Dir. Elia Kazan. Starring Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Audrey Christie
In The White Ribbon, the kids doing the evil deeds in pre-World War I Germany are given an opening because all four loci of power—business, medicine, education, and religion—fail to maintain their control; they abdicate, depending on one’s point of view, their responsibilities or positions. In Splendor in the Grass, placed in pre-Depression Kansas, much the same set of problems doom two young people, Deanie (Wood) and Bud (Beatty) to lives which are bound to be less pleasurable than their parents’. The failure is less obviously in the bones of the society—and this is one of a dozen reasons why Splendor in the Grass is much less successful than The White Ribbon—in this film, even if it does occasionally take aim at the weaknesses in the American joints. The minister (in a cameo by the perpetually dour, always Kansan William Inge) has enough insight to drop some soft barbs at his rich congregation, but has no ability to comfort Deanie in a moment of need. The English teacher (Martine Bennett), a clear old maid, cannot read the timbre of her classroom. The doctor (John McGovern) is a chuckling mute when Bud, desperate for advice about his sexual stunting, asks him what he should do about his irresistible urges. Business, in the person of Bud’s father Ace (Pat Hingle), rather speaks for itself when the Crash spreads from New York and piledrives the whole country.
Society is less important on the whole in this film, really, than family, and the focus on the Stampers and the Loomises rather than the world around them feels very American. The movie begins with Deanie pushing Bud away a little bit. Her boyfriend is randy that night at the waterfalls, where the kids in their cars come to hook up, and he eventually gets out of the car after being rebuffed one time too many for his taste. That night, Deanie’s mother (Christie) is on the prowl. She peeks out the window to hear what her daughter is saying to Bud, maybe to see if he kisses her too fiercely on their doorstep, and then disappears upstairs when Deanie actually enters the house. From there it’s a string of questions and a conversation that I thought I’d seen before in Spring Awakening—a nice girl doesn’t like sex, says Deanie’s mom. She does that sort of thing for her husband and to have children, but it’s not something she enjoys. Wood’s acting in this movie isn’t exactly the picture of restraint, but I did appreciate the pained look on her face when her mother, holding her, says that; it could not be clearer that even if she’s still a virgin, sex and what comes before is something Deanie likes very much. Then Bud gets home. He tries to speak to his dad, who is having some kind of shindig with his field workers in the kitchen, and for all that Bud manages to say it’s as if he’s still in the kitchen with them and trying to shout over the noise. Ace is a true loudmouth, who literally tells Bud that he’s living through Bud’s prowess on the football field. (Ace walks with a pronounced limp after having fallen off some machinery as a young man.) The impression Bud gets about manhood is as strong as the one Deanie gets about womanhood; if women retreat, men charge forward and speak enough to suffocate themselves.
The key piece in exemplifying the worries of a woman like Mrs. Loomis and troubling a man like Mr. Stamper is Ginny (Barbara Loden), Bud’s freewheeling sister doing a nickel impersonation of Marilyn Monroe. Ginny (of course short for “Virginia,” which is a lazy shorthand for irony) has been thrown out of schools, been aborted, had a marriage annulled. She drinks constantly and is never shy around men. She is a source of shame for Bud, who is embarrassed by the frankness of her sexuality and the consuming nature of her desire. When she wants, she takes as best she can; she stabs the locks of the various liquor cabinets with her knife in an attempt to get at the booze inside…in front her mother, her brother, her guest, and her brother’s girlfriend. When it doesn’t work, she tosses the knife. The movie can’t hold together with Ginny in a primary role, which is pulled away from her after a New Year’s Eve party where she throws herself at a man and then, out of the blue—perhaps slightly more sober—she decides she’s not interested. Since this is 1929, consent is not job #1 for the guy she’s with, and Bud has to throw himself at the same man with a series of punches in order to protect his sister. Not long after that she disappears from the movie entirely, and in the last few minutes we discover that she died in a car wreck. It was, as Mrs. Loomis smugly pronounces, exactly the kind of thing that everyone knew would happen to her. Compared to Mrs. Stamper (Joanna Roos), Mrs. Loomis is a Gibraltar of willpower. Both women have the same sort of expectations for their daughters, but it’s Deanie’s mother, not Ginny’s, who manages to get through to her daughter with the power of guilt. At the end of the movie, Mrs. Loomis gives Deanie the closest thing to an apology she can muster up. The way I raised you is how my mother raised me, she said. And I hated a lot of what I went through, but I felt like it worked out in the end, and I hope you don’t hate me. Give Inge some credit; he’s basically worked out the central idea of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” a good ten years before Larkin wrote it himself, and applied it coolly to Ginny where he abandons all hope of subtlety with Deanie.
After Bud dumps her, Deanie goes on an enormous downhill slide. (The circumstances which lead up to this tawdry little breakdown are kicked off in large part by the bad advice Ace gives to Bud: find yourself a girl you can have without compunctions about her honor. Bud does this, but only after Ace has vetoed Bud’s plan which has the advantage of cutting out the middleman. Ace is set on Bud going to Yale and then returning to Kansas to begin taking over the business; Bud would rather marry Deanie straightaway and go to an agricultural school for a couple of years. More than anything else, it’s Ace’s stubbornness about his son’s future plans which torpedoes Deanie, even though it’s possible that no one in town makes that connection.) The movie is very sure that it needs fits of hysterics from Deanie Loomis, but it is not very sure why it needs them other than to build some sense of tragedy into the picture. The disruption of young love is the goal here, and Splendor in the Grass, which takes its title from a line of Wordsworth, is clear about just how stark the difference is between the glory of youth and the forced recovery placed on adulthood. In this context, Bud’s dismissal of Deanie feels badly forced, a square peg in a round hole situation which makes the filmmakers seem as capricious as the young people they’re trying to portray.
Somehow worse is Deanie’s nervous breakdown, which is a Victorian notion of the hysterical rejected woman and, boy howdy, is it ever sexist. Deanie accidentally saves her family from financial ruin when they send her to a mental institution in Wichita after she tries to swim her way off a waterfall in front of half the town, and even that doesn’t feel unrealistic. Teenagers have done rash things for rash reasons since there were teenagers. What seems incredible is that a previously healthy person spends thirty months in a hospital after being dumped. This is long enough for Bud to marry the waitress who introduces him to pizza (which doesn’t seem like an unreasonable reaction, given the quality of the pizza) and long enough for her to fall for a fellow patient at the hospital. But in a movie that presents the science (“science”) of sexual repression as a force which can make someone loco, thirty months feels like an awfully long time for Deanie to spend institutionalized, and what’s more, the movie knows it. It skips the vast sweep of those two and a half years, or finds something more interesting, like Bud’s last conversations with his father, to key in on. Perhaps we are meant to feel for Deanie, but we are meant to view her sexual repression as a perpetually damaging instrument—and, bizarrely, as a perpetually damaging instrument wielded by society which primarily targets her. In other words: feel bad for her, but she’s hardly worth our attention if she’s not actively suffering.