Splendor in the Grass (1961): Kazan’s Oscar-Winning Masterpiece, Starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood

The most significant small-town film, probing into the nature of youth sexuality, was undoubtedly Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass.
Made in 1961, from William Inge’s original script, which won the Oscar, it is Kazan’s masterpiece–his most emotionally powerful and fully realized movie,.
Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)
A typical 1950s film, Splendor in the Grass shows that the beginning of a new decade often carries over the themes and ideology of the previous decade.

Like Peyton Place, made in 1957, Splendor in the Grass is a summation movie that examines growing pains, parental authority, adult irresponsibility, social hypocrisy, repressed sexuality, moral and mental breakdown, love and marriage.

However, unlike The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, which was made in the same year, these issues are placed against a specific historical backdrop that conveys a precise sense of time and place.

Kazan’s movie bears the scope, intensity, and ambition of an epic film, boasting the precision of a clinical case study put under magnifying and scrutinizing glasses.

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In the opening sequence, Bud (Warren Beatty, in a stunning film debut) and Wilma Dean who’s called Deanie (Natalie Wood) sit in his car, a Model A Ford roadster with its top down. A long, fervent kiss leaves them breathless; they have to break away from each other to fight for breathing air. The still of the night makes their passion audible. They are in nature, with the forceful waterfall as background to their desire; water imagery and its sexual connotations prevail throughout this film.

At the center of the tale are two families, the Loomises and the Stampers, each situated differentially in the social-class hierarchy. The Stampers live in a big beautiful house. Ace Stamper (Pat Hingle), another domineering patriarch, is a wealthy man, owning the town’s oil wells. A sensitive youth, Bud is completely uninterested in his father’s business, wealth, or prestige. Ginny (Barbara Loden), Bud’s sister, the depraved jazz age flapper, is a “bad” girl and the black sheep of the family.

In contrast, the Loomises live in a small frame building next to a grocery store that Del Loomis (Fred Stewart) owns. The two families are dominated by different figures: the Stampers by the patriarch whose wife (Joanna Roos) is quiet and passive; the Loomises by the matriarch (Audrey Christie) whose husband is a weakling. Thus, while not one-parent families in the literal sense, they are still such units figuratively. There is not a single positive adult figure in the whole film. Mrs. Loomis, a neurotic mother, is inadequate as role model. “Bud could get you into a whole lot of trouble,” she warns her daughter, “Boys don’t respect a girl they can go all the way with, they always want a nice girl for a wife.” “Is it terrible to have those feelings about a boy” Deanie naively inquires. “No nice girl does,” her mother responds abruptly, “You father never laid a hand on me until we were married! And then I just gave in because a wife has to.”

Bud and Deanie are the ideal, most desirable, couple at their school, where there are all kinds of girls. There is Juanita (Jan Norris), the school “pick-up,” who dresses coquettishly and wears too much make-up. And there are Hazel, June, and Kay, who model themselves after Deanie. All the girls resent Juanita. “She is disgraceful,” says Deanie, protesting the way Bud looks at her.

Contrasted with all of them is Angelina (Zohra Lampert), the lower-class girl who Bud marries at the end. As her name indicates, she is good-hearted and selfless. Significantly, there is no description of their courtship or marriage.  When introduced in the film’s last scene, Angeline has one child and is pregnant with another.

Most boys in school are no better then Ace; they are products of a sexist culture. “I never look twice at those other girls anymore,” states Rusty in the shower room, “Ya take them out and spend good money on ’em and then they expect you to feel satisfied if they kiss you goodnight.” Like the other classmates, the spinsterish teacher Miss Metcalf (Martine Bartlett) watches Bud and Deanie with admiration, frustration, and envy.

What the youngsters study at school feeds their romantic fantasies, but it has little or no apparent use as guiding their behavior as libidinous teenagers.  “The knights all held a very high regard for womanhood, in fact, they put woman on a pedestal,” lectures Miss Metcalf, “Do any of you feet that you are on a pedestal” All the students think, and some look at Deanie”she is the only one on a pedestal. The school’s macho coach likes to bully his players, using sexist language to motivate them: “One day they play like girls, then the next day like they want to kill the whole world.”

