Filmsite Movie Review
Splendor in the Grass (1961)
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Background

Splendor in the Grass (1961) is another of director Elia Kazan's dramatic, hyperbolic films with daring and controversial content for its times - sexual repression and neurosis. The intriguing, over-wrought film is a tragic, coming-of-age melodrama from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Inge's original screenplay - it was Inge's first story written directly for the screen and he received a nomination (and the film's sole Oscar) for the Best Original Story and Screenplay for his work (one of the film's two Academy Award nominations).

The time period of the plot occurs during the late 1920s and early 30s at the start of the disastrous Depression in a rural, SE Kansas town, coinciding with the intensity of a first love and the devastating consequences of repressed sexuality upon a pair of love-struck teenagers. The film's tagline expressed this theme: "There is a miracle in being young...and a fear." A poster also described the reality of a 'first love' when feelings that are new and somewhat frightening are heightened by a constricting society:

Whether you live in a small town the way they do, or in a city, maybe this is happening to you right now...maybe (if you're older), you remember...when suddenly the kissing isn't a kid's game anymore, suddenly it's wide-eyed, scary and dangerous.

The film's title is taken from English romantic William Wordsworth's 1807 Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Reflections of Early Childhood, some of which is quoted here:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower
We will grieve not, but rather find
Strength in what remains behind.

The mood and story line of the stormy relationship between two star-crossed, teenaged lovers parallels the poem as the adolescents meet, fall obsessively in love and become sexually awakened, face repressed sexual attitudes, parental pressures, turmoil, social constraints and class differences, and ultimately break up and are traumatized without consummating their love. The values of the business-oriented civilization - at the time of its greatest crash - coincides with the collapse of their tender romance.

In a quasi-Romeo and Juliet script, Warren Beatty marked his screen debut (after starring in the Broadway play A Loss of Roses), and co-star Natalie Wood received a Best Actress nomination (her second of three career nominations) for one of her finest (if not the best) screen roles. Reportedly, the stars began an off-screen love affair while making this film - a story of unconsummated passion between a rich midwestern boy and a passionate young girl. [The irony of Wood's film role here was that her accidental drowning death in 1981, off of her yacht named the Splendour, was pre-figured by the shocking bathtub scene and an attempted suicidal drowning scene at the reservoir.]

Although it was an early 60s film, it followed a number of films from the 50s (some of which were youth exploitation films) that portrayed the problems of youth, such as Picnic (1955) (another filming of a William Inge play), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) (with Natalie Wood), Kazan's own East of Eden (1955), Peyton Place (1957), A Summer Place (1959), and the same year's great musical West Side Story (1961).

The Story

After the credits sequence - red lettering on a grayish background, a teenaged boy and girl are seated in the front of an open, yellow roadster convertible after school in the early evening - on a lover's lane a short distance in front of a raging waterfall. The attractive couple are passionately kissing and breathing heavily - their raging hormones are symbolized by the flow of churning water over the falls behind them. The Commerce High School senior sweethearts are beautiful, dark-haired Wilma Dean ("Deanie") Loomis (Natalie Wood, 26 years old) and hunky sports hero Arthur ("Bud") Stamper (Warren Beatty) - he begs her to go further, but she resists expressing her physical needs:

Bud: Deanie, please..
Deanie: Bud, I'm afraid. (They kiss and embrace more.) Don't, Bud.
Bud: Deanie...
Deanie: We mustn't, Bud.

Angry at her, sexually frustrated and slightly humiliated, Bud leaves the car and stands by the waterfall, stating: "I'd better take you home," as she slips on her boyfriend's striped letter sweater.

A title card 1928, SOUTHEAST KANSAS - is superimposed over a plain, wood-frame house (the Loomis residence) and storefront for the family butcher business - Fancy Groceries. Bud pulls the roadster up in front, as Deanie's mother Mrs. Frieda Loomis (Audrey Christie) notices their arrival on the porch and overhears Bud tell Deanie: "We've had enough kissing for tonight." Not wanting to be seen, she stealthily peers at them through the front door window as they can't restrain themselves for a goodbye kiss.

In the dark living room, Deanie's body language exhibits tremendous sexual longing - she leans backward as she strokes her hair and neck. She hugs a pillow as she reclines on a sofa with her legs extended.

Her domineering mother, who forces her daughter to drink a glass of milk, reveals that they are a from a poor family that is struggling financially to afford her education, and there's little possibility that their shares of rising stock in the Stamper oil company may help ("If we sold those stocks, we'd make $15,000 and maybe we can even send you away to college next year. Well, we're not going to sell.") Deanie dreamily places her ear next to a giant shell - listening to the far-away roar of the ocean elsewhere. She stutters her unconvincing excuse for being with Bud: "We were studying together."

