Splendor in the Grass (1961): Double Standard of Sexuality and Morality

The most powerful small-town film in the early 1960s was undoubtedly Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass.

Made in 1961, from William Inge’s original script, it is a typical 1950s film, which shows that the beginning of a new decade often carries over the themes and ideology of the previous decade.

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 breath. 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 in this film.

Deanie is dressed in white, which suggests virginal purity, but her dress reveals more than it conceals, thus hinting about the conflict she will experience concerning sexual desire. She begins to protest, though it is clear that she would like to continue making out. The camera zeroes in on her face, showing her” reactions. Her face expresses passion and eagerness for a fulfillment, which both of them desire but fear due to the mores and potential consequences. Bud knows he has gone too far and, deeply upset and humiliated, he jumps out of his car, waiting for his excitement to subside. This one image, showing their passionate, troubled and puzzled faces, captures the essence of the film and sets the tone of its conflict.

At the center of Splendor 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.

It is Mrs. Loomis (who has no first name in the film) who runs the affairs of the family. “There’s big news tonight,” she tells her uninterested daughter, “The Stamper oil stocks have gone up 14 points. If we sold our stocks now, maybe we could send you away to college next year.” Mrs. Loomis is disappointed when Deanie says that Bud knows nothing about his father’s business. Pragmatic and upwardly mobile, her attentions are single-mindedly focused on her daughter’s future, i.e. marriage.

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.”

Deanie’s puritanical mother has never explored or enjoyed her sexuality. She reflects culture’s double standard: “A woman doesn’t enjoy those things the way a man does, when she says, “A woman just lets her husband come near her in order to have children.” In this, she suggests the denial of sexual pleasure, with sex serving instrumental functions for women, the legitimate channel to having a family. Women’s obliteration of sexual desire and the priority of motherhood over womanhood have been consistent traits of middle-class culture.

Ace is also concerned with Bud’s private behavior, periodically asking him to watch himself with her, and not do “anything you’ll be sorry for.” Ace’s reservations about Deanie have nothing to do with the Loomises’s inferior
class. “I’m not a snob,” he tells Bud, “I got nothing against ’em ’cause they’re poor.” In fact, Ace and Del Loomis were boys together, and “the only difference between them is that Ace had “ambition.” Ace has “a big future
planned” for his son: Four years at Yale, then managing his company, which he hopes will merge with one of those big Eastern companies.

The church unifies only superficially the town’s diverse residents. Ace attends the services, but invariably falls asleep during the sermons. Outside church, the friendly Ace advises Mr. Loomis to hold onto his stocks, and the two mothers exchange pleasantries; no animosity is sensed. Despite class differences, both families are guilty of hypocrisy and pretentiousness, and both fail in educating their children.

This is clear in a Christmas sequence, with crosscutting between the two households. Opening their presents, Deanie’s mother wishes Bud’s present would “cost a lot less and was a ring,” and her father, impatient after four years of courtship, wishes Bud had “a little more gumption.” Bud gets from Deanie a soft wool scarf and a pair of socks she had knitted herself. “I guess they couldn’t afford a regular present,” says Ace.

Ace is contemptuous of his daughter Ginny, making no secrets as to who is his favorite child. Disappointed with her, he informs Bud: “I’ve got all my hopes pinned on you now, Son!” A small-town girl, who moved to the Big City (Chicago), Ginny is perceived as a failure in every way. Sending his wife to bring her back, Ace accuses Mrs. Stamper (no first name for her, either) of spoiling her. Ginny was sent off to a finishing school, where she broke the rules and was kicked out. Next, her mother sent her to the university, where “she goes hog wild and flunks all her courses.” Then, she is sent to Art School, where “she ends up with some cake-eater who gets her in trouble so he can marry her.” But as soon as her beau learns that her allowance would be cut off, he “locked out in a hurry.” Ace describes Ginny as “a headstrong little flapper who wants to have her own way,” but he is just as determined to “teach her some discipline.” Indeed, when Ginny expresses her wish to go to California and study Art, Ace screams, “Art who” For him, she is “a trollop,” an expression that makes his wife shudder.

Ginny thinks they live in “a god-forsaken town.” In Chicago, she had friends, but here she’s “a freak! People stare at me on the street like I was out of a carnival.” “That’s because you peroxide your hair and paint your face like an Indian,” says her father. Once again, the term Indian is used pejoratively; in Picnic, Rosemary describes Carter as a “naked Indian.” But Ginny is the only member to stand up to her father. “This is the ugliest place in the whole nation,” she charges, “Everywhere you look there’s an oil well, even on the front lawn. I bet you’d dig a well right here in the living room.”