The adult figures in Splendor are of no help; they, too, are victims of the repressive culture. Bud’s father is obtuse, hypocritical and insensitive, draining any energy and excitement out of his son. When Bud confides in his dad his sexual frustration, “I feel like I’m going nuts sometimes–like I’m going to come apart,” all that his father can say is, “What you need for the time being is another type of girl,” suggesting a separation between “genuine” romantic love and “quick” sexual gratification. “When I was a boy,” Ace recalls, “there was always two kinds of girls, and we boys never mentioned them in the same breath.”

As in King Vidor’s Beyond the Forest, the film makes connections between frustrated sexual desire and the constantly churning oil well. Lying in bed, Bud grabs a pillow, as if it were a person, and whispers “Deanie, Deanie”; in the background, the sound of the oil wells is heard. Placed in a similar position in her bed, Deanie grabs her teddy bear.

The mortality rate in this moralistic narrative is high: the two “villains” pay for their sins with their lives. Ginny dies in a car accident, a punishment for her loose morality and sexual transgression. She represents a threat to domesticated family life. Ace, her father, a victim of unlimited capitalistic ambitions, commits suicide when the stock market crashes. Both are chastised for immoral, excessive behavior, sexual and economic.

Splendor demonstrates the effects of sexual repression and emotional frustrations on two romantically naive youngsters. In his behavior, Bud epitomizes the conflict between sexual gratification and repression, the tension between obedience to parental authority and the need for rebellion. The effects of sexual abstention are tragic for both: Deanie descends into madness and goes nervous breakdown, and Bud faces a moral breakdown. And despite the fact that Deanie’s suffering is more acute (she’s institutionalized), Bud’s pain is no less devastating; his entire world is shattered.

The film is excellent in portraying Wilma and Bud’s dilemmas. Their desire, romantic love and sexual fulfillment, not only run against social conventions but also against their own beliefs of “proper” behavior. They are victims of an overly conformist socialization that perpetuates their victimization by submitting to the coercive norms they themselves suffer from. They are victims not of fate or circumstances but of socialization that stresses the wrong ideals. They are also victims of their personalities, too weak to revolt against unnecessary impositions. At the end, their decency and idealistic purity become a tragedy that brings them down.

The narrative is framed by Wordsworth’s poem, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” first recited in the classroom, then in the last scene, when Bud and Deanie face each other, after several years apart, for the last time. They are now grown-up, adjusted individuals who have lost their youthful vigor and idealism. Deanie fully understands the real meaning of Wordsworth’s poetry: “Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower, we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind….”

The process of growing up is neither glamorized nor sentimentalized. Rather, it is depicted as painful and compromising: The film also shows the need to settle for second bests–take what life gives you, as Bud says at the end.  Inge’s frankness in treating sensitive issues is remarkable, and his two youthful characters are more complex than the protagonists of his other works. Inge succeeds in universalizing from the particular context of Southeast Kansas in the late 1920s. It’s a searing, often brutal, expose of small-town life, emphasizing its narrow-mindedness and rigid culture that borders on the criminal, with unbearable social-psychological consequences.

Splendor in the Grass evokes a particular past without being a museum period piece, when examined from a contemporary standpoint. The film’s issues bear significance that go beyond its time and place.

Credits:

Music by David Amram
Cinematography by Boris Kaufman, A.S.C.
Edited by Gene Milford

Production company: Elia Kazan production for Newtown Productions, Inc. NBI Company
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date: October 10, 1961
Running time: 124 minutes
Box office: $4 million (US rentals)

Cast

Natalie Wood as Wilma Dean “Deanie” Loomis
Pat Hingle as Ace Stamper
Audrey Christie as Mrs. Loomis
Barbara Loden as Virginia “Ginny” Stamper
Zohra Lampert as Angelina
Warren Beatty as Bud Stamper
Fred Stewart as Del Loomis
Joanna Roos as Mrs. Stamper
John McGovern as Doc Smiley
Jan Norris as Juanita Howard
Martine Bartlett as Miss Metcalf
Gary Lockwood as Allen “Toots” Tuttle
Sandy Dennis as Kay
Crystal Field as Hazel
Marla Adams as June
Lynn Loring as Carolyn
Phyllis Diller as Texas Guinan
Sean Garrison as Glenn
Ivor Francis as Dr. Judd
Mark Slade as Rusty
Godfrey Cambridge as Chauffeur
Buster Bailey as Musician at party
Lou Antonio as Oil field worker at party
William Inge as Reverend Whitman
Eugene Roche as Private detective
Charles Robinson as Johnny Masterson