This Academy Award winning film tells the story of a writer as he fights to overcome his addiction to liquor. Directed by Billy Wilder, “The Lost Weekend” stars Ray Milland, Howard da Silva, Doris Dowling, and Jane Wyman, along with a flamboyant appearance by character-actor, Frank Faylen. Although most of the principal photography took place in Hollywood, Wilder insisted on shooting for several weeks in New York City (from October 1-19, 1944) to give “The Lost Weekend” a stark, unflinching, documentary feel.
A Bottle Hanging Out the Window
When I first decided to search for this location, I was able to get a general idea of it simply by studying the unfolding skyline shown in the opening panning shot. After identifying a couple of the taller buildings —like the Chrysler Building, the Waldorf Astoria and the G.E. Building— I determined that we were in the same vicinity of P.J. Clarke’s Restaurant and Bar, located on the corner of E 55th and 3rd Avenue.
By the looks of the scene, I figured the movie camera was mounted on a rooftop and panned over into Don’s apartment window which was either on a slightly taller adjacent building, or on a penthouse-like dwelling attached to the same roof the camera was mounted on. With this in mind, I went to Google 3D Earth View to see if I could actually find a rooftop that matched the one in the film. But after scanning the area, I couldn’t find anything that resembled Don’s apartment building, which didn’t surprise me, since most of that neighborhood has been completely redone with tall, modern office skyscrapers.
A little later, I asked Blakeslee to watch this opening shot from the film to see where he thought it took place. He came up with the same conclusion as me to its general location, but added the caveat that the building would probably have to be at least 6-stories tall, since it was clearly higher than the nearby 4-story walk-ups seen in the shot. Being satisfied with a rough estimate (within a block or two) of Don’s apartment, and fairly certain the building was long-gone, I moved on to other films.
Then about a month later, Blakeslee decided to revisit this scene and try see to how many buildings he could recognize from that opening panning shot. He would send me texts from time to time, identifying places seen in the film, like Bloomingdale’s on E 59th or the El Morocco club on E 54th. Little by little, he started to home in on where the scene took place. With the aid of some newly-found aerial photos from 1951, Blakeslee concluded the apartment was at 225 E 54th Street, However, this contradicted with what was written in Gene Phillips’ book, “Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder.“ In it, Phillips states that Charles Jackson, the author of the novel “Lost Weekend,” lived on E 55th between 2nd and 3rd Avenues and that the film crew took some shots of the building’s exteriors. Shortly after I cited the book to Blakeslee, he ended up doing some recalculating and realized that, yes, the apartment was one block north on E 55th. From there, we went to the vintage maps.
Looking at a map from the 1950s, we found two likely candidates. One was the extant New York Telephone Building which runs from 55th to 56th, and the other was a warehouse building on 55th. Both were 7-stories tall (though the telephone building had floors added in the 1960s), which would be the right height to achieve the vantage point seen in the film. Blakeslee was positive it had to be one of those two buildings, and was leaning towards the telephone company.
However, the one thing that perplexed me was the heights of the neighboring buildings. According to the map, all of the adjacent buildings were significantly shorter than our two candidates, so it couldn’t be a situation where the camera was on a slightly shorter building next to Don’s apartment. I did, however, have a new theory — namely, that the “apartment building” was just a set built on top of the roof by the film production. I got the idea from Harold Lloyd’s film, “Safety Last” where they built fake facades on top of other buildings to create a sense of extreme height.
Blakeslee and I did a little more research to see if we could find any info on either one of those two buildings, but we came up empty. Although, I did find a little interesting tidbit about the apartment set while doing my research. Apparently, before Wilder began filming, he asked author Charles Jackson to draw a rudimentary diagram of his old Manhattan apartment so they could replicate it as close as possible at the studio. And coincidentally, when they were building the set back in Hollywood, the art department put a random framed picture on the wall which happened to be the exact same print Jackson had in his New York apartment years ago.
Months later, after giving up on finding the exact location of this opening scene, I decided to get some exercise on one chilly December evening and walk from my friends’ apartment on East 5th Street to the 59th Street Subway Station, by way of Third Avenue. As I approached 55th Street, on a whim, I decided to take some photos of P.J. Clarke’s and send them to Blakeslee.
