Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961) concerns the problems encountered by two teenagers – Wilma Dean (“Deanie”) Loomis (Natalie Wood) and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) – living in Kansas at the end of the 1920s. Their sexual desire for each other has no outlet because of the rigid morals of the time, and leads Deanie to attempt suicide. While the overall vision of the film appears to be grounded in a middle-class tale of love, it is important to note that the film focuses on morals, values and a way of life that are static and life-killing. Furthermore, the film examines the nature of identity and the false nature of the mask of respectability that degrades true human emotion.Kazan has stated that the parents (Mrs. Loomis played by Audrey Christie and Ace Stamper played by Pat Hingle) represent the ones who “murder a rare and fine thing, namely romantic love” (1).Kazan further points out that both parents destroy their children’s’ romance in “the name of Eisenhower virtues” (2). Although the film takes place in the late 1920s, it more truly examines mid-20th century morality and critiques the rigidity and falseness of its associated values.
Ace Stamper and Mrs. Loomis personify the values that Kazan holds up for investigation. His problem as a director is to make both parents human, to subsume their destructiveness beneath a placid middle-class mask, and to avoid creating simple “straw” targets. Both parents believe that they are doing the best for their children, even when evidence reveals otherwise. For instance, Kazan understands that the character of Deanie’s mother represents the inability to change and to evolve and to move past a strictly business-like understanding of human relationships. The mother believes that Deanie has to remain a virgin in order to have a commodity to trade for a rich husband, such as Bud promises to be. However, Kazan does not simply stereotype the mother or her viewpoints as evil. Her motherly qualities hide her destructive nature, and therein resides her power as a character. The audience can identify with her humanity even while her nurturing destroys her daughter and keeps her family infantile. Consider the scene at the Loomis dinner table after Bud has broken off his relationship with Deanie. Deanie creeps down the stairs wrapped in a robe. Meanwhile, in a falsely jolly tone her parents discuss the meal. The meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes and succotash epitomises a typical Sunday dinner; Deanie rejects it and begins her descent into madness. Mrs. Loomis slathers gravy over the food in much the way she covers Deanie’s personality with the mask of being a nice girl. The mother’s tragedy is that she has no way to nourish her daughter’s true needs. Rather, she suffocates her daughter’s natural human instincts in order to prop up a false identity as a non-sexual being.
Like Mrs. Loomis, Ace cannot provide the guidance that his son needs. When Bud comes to discuss his desire for Deanie and his plans to be a farmer, his father ignores him and pushes him towards attending Yale. He warns his son not to get Deanie pregnant or he will have to marry her and ruin the future that has been planned for him. Furthermore, when Ace comes to Yale where Bud is failing, he cannot see that his son does not belong at the university. Examine the scene where Ace and Bud are at the speakeasy. Texas Guinan (Phyllis Diller) comes on stage joking about the bodies jumping from the windows in response to the economic crash of 1929. Much like the Sunday dinner at the Loomis’ house, the mood at the speakeasy is falsely hilarious. Ace points out to Bud that one of the dancers looks like Deanie. When Bud agrees, Ace offers to get the girl, and later, sends her to Bud’s room. Ace cannot comprehend that there is a difference between the two women; to him all women are interchangeable. As with Mrs. Loomis, Ace can neither sustain his son’s emotional needs nor can he let him go. He has created a trap for his son that only disappears when he commits suicide.
Part of the power of Splendor in the Grass relates to the manner in which Kazan develops the characters of the parents. While they repulse us, they also command our sympathy. They rigidly enforce the morals that they have learned and attempt to pass these same morals on to their children. We understand them even while we reject their beliefs. Although their flaws destroy their children’s hope for happiness together, both Ace and Mrs. Loomis remain compellingly human. In understanding them and in rejecting them, we can see Kazan’s critique of the mores that they represent. Splendor in the Grass thus becomes Kazan’s vision of a world that will continue without the rigidity and life-crushing values represented by the parents, and of a world that will pick up what pieces are left and create a more humane life.
Consider the changes in Deanie at the end of the film. When she leaves the psychiatric hospital, we see her framed by the door of her analyst’s office. The door reveals her severely circumscribed life. When we hear her doctor tell her that she cannot have a true life until she goes to see Bud, we see her realisation that she has to understand and accept her emotions before she can move on. Although Deanie and Bud realise that they still love each other, they say their goodbyes and return to their new lives. The road opens up before Deanie indicating that she will pull together the various threads of her life and move forward. When he discussed the film’s ending, Kazan stated that it was the “most mature ending” (3) he had created.
Kazan’s film provides an excellent critique of a specific historical moment in US history and reveals the flaws that were present in its belief system. Kazan’s use of cinematic realism, long shots and close-ups creates an intimate look at the problems he saw in society. His tale of a young couple’s tragic love provides a vehicle to examine those problems and to see a possible solution to them.
Splendor in the Grass (1961 USA 124 mins)
Prod Co: Warner Bros. Prod, Dir: Elia Kazan Scr: William Inge Phot: Boris Kaufman Ed: Gene Milford Prod Des: Richard Sylbert Mus: David Amram
Cast: Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle, Audrey Christie, Barbara Loden, Zohra Lampert, Phyllis Diller, Sandy Dennis