I watched Elia Kazan‘s Splendor in the Grass last weekend and have not been able to stop thinking about it since. I find with any era of movies, the ones you keep talking about or mulling over hours and days later are the ones that will find their place in movie history.
Director Kazan reminds me how fantastic he was at telling tales of young, somewhat tragic romances set in bygone times. The raw emotional part James Dean gave us in his first movie East of Eden was guided by Kazan who does the same here for 24-year-old Warren Beatty in his premiere role.
Beatty and Natalie Wood are teenagers in a Kansas town during the 1920s. The setting is starkly different from the flapper era we often see depicted in films set in big cities. Few girls in the high school have taken up the flapper look and those who have also take liberties with their sexuality. Beatty’s Bud is a football star and top tier in popularity at the high school. Wood’s Deanie has been steady with Bud for some time and her shy personality derives it social standing from being on Bud’s arm.
Splendor in the Grass opens on the couple necking in a convertible next to a river dam. Deanie is caught up in the moment but nevertheless refuses Bud’s increasing intensity. Sexually frustrated, Bud punches the car and takes a walk. He returns the girl home where Deanie’s mother gently probes about how far the couple has gone in their relationship and insists nice girls do not have the urges Deanie is subtly conveying she cannot deny.
The sexual repression Bud is experiencing seems to initially convey his feelings for the pretty Deanie are not beyond physical, but he tells his wealthy oil baron father that he wants to marry the girl. The father has no particular problem with Deanie and her middle-class family, but also warns his son about the consequences if he were to get her into “trouble”. The man suggests that his boy instead find a “different” type of girl to go around with in the meantime.
When Bud asks Deanie for a break in their relationship and rumors abound about his encounter with a flapper in their class, Deanie flees from her classroom in hysterics. She is furious with her mother for insisting she remain pure knowing all too well she has lost her man because of her prudishness. She cuts her hair into a bob and attends a school dance on the arm of one of Bud’s friend. At the event, however, Deanie offers herself to Bud only to be rejected in yet another hysterical scene. The incident leads Deanie to the dam where she tries to drown herself.
The events have left Deanie in a mental state requiring institutionalization. Bud knows all is his fault but is forced by his father to leave for Yale. There the boy neglects his studies and finds a sympathetic companion in the daughter of an Italian restauranteur.
Deanie, meanwhile, is recovering fine at the mental facility and has made close acquaintance with a man from Ohio who plans to become a doctor. After two years in the facility she is released and plans to marry that doctor, but returns home and seeks one last encounter with Bud.
SPOILER I could not help but get choked up in watching the final scene in East of Eden. Bud’s circumstances have take a dramatic turn and he has created a life farming his family’s old ranch. Deanie arrives in a pristine white dress and hat symbolic of a bride. She meets Bud who is dirty from working the fields and we see not only the contrast in their lives but also know that as much as we want Bud to embrace the young woman, he cannot do so without soiling her dress (and probably her mental state). We can see all the emotional innerworkings of our main characters’ minds and feel for the life they lost together. Bud presents his ex-girlfriend to the pregnant wife and child slaving in his tiny kitchen and our hearts break as Deanie holds and expresses how fine the baby is while Bud looks on. It is too late for this couple and we will never get the ending we so hope for. SPOILER
The permissibility of sexual expression had certainly changed by the time the 1960s arrived. The passionate scene we face on the picture’s opening is slightly uncomfortable in its frankness, but the passion the characters show for one another throughout is refreshing compared to older, restrained movies on the subject of love. Beatty is so dreamy as Bud, we women can understand why Deanie idolizes him. Wood meanwhile is delicate as the pretty girl who, although she has friends, derives most of her social standing from her relationship. As the couple walks down a crowded school hallway, our eyes are drawn to the softly smiling Wood despite Beatty’s towering over her and the crowd. Their classmates greet each of them individually, but we can see by the girl’s grasp on her man’s arm that she defines herself by this relationship.
I often find it hard to convince myself to re-watch a movie that evokes such sadness, but Splendor in the Grass is well worth it. The acting is off the charts and the story so intriguing given the natural comparisons one draws between today’s morals and those of the 1920s. I cannot recommend it enough.
- Splendor in the Grass is set for 2 a.m. ET June 23 on TCM.