"Days of Wine and Roses," the 1958 "Playhouse 90" drama being rebroadcast tonight on public TV, suggests there once was a possibility that television would turn into an art form. And "Splendor in the Grass," a lifeless new TV movie getting its first run on NBC tonight, demonstrates how far TV has since drifted astray -- roughly, about as far as from here to Pluto.
"Roses," on Channel 26 at 8 (and on Channel 22 Wednesday night at 8), starred Cliff Robertson, Piper Laurie and tower-of-strength Charles Bickford in J.P. Miller's teleplay about a marital menage a trois: him, her and demon booze, which almost ruins the couple's lives and the life of their child as well. The play was then, and remains, more than a cautionary nightmare about drunkenness, the "Lost Weekend" of its decade; it is also a harrowing meditation on the general theme of sins the flesh is heir to.
But what seems especially striking now, in addition to the way the performances hold up (except for a self-conscious heebie-jeebie or two), is what Beautiful Television this was, physically beautiful, something most people think television never is. Everything about the production, directed by John Frankenheimer, bespeaks care and attentiveness; it's still a marvel how thoughtfully scenes were worked out, how imaginative some of the staging is, how bold or subtle the lighting effects were and how purposefully composed many of the shots were.
"Playhouse 90," unlike most of the live drama anthologies of the '50s, was produced in Hollywood, not New York, but Frankenheimer did anything but turn Miller's play into an ersatz movie. This kind of live television really was a distinctive, enthralling symbiosis of theater and technology, and the gritty black-and-white iconography of "Roses" was the perfect palette for intimate, kitchen-sink domestic drama.
There is a directness to it -- to the writing and the performances and the immaculate pictorial character -- that television has lost, presumably forever.
What we have now are lots of flat, cheap movies made in musky, murky and claustrophobic color, like (at 9 tonight on Channel 4) NBC's visually tone-deaf and dramatically comatose "Splendor in the Grass," a remake of a 1961 Elia Kazan film about the effect of puritanical sexual repression on a young girl in Kansas of the late 1920s. For the TV version -- more monochromatic than the classified ads, color or no color -- John Herzfeld has boiled down William Inge's throbber of a screenplay into a bad writer's shopping list of one-syllable moans.
The roles played by Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in the film are handed to two untalented tots: Melissa Gilbert, who has grown from an appealing child star in "Little House on the Prairie" into a wooden doll that categorically cannot act, and Cyril O'Reilly, a muttering nonentity with all the smoldering power of cream cheese.
"Splendor" seemed to be the inspiration for this year's theatrical movie "Endless Love" (the biggest yockity-yock at the movies until "Mommie Dearest" came along); while the Kazan film looks ludicrously overripe and fervid now -- and it never did seem very brave of Inge to be attacking the sexual and social hypocrisy of another time and place. It still works as a story, partly because Wood yearns with such provocative naughty girl insistence. One could readily believe that Beatty was the Prize Catch of his graduating class, and that he and Wood were totally nuts about each other, in her case literally.
In the new version, which barely qualifies as a version and has nothing at all new, the two teen-age lovers are drab, passionless droids. The film is no more articulate or explicit about its Freudian themes than the 1961 movie was (in deference to Jerry Falwell, perhaps), although after the girl has had a fit or two over the boy, and is supposed to be putting all sexual thoughts out of her mind, she is presented with a dinner plate on which sits a great huge carrot. Wry symbolism, perchance?
The part of the girl's mother has been softened so that she is no longer a liar as well as a mad prude, but then the role is now played by a Saint -- Eva Marie. Ned Beatty as the boy's father can't compete with the memory of Pat Hingle, who gave the character a blaring pathos. For director Richard C. Sarafian, there is no such thing as composing a shot; there is barely such thing as framing one. Even the sound is hollow and dead. This is the kind of dank amateurism that TV "professionals" commit daily.
As a play, "Roses" -- which must cover the 10-year decline and fall of a marriage in 90 minutes -- has its narrative potholes, some of which were filled later in the 1962 movie version that starred Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick; this was a TV play for which the commercial breaks worked to an advantage, considering its episodic structure, but the breaks have of course been eliminated for public TV.
Still, there is about the TV original a vitality and validity that survive the passing of 23 years, and the desperate benders of the two main characters remain authentically frightening.
The broadcast is part of the "Golden Age of Television" series from Sonny Fox Productions, and as in his previous "Golden Agers," Fox's framework for the play is on the shaky side. But since this is the first showing of "Roses" since Oct. 2, 1958, the effort may still qualify as praiseworthy humanitarianism.
It offers a fascinating glimpse into what television would fail to become.