I then cut over on E 56th Street to check out the telephone building to see if there was any evidence that it was the one used for Don’s apartment. I knew the building had been altered since 1945 (insomuch as additional floors were attached), so I wasn’t particularly confident I’d find anything useful. But it was still cool just to be there, mainly because it was a particularly stark and quiet evening, devoid of almost any other foot traffic. Feeling a need to share my evening’s activities, I sent a few more pics to Blakeslee.
It was these photos of my spontaneous trip to 56th street that inspired Blakeslee to look at the scene one last time and see if he could find any more clues.
A few minutes later, as I was on a subway heading home, I got a text from him that started with, “HOLY SHIT!” Amazingly, Blakeslee was able to find a great resource to help us put the final piece of the puzzle in place. He found an essay by Anthony Slide, editor of “It’s the Pictures That Got Small,” who describes a few excepts from co-screenwriter Charles Brackett’s diary. (Blakeslee actually found this essay through a happy accident. He was doing a Google search using the keywords, “Charles Brackett,” mistakingly thinking that Brackett was the author of the novel, not the co-screenwriter. But this error turned out to be rather fortuitous, as it led him to this informative essay.) According to Brackett, this first shot of the skyline and the bottle outside of Don’s apartment was achieved by building a set “on the roof of Hahn’s Warehouse.”
This was very promising news because in our original research, one of the two likely candidates was, indeed, a warehouse. After a little digging around, we found out, to our delight, that the warehouse on 55th was named Hahn’s.
In the end, it was a little disappointing to know that the building they used for the film is no longer around, but since it turned out the apartment was a just a temporary set built on top of the roof, it wasn’t a huge loss. And it was good to finally confirm the exact spot from which they shot the skyline — something we might’ve never discovered if I didn’t decide to take a long walk on a chilly December evening.
Now, one last side story about the bar down the street:
Although most film historians and cinephiles acknowledge that the bar in the film was shot on studio set, most claim that it was based on P.J. Clarke’s on the corner of 55th and 3rd Avenue. However, this appears to be only partly true.
It always bugged me that if Wilder had, in fact, instructed his team to build a set based on Clarke’s, why did it end up being a mid-block bar instead of a corner bar (like how the real P.J Clarke’s is)? And even though the inside does resemble Clarke’s, it’s not an exact match and looks like almost any generic blue-collar tavern in New York City from that era.
The main reason everyone has assumed the bar in the film was based on P.J. Clarke’s is because Clarke’s was supposedly a favorite watering hole of the novelist, Charlie Jackson, as well as the bar he described in the novel. Billy Wilder is quoted as saying:
“We used P. J. Clarke’s bar at the corner of Third Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street because that is where Charles Jackson did his drinking; and that is where his friendly bartender, called Nat in the movie, worked.”
So Wilder seems to confirm this, but he also specified that Clarke’s was on a corner, while the bar in the movie is not. Changing the bar’s position on the block could have simply been an artistic choice on his part, or perhaps a mistake by the art department. Or it could have been for another reason — namely, that it wasn’t one-hundred percent based on Clarke’s.
While researching the apartment rooftop location, I found a book by Blake Bailey, titled, “Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson.” In it, there’s a quick footnote that seems to indicate that Jackson’s favorite place to imbibe wasn’t where we thought it was:
“Legend has it that Jackson was a great patron of P. J. Clarke’s on 55th and Third (the model for the bar in the movie), though in fact, as he wrote a friend, “my favorite joint (and the one described in The Lost Weekend) was Gus’s, between 55th and 56th on Second.”
Was Wilder privy to this information? Did he switch the bar location to be in the middle of the block to match the lesser-know Gus’s? Or was it just a happy mistake? Who knows? Since I can only cite one reference that Gus’s was the actual inspiration for the bar described in the novel, I must take it with a grain of salt. The one thing I do know is: if you want to see the actual exterior and a better reproduction of the interior of P.J. Clarke’s, check out 1950’s “Side Street.”
Looking For a Pawnshop
Aside for the opening shot of the New York skyline, “The Lost Weekend” doesn’t use any actual New York locations until Ray Milland’s character begins his journey up Third Avenue, about two-thirds into the running time.
