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A review of the music for the film "Days of Wine and Roses"

By Craig Bennett - February 6, 2003


Lyricist Johnny Mercer and composer Henry Mancini wrote the Academy Award winning title track to the motion picture "Days of Wine and Roses."(1) Their collaboration contributes to the film by foreshadowing and intensifying the poignancy and sense of loss that develops as the narrative unfolds.


"Days of Wine and Roses" was originally written by J.P. Miller as a teleplay for the CBS Playhouse 90 production (2) and director Blake Edwards brought the story to the big screen. The title comes from a poem by Ernest Dowson, an obscure British poet from the Victorian Decadent period.(3)


"Days of Wine and Roses" is the story of an attractive young couple's struggle with alcoholism during the cocktail culture of the late fifties and early sixties. Jack Lemmon plays Joe, a San Francisco public relations director whose dependence on alcohol is exposed throughout the film. Lee Remick portrays Kirsten, his teetotaler girlfriend who becomes not only his wife but, at the insistence of Joe, his drinking buddy. Joe wins his battle with alcohol by confronting his problem and attending Alcoholic's Anonymous meetings. Kirsten does not.


The composition by Mercer and Mancini appears with lyrics only once: at the beginning of the film during the title and opening credits. Although the film opens with scenes of a man at the beginning of a promising career and a young couple falling in love, the melancholy lyrics and music of the title song foretell the sadness to come. Abrupt scenes of sad moments and frantic fits of despair repeatedly follow the scenes of blissful young love and good times.


The first verse of the song alludes to the ending of carefree days and serves to foreshadow the end to this young couple's lighthearted lifestyle and the destruction of their relationship due to their dependence on alcohol. At the conclusion of Joe and Kirsten's first date, Joe throws a bottle into the bay prompting Kirsten to quote a line from the Dowson poem: "They are not long, the days of wine and roses." The melody appears and the viewer is reminded of the opening line of the song: "The days of wine and roses laugh and run away like a child at play." This scene foreshadows the sadness to come by providing a hint of Kirsten's ambivalence as well as Joe's troubles with alcohol.


The melody and the sentiment expressed in the Mercer lyrics appear at a number of key moments throughout the film: Joe and Kirsten's first date, Joe's alcohol-induced tirades, and, at the end, when Kirsten parts from Joe. Each of these moments reminds the viewer of the melancholy song at the introduction of the film. The melody is later tucked beneath the dialogue as the couple frolic in a haystack during their first attempt at sobriety. This fusion of melancholy melody with happy visual scenes conveys to the viewer that, as far as this couple is concerned, sadness and joy cannot be separated. It focuses on the poignancy of this couple's struggle and suggests that their relationship is doomed.


The reference to "going back" and the concept of a "closing door" appear throughout the picture as well as in the Johnny Mercer lyric: "Through the meadowland toward a closing door; a door marked 'nevermore' that wasn't there before." Joe and Kirsten struggle with this notion and try to resist the "closing door" by expressing a desire to return to the way things were. Joe states this sentiment during his first tirade as he urges his wife to go back to the carefree days before they had a child. Joe, wanting to "have a ball," urges Kirsten to drink like old times. This scene occurs shortly after the couple's daughter is born when the responsibilities of motherhood have prompted Kirsten to stop drinking.


Later, after Joe begins attending Alcoholic's Anonymous meetings, Kirsten also expresses this desire to go back to what she considers happier times. The first time Kirsten urges Joe to drink with her, he succumbs to keep their relationship intact. However, at the end of the film, Joe explains to Kirsten that while it was great while it lasted, the threesome of "me, you, and booze" could not continue. The melody once again appears as the scene closes with Joe at the window looking into the dark street as Kirsten, unable to change, walks away. The reflection of a neon sign flashes "BAR" in reverse. Joe realizes the door has indeed closed on a particular part of his life; "a door marked 'nevermore' that wasn't there before."


In two simple verses Johnny Mercer captures the essence of "Days of Wine and Roses." As a result of their alcoholism, the good moments for this couple were fleeting and were replaced with loss and despair. Since Kirsten could not overcome her dependence, the happy times were lost forever. The Academy Award winning title song contributes greatly to the success of the film by the clever placement of the lyrical introduction and of the melody throughout, intensifying the overall melancholy of the story.


End Notes


1. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Legacy, Past Winners; available from


2. J.P. (James Pinckney) Miller Papers, ca. 1955-ca. 1972, Woodson Research Center, Rice University; available from fondren/woodson/mss/ms 13.html


3. Ernest Dowson, Vit{ae} Summa Brevis Spem nos Vetet Incohare Longam, Department of English, University of Toronto; available from http://eir.library.utoronto. ca/rpo/display/poem712.html


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