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Splendor in the Grass

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Splendor in the Grass (1961)

     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.
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East of Eden

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East of Eden (1955)

     To call East of Eden a great film is as much of an understatement as to declare James Dean a great actor. Thanks in large part to Dean’s role in this film, both he and the picture are worthy of far greater renown. A couple years ago I had no interest in Dean because I thought today’s society loved him because he’s “so dreamy”. It turns out he was more than an ultra hunky star whose career ended tragically.

     Dean would only witness his super stardom through this, his first film. His 16-month Hollywood career ended before the release of Rebel Without a Cause and Giant when he died in a car collision while driving his Porsche. In all three flicks Dean’s performances are overwhelming. He found a way to physically convey the inner workings of personalities so based in angst and frustration that –especially with Rebel Without of Cause– young audience came to highly identify with star.

     In East of Eden –based on the John Steinbeck novel– Dean is Cal, the twin son of a pious father who raises Cal and Aron (Richard Davalos) on a farm in California. The film, set in 1917, opens on Cal following a middle-aged woman, faced veiled, to a bank where she makes a large deposit and then to her home. There he throws a rock at the house and says he hates her. We do not learn until later that he suspects the woman is his “deceased” mother. She runs a bar and brothel in the town neighboring his own, but father Adam (Raymond Massey) and his brother are unaware of her locale.

     Cal struggles with being innately “bad”, the opposite of his brother. Aron attends school, obeys his father and is kind to his long-term girlfriend Abra, played by Julie Harris. Abra is at the start of the film bothered by the strangeness of Cal. While she and her beau are lounging in an ice house Adam has just purchased, Cal watches eerily from between to large pieces of ice. This instance, and many others to follow, make Dean’s portrayal of Cal nearly akin to another Steinbeck character, Lenny from “Of Mice and Men”, minus the mental disability. As the plot, progresses, however, Abra becomes friendly with Cal, often leaning too close to him for us to believe her intentions are innocent.

     That ice house plays a key role in the plot. Adam theorizes that if he can keep produce –lettuce in particular– cold for long enough, it will not perish. Risking the majority of his money, Adam sends a train full of lettuce and ice across the country, but when an avalanche blocks the tracks, the delay melts the ice and spoils the vegetables. Cal, who became a diligent son during this business venture, is set on paying his father back the money he lost. His plan is to plant beans, which with the threat of war are likely to go sky high in price. He finds a business partner and secures a loan from his mother, the wealthy madame. Cal does make that fortune when America enters WWI, but the father refuses to take the money because it was earned at the expense of the farmers, who under-sold their crop.

     The war, too, has transformed Aron into a melancholy sort. Dark circles mark his eyes and he is extremely depressed by the mere idea of war and killing. Abra feels neglected and while stalled on a Ferris wheel with Cal, the two kiss. She regrets it but will later console Cal under a willow tree where we can only assume a more passionate locking of lips occurs. A drunken Aron also gets into a fist fight with his brother and then leaves on a train to join the war effort, giving his father a stroke. Mostly paralyzed, a final reconciliation occurs between Adam and Cal as the father requests the son take care of him in lieu of a nurse.

     In East of Eden the character of Cal struggles to win the love of a father who has devoted such an emotion to the other boy. The twins are opposites. Aron inherited the good from his father and Cal the bad in his mother. His behavior is encouraged by an absence of warm emotion from all directions and it is not until Abra explains to the ailing father that he must convey affection for the boy that Adam makes an effort.

     East of Eden was masterfully directed by Elia Kazan. Many canted angles are utilized in scenes of family tension. A particularly cool use of this angle is employed when Cal stands on a swing in the yard. The camera swings from a tilt in one direction to the other with the motion of Cal. I have never seen this used before. Additionally, the willow tree scene I mentioned is considerably artful. Cal has run under the tree and leans against it sobbing. Abra runs to him and seems to lean on him, although all we can see are their feet, which are close enough together to suggest the kiss happening there.

     Kazan also allowed Dean to improvize a certain amount, which is something he did in, I think, all of his movies. In the scene during which Cal presents the money as a birthday present, the father rejects it and Cal is meant to walk away. Instead, Dean begins to cry and throws himself in the arms of his father, who yells at the boy in his discomfort. The money falls from Dean’s hand before he stumbles out of the house. The moment is extremely uncomfortable to watch but really emphasizes the frustration Cal feels at being unable to please his father.

     The role of Cal was considered not only for Dean but for a yet-discovered Paul Newman. I can see Newman in this role, and I think it would have still been a great film, but not in the same way Dean made it.

Source: Forever James Dean documentary, directed by Ara Chekmayan.

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