The International Writers Magazine: DVD Review
The Days Of Wine And Roses - review
The final entry in The Criterion Collection’s DVD set called The Golden Age Of Television, based upon a 1981 PBS series of rebroadcasts of kinescopes of live television dramas, is an October 2nd, 1958 Playhouse 90 episode called The Days Of Wine And Roses, scripted by J.P. Miller, and directed by John Frankenheimer.
It was later remade into a lesser 1962 film starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, and directed by Blake Edwards. Unlike the film, the tv version is shorter, tauter, and better acted. It also leaves out many extraneous scenes the film delves into, and, in a revealing moment on the DVD Introduction to the teleplay, director John Frankenheimer speaks of why he was not chosen to direct the film version, and that was because Lemmon felt the script was better as a comedy, and that Frankenheimer could not direct comedy.
Another plus that the television version has over the film version is that in the teleplay both lead characters are drunks at the start of it all, whereas in the film, the character of Joe Clay, played by Lemmon, lures Lee Remick’s character of Kirsten Arneson, into a booze-soaked marriage with him. The tv version is far more realistic, as Cliff Robertson’s Joe and Piper Laurie’s Kirsten do a sexual alcoholic tango from the get go. They meet at a business party, marry, have a daughter, and he drifts from job to job, losing one after another, while she stays home and drinks day after day away. After they are too poor to support themselves, they move in with Kirsten’s father, Pop Arneson (Charles Bickford in both versions). She temporarily seduces him back to booze, but, via Alcoholics Anonymous, he recovers, while the teleplay ends with Kirsten abandoning her husband and daughter to stay drunk.
While the writing and acting are quite good, there are many obvious falsehoods regarding alcoholism that are portrayed. Some of these, which fall into Reefer Madness level nonsense, are purely products of the misinformation of the times. And it is ironic to see how readily the characters smoke to get over booze, considering now, 52 years later, it’s well known that tobacco kills many more times people a year than alcohol. But the artistic flaws are what keep this teleplay from the unadorned greatness of some of the earlier episodes in the DVD set, and the main flaw is the ceaseless moralizing, and the treatment of the group AA as if it ever was an effective wedge against alcoholism, whereas many studies, over the decades, show that the recidivism rate of AA members is over 90%.
Ironically, Kirsten’s protestations that she can beat boozing via willpower alone, while not true for her character, have turned out to be true in the main. All of this is unfortunately telegraphed before the title sequence, when a drunk stumbles out of an AA meeting, heads to an alley, and we see his shadow swilling a flask of booze; an unfortunate bit of 1950s stereotyping. Just as bad is a later melodramatic scene of Joe, after having fallen back into booze with Kirsten, ends up in a straightjacket at Bellevue Hospital. Alcoholics simply were not the lepers the show makes them out to be.
On the plus side is some of the adult material the play deals with, such as Kirsten’s selling off her treasured encyclopedia collection for money so Joe can impress a possible business partner, only to have them both cower with fear when he knocks on the door. Later, when the couple split, Kirsten seems to start seeing other men who will take her out and buy her drinks, because Joe refuses to be her drinking buddy. It is never made clear whether or not Kirsten is turning tricks or just being easy, but either way it’s quite a harrowing depiction that is lost in the film version. Also, a scene between Pop and Joe, wherein the old man blames Joe for getting his daughter hooked on booze, only to realize it was not his son-in-law’s fault, plays very well; although it may have formed the kernel for the poor decision to make Joe the alcoholic seducer in the film version.
Technically, this production is not nearly as impressive as The Comedian, also included in the DVD set, and the musical scoring falls flat. But, otherwise, all do well with what was given. The teleplay lacks any commentary, but it does include an informative Introduction, made for the PBS rebroadcasts, and a nice selection of excerpts from an interview with Frankenheimer about the project. That runs over ten minutes but is quite informative. The play also opens and closes with comments by actor Sterling Hayden.
An interesting feature of this live broadcast was the use of a framing device of Joe at an AA meeting, recounting his decade of life with Kirsten to the group. This was done on the brand new medium of videotape, which eventually killed off live television. By the end of the play, events have reached the present, and the last few minutes of the 77 minute production are no longer being told in flashback.
Another irony of the success of both the television and film versions, is that the phrase ‘the days of wine and roses,’ has become well known and associated with carefree frivolity, even though the phrase’s actual origin does not start with the teleplay, but with the mediocre 1896 poem, Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetet Incohare Longam, by English poetaster Ernest Dowson:
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Dowson also was responsible for the phrase, ‘gone with the wind,’ taken from another poem which somehow moved Margaret Mitchell, author of the famed novel.
The Days Of Wine And Roses, while not the top of the line amongst those episodes in the DVD set, nonetheless shows just how good many of the live television dramas were, and why a true visionary in the business would approach, say, PBS, with an offer to do a similar sort of series, which could showcase young acting, directing, and screenwriting talents, for, even when not at their absolute best, such a format brings out far more than the usual grind that film and television currently do. It shows that the days of live fictive television were to that medium what the silent films were to cinema; an era that seems forever lost.
However, I don’t buy that. I think with a strong enough will, and a commitment to artistic excellence, there can be a revival. Will there ever be such a plethora of live shows again? No. But, the resurgence of primetime cartoons, thought dead by the late 1980s, and the resurgence of primetime reality and game shows, thought dead by 2000, shows that television is cyclical. For a relatively small budget, such productions could be made again, and revitalize both television, film, and theater. The Golden Age Of Television should not be seen as a hagiography of the past, but a blueprint for the future. Let’s hope the thought of smudged fingers is not too much of a turnoff.
© Dan Schnieder Jan 2015
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