Upstairs, as Deanie undresses for bed and hides herself for privacy in the bathroom to brush her teeth, her mother follows her and tries to instill her own sexual fears into her. Her rigid, puritanical mother vows that boys never respect a girl who goes all the way - love-struck Deanie is troubled by her own emerging, raw physical feelings:

Mrs. Loomis: Now Wilma Dean. Bud Stamper could get you into a whole lot of trouble. And you know how I mean. Boys don't respect a girl they can go all the way with. Boys want a nice girl for a wife. (She slightly cracks open the door.) Wilma Dean, you and Bud haven't gone too far already, have you?
Deanie: (from inside) No, mother.
Mrs. Loomis: Tell me the truth, Wilma Dean!
Deanie: (opening the door all the way) No, Mom, we haven't gone too far.
Mrs. Loomis: That's a relief.
Deanie: Mom...is it so terrible to have those feelings about a boy?
Mrs. Loomis: No nice girl does.
Deanie: Doesn't she?
Mrs. Loomis: No, no nice girl.

A prudish Mrs. Loomis asserts that women don't enjoy sex or have sexual urges, and that they dutifully have sex with their husbands only to have children. She was always physically repelled by her husband and men's aggressive tendencies. But a virginal Deanie is already experiencing (and repressing) strong, out-of-control physical drives, although she struggles with wanting to be 'a good girl' and worries about staying pure until marriage. [Her bedroom's decorations - including a brown bear on top of her pillow - project her childlike innocence that's on the verge of breaking traditional bounds.]:

Deanie: But Mom, didn't, didn't you ever - well, I mean, didn't you ever feel that way about Dad? (She hugs and clutches onto her mother in a desperate fashion)
Mrs. Loomis: Your father never laid a hand on me until we were married. And then I-I just gave in because a wife has to. A woman doesn't enjoy those things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children. (Deanie stands with her back toward her mother.) Deanie, what's troubling you?
Deanie: Oh, nothing, Mom.

After her mother leaves, Deanie throws herself onto her bed, casts away her brown bear in disgust, grabs her pillow, and thrusts her chest into it. Her sexual longings burst forth as she imagines hugging her sweetheart while glancing at Bud's many pictures plastered above her dresser. Deanie caresses each one with a kiss, and then kneels at her bedside to recite the Lord's Prayer. In the Loomis' master bedroom where Mr. Del Loomis (Fred Stewart) snores noisily, Mrs. Loomis excitely tells him that Deanie is "in love" with the Stamper boy: "He'd be the catch of a lifetime, Del!" She is in favor of their romance, but expects marriage before physical affection.

When Bud arrives home, his limping father Ace Stamper (Pat Hingle) is leading a celebration in the kitchen - hired workhands from the Stamper oil fields are boisterously eating venison and drinking "home brew" beer. The prosperous, self-made millionaire Mr. Stamper has just brought in a new well that is flowing with over a hundred barrels an hour ("Them big Eastern companies - they begin to sit up and take notice of us"). But with aspirations for his son to succeed him and follow in his footsteps, he is concerned that Bud, the captain of the football team, is keeping late hours with "that li'l Loomis girl" when he should be watching his training or looking ambitiously into the future. He overwhelms his son with advice about putting off thoughts of marriage (or not getting his girlfriend pregnant and being forced to marry her) because there are other better prospects in his life - an education at Yale University and a merging with the oil business. Stamper warns about not disappointing him in sports and in other life choices:

You're watchin' yourself with her now, aren't ya, son? You-you're not doin' anything, boy, you're gonna be ashamed of, are ya?...She's a nice kid, son. She's a good-looker. I've known her folks ever since - well, old Del and I were boys together. I got nothin' against 'em, Bud, 'cause they're poor. I'm not a snob or anything like that. The only difference between me and Del is that I got ambition. But if anything was to happen, you'd have to marry her! You'd have to marry her, son! You realize that, don't ya? You get a girl in trouble, boy, and you gotta take the consequences. (They engage in horseplay by punching each other playfully in the arm.) We got a future, boy...The first thing we're gonna do, we're gonna get you an education - the best. Four years at Yale...My company is gonna merge with one of those big Eastern companies. I'm gonna put you in there. I wanna put you in there, boy...I'm linin' up a future for ya, boy...Bud, there is nothing in this world that I wouldn't do for you, boy. There's nothing I wouldn't do if you do right. If you do right, Bud. Now don't disappoint me, son.

As he states that he's "had one disappointment already" [his daughter], his frail, soft-spoken wife Mrs. Stamper (Joanna Roos) enters the room. In his own bedroom, Bud is also frustrated by his father's words as Deanie was. He hurls a soccer ball at the wall and also buries his head under his pillow on his bed.


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