Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s fifteenth film, “Splendor in the Grass.” The review below was first posted on October 16, 2017 and has been slightly revised.
Splendor in the Grass
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle, and Audrey Christie
Warner Bros., 1961, 124 minutes
After the dismal commercial failures of his three previous films (the so-called “Southern Trilogy”), Kazan turned to popular playwright, William Inge, for a box-office-friendly teenage melodrama.
Arthur “Bud” Stamper (Warren Beatty) and Wilma Dean “Deanie” Loomis (Natalie Wood) are king and queen of their high school in 1928 Kansas and madly in love. Bud is from a wealthy family and the top jock on campus (although not a gifted student), while Deanie is from a much more modest background, but is one of the school’s most attractive and popular girls. Together, they’re an ideal couple, but must increasingly battle the temptation to become more intimate. Deanie’s materialistic mother (Audrey Christie) counsels her daughter to remain chaste because Bud is the “catch of a lifetime” and he surely wouldn’t marry a “bad girl.” In the meantime, Bud tells his Type-A-on-steroids father, Ace Stamper (Pat Hingle), that he can no longer fight lustful temptations, so he’s determined to marry Deanie immediately after graduation and run the family ranch, but the small-town oil baron insists that academically-challenged Bud go to Yale in order prepare himself to take the family oil business to the next level. Bud’s scandalously immoral older sister, Ginny (Barbara Loden), has brought shame to the Stamper name and Ace hopes Bud can redeem the family’s reputation.
Recognizing that he can no longer control himself, Bud cools the relationship with “good girl,” Deanie, but lets off some steam with Juanita (Jan Norris), the school “floozy,” thereby humiliating Deanie, and sending her into an emotional breakdown. Somewhat recovered and desperate to win back her boyfriend, she forces herself on Bud, but he rejects her uncharacteristic advances. Deanie becomes so distraught, she attempts suicide. As Deanie teeters on the verge of a complete mental collapse, her doctor advises an anxious Bud to end all contact for her health’s sake.
Bud goes to Yale, but his heart isn’t in it and he’s failing all of his subjects. An Italian waitress, Angelina (Zohra Lampert), befriends him in his lovesick misery. His father visits Yale in an attempt to rally Bud, but ends up jumping from a New York City skyscraper when the stock market crash of 1929 devastates his business. In the meantime, Deanie is sent to a sanitarium to recover her mental and emotional stability. There, she befriends a male patient and a lukewarm romance blooms. When Deanie is released after a long, thirty-month stay, she returns home, and immediately asks to see Bud to determine if there’s any spark left in their relationship. She visits Bud on his struggling ranch and learns he’s married to Angelina, with one infant child and another on the way. Disappointed but not broken, Deanie stoically commits to going forward with her life, “finding strength in what remains behind.”
“Splendor” resonated with audiences across the country. Inge won an Oscar for his screenplay (Kazan had a large amount of input) while Wood was nominated for her performance. This was Beatty’s film debut, another notable “find” for Kazan. Hingle’s full-throttle performance is quite memorable, but skirts with being “over the top.” Most of the movie was shot around New York City.
I first watched “Splendor” when I was in my early teens and was floored by the unorthodox conclusion (the video below captures the final 3.5 minutes). Kazan stated in later interviews that the last reel was his favorite of all of his films. It certainly wasn’t a stereotypical Hollywood ending. Two characters in love are supposed to live “happily ever after,” but real life is rarely so orderly, which is why “Splendor” struck a chord. I remember being quite smitten with the lovely and vulnerable Deanie character, probably like many of the film’s teenage male viewers. The startling uniqueness of this film launched my decades-long study of its director.
The two DVD’s of “Splendor in the Grass” released by Warner Brothers unfortunately provide no commentary or remarkable bonus features.
Trivia alert: Screenwriter, Bill Inge, has a small role as a Protestant minister saddened by the spiritual emptiness of his church’s biggest contributor, Ace Stamper.
Additional thoughts from a Christian believer
Kazan was a Marxist atheist who rebelled against religious and societal norms of morality. Perhaps more than any of his previous films, Kazan used “Splendor” to attack “middle-class materialism” and “puritanical morality.” Antagonists Ace Stamper and Mrs. Loomis are presented as the duplicitous enemies of the pure love of their children. Bud and Deanie struggle to adhere to their parents’ hypocritical moral code, ultimately destroying their love.
“Splendor” was somewhat revolutionary in its day for its exploration of teenage sexuality, but by today’s standards it hardly raises an eyebrow. It’s interesting to note that Leftist crusader, Kazan, carried on an affair with Loden throughout the filming of “Splendor,” returning to his wife and children each evening at his comfortable estate in the tony suburb of Newtown, Connecticut. Hypocrisy?
Christians understand we cannot satisfy the ultimate moral code, the Ten Commandments. But God the Father sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty for our sins on the cross. He conquered sin and death and offers eternal life and fellowship with God to all those who accept Him as Savior by faith alone. As Christians, we attempt to follow the Lord in obedience, albeit imperfectly. As a teenager, I struggled with sexual temptation. Those hormones were firing like a well-tuned 350 V-8 engine. It’s a common experience, right? These days, teens are experiencing even greater pressure to give in to temptation at an even earlier age. The Lord gave us guidelines for a reason. To protect our physical and emotional well being and the well being of others. Rampant premarital and extramarital sexuality have led to all kinds of individual and social problems. Perhaps the church would have done better to present sexuality positively, as a natural and wonderful gift of God for married couples, rather than negatively, as something dirty and not to be spoken of. After all, The Song of Solomon is in the Bible. But a person must accept Christ as Savior before they can follow Him in obedience.
Natalie Wood left her then-husband, Robert Wagner, for co-star Beatty during the filming of “Splendor,” much to the delight of Kazan, who sought emotional reality from his actors. Wood would reunite with Wagner in 1972. She died under suspicious circumstances in 1981 while on an excursion on the Wagners’ boat, the ironically-named “Splendour.” William Inge committed suicide in 1973. Beatty would go on to achieve fame mainly as Hollywood’s celebrated #1 Lothario.
After watching “Splendor,” I can remember scrambling to the library to read William Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” (1804), with the famous passage cited in the film:
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.
Scholars still debate whether Wordsworth (1770-1850) was a Christian. Most of his earlier poetry glorifies nature as a semi-deific force. Later poems displayed a much more orthodox Christian view. In his “Ode,” the poet admonished his readers to move forward with their lives rather than dwell in the past.
God’s Word has much to say about looking back. Believers are to focus on Christ and Christian service and not look back at the world’s temptations with desire.
“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” – Philippians 3:13
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” 1 Peter 1: 24-25
See here for more Bible verses about looking forward in Christ.
Below, the final poignant scene of “Splendor in the Grass”:
Next up: Kazan’s sixteenth film: “America America”