Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass just might be the first Hollywood film to argue that virginity is the surest ticket to emotional instability, eventual breakdown, and, at last, institutionalization. For one member of a small Kansas town on the cusp of the Depression, this happens as inevitably as night follows day, and her descent into fire-breathing madness is one of the cinema’s boldest strikes in favor of loose morals — or at least the expected experimentation of youth. The girl in question, one Wilma Dean Loomis (Natalie Wood), known to all as Deanie, holds an idealistic candle for local rich boy Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty), and though pining for him as all young women do (pictures above her mirror, stolen kisses at the front door), she remains wholesome and pure, never once considering the surrender of her sexuality before holy matrimony. And hell, if you believe her mother, not even then, or at least not without a fight. You see, Mrs. Loomis has a worldview decidedly of its time: women are to satisfy their men only when the desire to procreate proves too overwhelming to deny. At no time, however, can a woman entertain even the mere thought of sex as something to be enjoyed, shared, or investigated beyond a tight-lipped, passionless endurance. It’s how she was raised, and how she expects sweet Deanie to carry on throughout the generations. Masculinity and femininity are, then, rigidly defined, and enforcement comes with its own set of wounds and obstacles.
Bud also suffers a fall from grace, which in the parlance of our own times is a severe, near-fatal case of the blue balls. He loves Deanie, and pushes her a bit further with each date, but as he’s denied again and again, he eyes other game, primarily the school’s resident whore, so defined by her flapper attire and familiar, unbroken smile. She floats while others drag. Bud errs on the side of loyalty, but it proves to be too much to bear, as his sexual frustration sends him to the floor baked in sweat, feverish and unconscious. Meanwhile, Deanie wrestles with the expectations of her family and community, and the urge to keep studly Bud well-satisfied and in the stable. Pushed and pulled along the age-old Madonna/Whore divide, she careens out of control into a frenzy of belligerent libido. She screams, sobs, spits, and even runs naked from the tub in a mad dash for freedom. The journey ends bedside, but she’s reached the limit: without treatment, she’ll drop forever from the safe side of sanity. And hasn’t she declared her desire for death? She’s downright suicidal, this one, and it has everything to do with that particular code of civilization that refuses to grant young lovers a sanctioned romp to self-fulfillment. Bud must attend Yale, Deanie must drink her milk, and everyone must mind his or her manners until your box is lowered into the earth. Sure, one can blame the foolish yearnings of romantic love — at any age a blinding light from reality’s sting — but the film’s message is strikingly clear (thanks to William Inge’s script): as reckless and absurd as the world before adult responsibility can be, it is vital that it remains reckless and absurd, forever and always. We’ll have plenty of time to compromise and settle down for the long ride of tedium. Deanie’s parents prove that in spades.
It’s an obvious turn — and pointed commentary — that Deanie’s eventual embrace of her inner slut coincides with the deepest part of her insanity, though it’s by no means the reactionary message we’ve come to expect. This is blistering satire at its best, and revolutionary for a film little removed from the Eisenhower years. Allow these crazy kids a venue for their release — natural, functional, and safe — and they succeed beyond our wildest expectations. Deny a free flow of fluids and your daughter will be hauled away in a straight-jacket, while junior will fail his classes, take up the bottle, and flirt with pneumonia. The film’s other woman of ill-repute — Bud’s free-spirited sister Ginny (Barbara Loden) — takes up with bootleggers, married men, and other scoundrels (and even has an abortion), but a few subtle cues lead us to believe she became a wild child thanks to daddy’s own lustful indulgences. How else to explain her status as the Stamper family’s black sheep? Every action on her part is a brutal slap to papa’s face, and whenever they’re in the same room, the sexual tension all but dissolves the furniture. This is the only possibility if the initial premise is to hold true, as healthy sex — not incest, obviously — is a genuine salvation, not an instigator of future troubles. The denial kills the spirit. Needless to say, Ginny in punished for her sins in the end through an off-camera car accident, but the sins are more the father’s, and he too dies most gruesomely after a jump from a lonely hotel window. His excuse is losing his fortune on Black Tuesday, but those eyes hold a much deeper, lasting guilt.
In more ways than one, Splendor in the Grass is corn-fed melodrama from the old school, but it never ceases to be riveting. Not a single scene plays less than masterfully, and the narrative is so rich with recrimination, regret, and betrayal that we fall hopelessly in love with the whole tarnished mess. The acting shines with excess and pain, and even the supporting players offer crucial turns, whether by gesture or nod. There’s even an allusion to William Wordsworth, who provides the title of the film with this cut from “Ode on Intimations of Immortality”:
What though the radiance which was once so bright Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind…
In other words, dear parents and respectable citizens alike, you cannot hold back the rush of time, and only moving beyond the so-called attractions of innocence will bring about lasting insight and wisdom. There is a time and place for dopey affairs of the heart, and all the overblown tragedies they entail, but let them proceed, for they will break apart as quickly as they came together. It is only by instituting repressive measures — what parents today might call “protection” or saving for a “more appropriate age” — that this flow is interrupted and the casualties mount. Had Deanie and Bud been allowed to frolic as nature dictated, it’s quite likely that the luster would have faded by morning’s light. But they had to find out for themselves. The barriers, then, preserve an intact, and needlessly powerful illusion.
Eventually, Deanie returns from her extended stay in a sanatorium with a new love, one seemingly more grounded, and certainly tempered by experience. Bud has also found a new life in the wake of his father’s suicide, finally securing a piece of farm land with his new wife and child. During one final meeting between the pair, where each speaks softly and sparingly about the past, we hear them comment on happiness, which itself seems so often an expectation — if not requirement — of youth:
Deanie: “I’m like you, Bud. I don’t think much about happiness either.”
Bud: “Well, what’s the point? You gotta take what comes.”
What better way to communicate the arrival of adulthood? Resignation and despair need not define the years following adolescence, but only the unfocused mind — the naïve, unchallenged, unbroken spirit — dares to believe in guarantees. But the real sadness comes from not having such a period of one’s life, when the future lay before you with possibility and promise, and a sly wink from a fellow traveler was enough to fan the flame of inspiration. Deanie and Bud may have punctured the balloon of their parent’s rotten hold, but they had to endure hell to do it. Their strength remains Wordsworth’s promise.