'Grand Opera Season 1934-1935.'
Warren Zevon referenced the typewriter scene in his song "Carmelita": "Well, I pawned my Smith-Corona/And I went to meet my man He hangs out down on Alvarado Street/By the Pioneer Chicken stand." However, the song is about heroin, not alcohol.
One of two films starring Ray Milland that deals with alcoholism and co-stars a wife of Ronald Reagan. This one features his first wife, Jane Wyman, and the other -- "Night Into Morning" (1951) -- features his second wife, Nancy Davis.