Disreputable, Ginny is the major cause of gossip in town. “She is too low for the dogs to bite,” says Mrs. Loomis, referring to her abortion. When Deanie protests that “it’s all gossip,” her mother says, “every word is true,” she has heard it from Mrs. Whitecomb who lives right across the street from the Stampers. Ginny is a negative point of reference–the fear mothers have of what might become of their daughters if they “go wild and boy crazy.”

On New Year’s Eve at the Country Club Dance, Ginny gets drunk. Bud dances with her out of pity; no one asks her, even though she is the richest girl in town. “The only place they’ll speak to me now is in the dark,” says Ginny, “Oh, they’re very familiar then.” Deanie is contrasted with Ginny, an unrestrained, amoral woman. They represent two sides of womanhood: purity versus unbridled sexuality, romantic innocence versus carnal lust.

Note the similarity in the sound of their names, Deanie and Ginny, and the irony in naming Bud’s sluttish sister Virginia, who is anything but virgin. Ginny is evil incarnate: she dances wildly, drinks too much, and seduces men. She smokes in public, even outside church. When all four drive to the country, the way Deanie looks at Ginny reveals a complex mixture of feelings: voyeurism, inhibition, but also jealousy. Indeed, once she stops seeing Bud, Deanie begins to take on Ginny’s characteristics. She dresses like Ginny, smokes in public and becomes more explicitly seductive. She is a teenager at a crossroads, somewhere along the process of becoming an overtly sexual woman.

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.

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, with no apparent se or value. “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 (in the mold of Williams’s “Big Daddy”) is obtuse, hypocritical and insensitive, draining any energy and excitement out of his son. When Bud confides in him his sexual frustration, “I feel like I’m going nuts sometimes–like I’m going to come apart,” all his father can say is, “What you need for the time being is another type of girl,” suggesting he separate between romantic love and 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.”

Ace’s vigorous masculinity and boundless energy are modeled on Glen McCarthy. He is a domineering patriarch when it concerns his son, but a rather amiable and democratic boss, one who enjoys the company of his men over his wife. He entertains his field workers informally, providing free drinks and oysters, shipped all the way from Baltimore in a refrigerated car. His ambition, that Bud becomes a football star, is a compensation for his brief career terminated by an accidental fall. “You’re running for both of us now,” he tells Bud. When Bud falls and Doc Smiley (John McGovern) recommends hospitalization for his pneumonia, Ace promises “if you pull this boy through there’s a bonus waiting for you, a big one 5,000.”

Misunderstood by his father, Bud turns for help to the doctor, but as his name indicates, he is pleasant and smiling–but of no help. “It’s hard to advise you,” says Smiley, when Bud complains that, “every time we’re together, I have to remember…things…a guy can go nuts that way.” Bud is another nature boy who doesn’t want to go to college because he knows he is no good. This is unacceptable to his father, whose motto is “you can do anything you set your mind to,” (a recurrent phrase in small-town movies). However, Bud has set his mind on agriculture, and he would like to take over his father’s ranch, south of town. “Ranching!” screams the appalled father with strong disapproval.

There are two places of escape: by the bank of the river, and Stamper’s ranch house, a kind of sporting lodge. After then frustrated experience with Deanie, Bud returns to the river with Juanita, who surrenders to him immediately, but he can’t stand the memory of Deanie and he takes her to a more deserted part of the river. Deanie also returns to the river, but by herself, and, in the film’s most controversial scene, she swims in the nude and masturbates. At the ranch house, Ginny is with Glenn, her new working-class beau (from Oklahoma), who works at the Standard filling station.

Ginny is the only honest person in the film and the only woman in touch with her libido. “Why don’t you take her upstairs,” she asks Bud, “and get it out of your system” She can’t understand “why don’t you both quit trying to
pretend you’re so pure and righteous” Full of disdain, Ginny tells Deanie, “He just lets things torment him inside and make him miserable and never does anything about them.” There is a powerful scene between the siblings, in which Bud tries to keep Ginny from going out with the next “wrong guy,” a married bootlegger. Ferocious, she slaps him hard bruising his face, and then realizing his behavior stems from his own frustration, she softens, feeling sorry for him.

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 frustrations on two romantically naive youngsters. 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: Deanie suffers a nervous breakdown; Bud a moral breakdown. And despite the fact that her suffering is more acute (she is institutionalized), Bud’s pain is no less devastating; his entire world of values is shattered.

The film is excellent in portraying Wilma and Bud’s dilemmas. What they want, romantic love and sexual fulfillment, not only run against social conventions, but against their own beliefs of “proper” behavior. They are victims of overly conformist socialization, perpetuating their victimization by submitting to the coercive norms they themselves suffer from. They are victims, not of fate or circumstances, but of socialization which 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 their own tragedy and 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….”