Although it may surprise our readers under the age of 40, there once was a time when the big Hollywood studios fell all over themselves to attract successful novelists and playwrights and turn them into commercial screenwriters.
To be a literary lion wasn’t a bad thing as long as your work could be translated at the box office. And in the mid-Forties, one of the most fawned-over novelists was Charles Jackson, who wrote the wrenching hit novel of the day, The Lost Weekend, based on a alcoholic character very much like himself.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, delving a bit into Forties Hollywood as seen from an outsider’s view.
Author Jackson, in fact a balding deep-in-the-closet homosexual (he had married and had had two daughters) and who had coped with a drinking problem in the mid-Thirties, was suddenly a sought-after commodity with MGM summoning him from the East Coast to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter.
Jackson is hardly a household name today but he is currently enjoying something of a revival thanks to the publication of author Blake Bailey’s new biography, Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson, which includes a most readable chapter recording the novelist’s wide-eyed impressions of Hollywood in the mid-Forties.
Sitting with other scriptwriters in the studio commissary, Jackson was impressed by the “effortless repartee” of the wordsmiths (Whitfield Cook, Robert Nathan and Donald Ogden Stewart) and by Clark Gable, who “just like that” sat down opposite him and began chatting away. “I still can’t get over it… it is something that’s happening to somebody else , not me.”
Spencer Tracy “hounded” Jackson for days on end to find out his ” secret.” Replied the novelist: “I just stopped drinking.”
Jackson was surprised to find himself romantically linked with actress Phyllis Thaxter, who had accompanied him to a party and called him, “sir” all night. He admits that he fell “like a ton of bricks” for a “scared shy little girl” of 21 named Judy Garland.
To Jackson’s astonishment, Garland agreed to accompany him to the premier of 1944′s The White Cliffs of Dover at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He described the scene that June night as akin to a “Nazi demonstration” complete with searchlights panning the skies and screaming fans jammed into bleachers.
Recalled Jackson: Your heart would have been touched (as mine was) if you could have seen how Judy turned to the crowd and gave a tiny little wave…though all the while her hand on my arm was trembling and shaking against me…Judy kept saying, “For God’s sake, Charlie, smile!”
Each time the flash went off, Judy’s face was turned toward mine, looking up at me in a charming smile, as though I were The Only Man In The World….My legs knocked together, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world: a real experience.
Alas, Jackson’s mid-Forties Hollywood adventure soon ended with no scripts produced and the movie rights to his by now famous novel sold for the low ball figure of $35,000, not the six-figures conjured up in a Louella Parsons column. Although one must remember that was still a great deal of money. The average man made less than $3000 a year.
Jackson’s novel, of course, became director Billy Wilder’s movie version, which stars Ray Milland, who was a real workhorse — appearing in more than 70 productions of all stripes at MGM and at Paramount (his home for two decades) by the mid-Forties when Wilder, in partnership with Charles Brackett, cast him as dipsomaniac writer Don Birnam. By this time Milland began to take himself more seriously as an actor, a wise move since he won the best-actor Oscar in 1946 for his work in The Lost Weekend.
Milland was actually Wilder-Brackett’s third choice for the movie’s lead, after Cary Grant and Alan Ladd. Novelist Jackson’s first preference was Robert Montgomery.
The Lost Weekend’s promotional blurb on the one-sheet theater advertisement read: The screen dares to open the strange and savage pages of a shocking best seller. Alcoholism had rarely, if ever, been treated onscreen as clinically and as explicitly.