The location of this pawnshop was the first place I found from this walking montage. I found it by looking up the address of one of the stores appearing in the scene, either the A. Bloom Loan Office or the Spotless Store (I can’t remember which one). This was early into my “NYC in Film” project, so it was before I started using the phone directories at the 42nd Street Public Library as a reference, and relied on finding business addresses exclusively through online searches.
UPDATE: About a year after writing this post, the NYC Department of Records & Information Services finally released over 720,000 digitized images of the “1940 tax photos,” which were taken from 1939 to 1941 of nearly ever block and lot in New York City. There are a few holes here and there, but it’s nearly exhaustive.
Once these digitized images were released, I was keen to check up on this scene to make sure I got it right. Granted, I was fairly confident I got the correct location, but since I couldn’t remember my original source of discovery, I wanted to find some more evidence to confirm it.
I went to the NYC municipal archives and looked up the address 1880 3rd Avenue, hoping the pawn shop would be present. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a very good tax photo of building number 1880, but I did find an image of number 1872 featuring a Sacks Corsets shop, which matched one of the buildings seen the opening shot.
Apparently, even in the mid-1940’s, the corset was still a popular method for women to create the “perfect hourglass shape.” But fortunately, the infamous whalebone and metal enforced corsets —which could permanently deform the wearer’s skeletal shape over time— dropped out of women’s fashion by the 20th century.
Passing Another Pawnshop
This brief tracking shot of the United Pledge Society got overlooked for a while after I began this film location project, mainly because it’s on-screen for only a couple seconds, and doesn’t include Ray Milland in it. But wanting to be a completist, I searched online for any information on the United Pledge Society and found a couple references to the pawnshop. There was an article in the April 23, 1964 edition of The New York Times that told the story of a stolen violin valued at $15,000 being sold to a pawnbroker for a mere $15. There was also a transcript from a 1940 court case where another pawnbroker who worked at United was charged with five counts of “buying and receiving stolen goods.” Interestingly, each source listed the pawnshop’s address at different locations. The 1964 Times article listed the shop at 860 8th Avenue, while the 1940 court records listed it at 843. Turns out, the United Pledge Society was located at both addresses: first at 843, then across the street at 860. And since most of the buildings on both of these blocks have been replaced over the years, it took a little time to figure out which location was used in the film.
Finally I was able to determine the location to be on the east side of 8th Avenue at no. 860. The big clue was the reflection in the store’s window, which showed the extant corner building at no. 871. Once I figured out the angle of reflection, I was able to get the approximate location of the former pawn shop. (You can see the reflection of no. 871 in the before/after picture above.)
Months later, I found a picture of 860 8th Ave from the recently released 1940 tax photos archive. Although the United Pledge Society wasn’t in the retail space (they were still at no. 843 at the time), there were a few elements in the photo that matched the scene in the film.
And as an added bonus — when I was grabbing a still from the film to compare it with the tax photo, I discovered for the first time that you can actually see an address on the adjacent building. And sure enough, it was the number 858.
Walking to Yet Another Pawnshop
The interesting thing about this extended montage of Don looking for a pawn shop is that Billy Wilder implemented several techniques to achieve the result he wanted. Wilder insisted on filming (at least partially) on location in New York City to capture the gritty nature of an urban alcoholic. But filming Ray Milland, a well-known star at the time, on the streets of New York proved difficult. According to several sources, the production team had to hide movie cameras inside boxes or in the back of delivery trucks so they could film undetected by passersby. But this ended up being a limited solution. So Wilder was forced to complete this montage back in Hollywood — either using rear projection process shots (where the actors stand in front of a screen while a projector casts background images from behind) or building “New York” street sets on a soundstage.
My job was to separate the Hollywood bits from the New York bits, and I thought this quick shot of Don walking by a funeral parlor was filmed on a set back in California. The main reason was I thought the generic “FUNERAL SERVICE Corporation” looked a little fake. But upon closer inspection, I noticed that the shadows looked too harsh to be on an indoor set and I became certain that this scene was shot outdoors. Granted, it still could have been shot on a studio backlot using natural light, but I felt it was worth a little more exploring.
First thing I did was look up “funeral service corporation” in the 1944 Manhattan phone book at the library, and to my surprise, I found a listing with that exact same wording. And even though it wasn’t on Third Avenue as it’s implied in the film, it was on nearby First. Knowing production was using hidden cameras (which meant little to no set-up), it was completely plausible for them to jump around from one avenue to another. A quick look on Google Street View confirmed I found the right location, with matching trim around the doors still in place.
