For the past two centuries, vices have plagued society. Some have come and gone, mostly becoming major issues during a specific time period, but have since dwindled into irrelevance. Others, on the other hand, have stuck around for decades and continue to remain relevant to this day, such as drugs and alcohol.
Quite a few movies were produced whose primary focus is to analyze and highlight the dangers of these vices via storytelling, and attempt to swindle the audience to reject these vices as well. While these movies often succeed in this, their portrayal of these vices is often exaggerated for the big screen, resulting in inaccuracies.
Nonetheless, films such as these are often studied by historians focusing on the history of “bad habits”, and one such example of a film of this stature is the flick Days of Wine and Roses, released in 1962.
The major vice of the 1960s was arguably drugs, specifically the dawn of the heroin epidemic. However, the film Days of Wine and Roses focuses on drinking and alcohol addiction, and uses this as its vice. The film, starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, faithfully displays the abusive and life-ruining effects that alcoholism causes and contributes to.
The flick tells the tale of an advertising executive, Joe, who meets a secretary, Kirsten. Joe is a regular drinker and converts Kirsten to a drinker during the time they date. They eventually get married and have a child, but are now hooked on drinking, becoming severe alcoholics. Throughout the film, the deterioration of their lives and relationship is highlighted, with the loss of Joe’s career and Kirsten’s lack of support for her child becoming focal points. Emphasis is placed on their alcohol addiction as the sole reason for this collapse of their lives.
Eventually, after acting out in public due to being drunk, and being sent to a mental institution, Joe joins Alcoholics Anonymous, which places him on the road to recovery. Kirsten, however, refuses to join the program, and her addiction only gets worse. The film ends with Joe, now sober, taking care of his child when Kirsten enters the apartment and wants to live with him again. However, Joe makes it clear that he will only allow her back into his life if she goes sober as he did, to which Kirsten refuses, as she feels liquor is now a part of her.
Following the conclusion of this movie, I felt the portrayal of alcohol was adequate; although I or my family have never had any kind of alcohol problems, I know others who have, and their struggles were eerily similar to the struggles of Joe and Kiersten as portrayed in this movie. However, no movie is without exaggeration, and as mentioned earlier, with this comes historical inaccuracies.
While the primary focus of the film is undoubtedly the dangers of drinking and subsequently becoming an alcoholic, the climax of the film highlights the recovery process, when Joe attends the AA program and successfully recovers. However, Kirsten chose not to address her addiction and refused treatment. In this sense, the film promotes the idea that recovery is achievable, but only for those willing to address and fix the problem.
Another aspect of the alcoholic vice that arises from the film, arguably a less obvious one, is the gender difference of addiction, the idea that men and women deal with addiction differently. This issue is emphasized by University of Michigan historian Michelle Lee McClellan, in her book Lady Lushes: Gender, Alcoholism, and Medicine in Modern America. She states that during this time period,
“…the belief that women represented a distinct category of alcoholic, one particularly impervious to treatment, continued to suffuse the wider culture.”
According to her, the differing outcomes of the two main characters highlights this feature, since Joe was willing to recover and successfully did so, whereas Kirsten was unwilling to recover, as mentioned. McClellan states that,
“Although the outcome is not explained in explicitly gendered terms, audiences likely needed little help to see that alcoholism in women represented a more severe break with normalcy and health.”
Thus, the film does not make this gendered idea obvious, but it does rely on it as a factor. McClellan finalizes this point by stating that,
“The film thereby reinforces the idea that alcoholic women find it more difficult to admit drinking problems, and they are less likely to get well or redeem themselves as a result. Kirsten’s fate represents an opposite outcome from media depictions that lauded the effectiveness of AA fellowship for women, but both characterizations underscore the idea that women constituted a distinct category of alcoholic.”
Essentially, she argues that by making Joe the one who recovers, the film is raising the idea that women have a tougher time dealing with addiction and recovering, which she claims was a common thought mentality of the time.
The 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses may contain some slight exaggerations and inaccuracies, but this is prevalent in any film dealing with vices, and the film’s accuracy does stay true to the dangers of addiction, even including recovery. The film’s slight inaccuracies do not overwhelm its instructional value, and thus is worthwhile for history students and should considered to be a film students watch in a class that deals with vices.
In a way, it might be even more instructive than a strictly accurate film might be, due to the fact that it places the dangers of addiction into the lives of ordinary people, young adults who become warped into addiction and must deal with their struggles, and as such an audience of young adults in a history class may be able to relate in some ways.
Overall, this film does a fantastic job of highlighting and emphasizing the damage of a major vice, and that vice is, indeed, alcoholism. If you’re looking for a classic, romantic, black-and-white flick which keeps it real, Days of Wine and Roses is for you.
Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.