I found this location by doing a general internet search for NYC street clocks, and found a webpage dedicated to this former practice of mounting large timepieces on poles and embedded them in sidewalks. I soon identified the clock from the film as The Yorkville Clock, which has been on 3rd Avenue between E 84th and 85th Streets for over a 100 years and recently received a complete restoration.
Since there are very few street clocks remaining from this era, it was great to find out that the one from the film was still standing. However, one drawback to this location in general is that this scene was actually shot on a Hollywood stage, using rear-projection. I normally don’t bother tracking down rear-projection footage, but Wilder and D.P. John F. Seitz executed this technique so well (panning the camera up on the Hollywood set to match the vertical movement of the footage shot in New York), I decided to include it in my research. And besides, you gotta appreciate the fact that the clock is still around and still tickin’!
This was a fairly easy location to find, since it’s clearly indicated that Don is at Bellevue Hospital on 1st Avenue. I sought out this particular location in the early stages of my “NYC in Film” project, so I was still a little green behind the ears. This would account for my initial disorientation as to where precisely the action took place. Originally, I thought Milland exited the hospital onto 1st Avenue, simply because I’ve always thought of that as the main entrance. It wasn’t until a few months later when I was reviewing the location that I realized the placement of the Empire State Building in the background was all wrong. If he was supposedly on 1st Ave, the building probably wouldn’t be in the shot. That’s when I figured he had to be heading east. A few clicks later, I was able to nail the exact location on 30th Street.
In addition to the exteriors, the film production actually got permission to film inside Bellevue’s alcoholic ward as well. To prepare for the scene, Ray Milland claims Wilder arranged with some resident doctors to let him check into the “booze tank” as a patient. He described the unpleasant ordeal in his autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon:
“The place was a multitude of smells, but the dominant one was that of a cesspool. And there were the sounds of moaning, and quiet crying. One man talked incessantly, just gibberish, and two of the inmates were under restraint, strapped to their beds.”
When the experience became too unbearable, Milland was able to sneak out of the hospital, only to be snagged by a street cop who recognized the Bellevue terrycloth robe he was wearing. Eventually, Milland was able to convince the hospital administrators to call the film production to verify he was simply an actor doing research for a role.
After “The Lost Weekend” was released in 1945, the administrators of Bellevue were so upset with the negative depiction of their hospital, that they vowed never to cooperate with Hollywood again, which included 1947’s family-friendly, “Miracle on 34th Street.” In fact, director George Seaton said that when he tried to get permission to film inside, “The hospital manager practically threw me out because he was still mad at himself for having given Wilder permission to shoot at the hospital.”
This location wasn’t terribly difficult to find, but it did require a little work. Without any street signs or storefronts to go off of, I had to work from two main clues: the liquor store was close to the 3rd Avenue El, and it was across the street from a church. Knowing that most of the buildings along 3rd have been razed, I was still somewhat confident that the church would still be around, since most NYC churches (being revered edifices) have managed to escape the wrecking ball. So I started looking for any churches that were roughly one or two lots in from 3rd Avenue.
Having already identified another location from the film up on 104th Street, I began my search at 125th and worked my way down Third. I found several churches along the way, but none of them matched the one in the film. Then, when I finally reached 43rd Street and discovered the Church of St. Agnes, I momentarily got excited, but then became somewhat skeptical. The church (Est. 1873) seemed to be the right distance from 3rd, but it didn’t match what was in the film. However, there was something about it that made me think it was the correct location; the church’s facade was clearly different, but the size and configuration was kind of similar to what appears in the film. Then, after doing some research, I discovered that the Church of St. Agnes suffered a massive fire in December of 1992, but was was rebuilt in 1998, retaining two surviving towers from the original structure. With this news, I tracked down a photo of the original building, and sure enough, it matched the one in the film.
Of course, all this research involving the church could have been avoided if I simply focused on the corner building instead. When I began my quest to find this location I just assumed all residential walk-ups would be gone, so I didn’t even bother to look for a match. But after confirming the church, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the building next to it is still around today. It’s one of those lucky happenstances, since almost every other period building in that area is long-gone.