Splendor in the Grass (1961)


Splendor in the Grass (1961) is a great movie in every way, but especially owing to the beautiful and most unusual screenplay by the American playwright, William Inge. He tells the story of the destruction of youthful romantic love in Kansas in the late 1920s. High school archetypes Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty), deeply in love, lose each other in a relentlessly sad and cruel ambush of Romanticism by a pervasive Naturalism. They are sexually frustrated, constrained by what is often called “conventional morality” as largely espoused by their parents and, of course, as far more predominant in their day than today. Inevitably emotional problems arise for Deanie and Bud: Deanie, in fact, and ever hounded by her mother to be a “nice girl,” suffers a nervous breakdown and must go to a psychiatric hospital in distant Wichita for extended therapy. Bud grows listless and wanders lost to Yale and eventually flunks out: before her breakdown, he had wanted to marry Deanie, attend an agricultural college, and become a farmer in Kansas; but his father, Ace Stamper, newly rich from oil discovered on his ranch but destined to be soon a Depression suicide, bullies him into Yale and a business education so that he might become an executive in a future Stamper oil empire. Far apart in many ways, Deanie and Bud become linked with others–Bud with a waitress in New Haven and Deanie with a fellow patient, a troubled young man and physician from Cincinnati who recovers from his father’s sins and returns to his medical practice. The ending of Splendor is justifiably famous: A link to that scene is provided below.

You can see the movie from two viewpoints: Mythical and Historical. As you revisit the movie after some years, you come to see that Inge has essentially created a general myth of the inevitable demise of Romanticism, a tale holding for all times and places. The history in Splendor–Kansas in the 1920s, wildcat oil and the newly rich, the Great Depression–are materials Kansan Inge knows well and works with superbly. But the importance of Splendor lies not in its historical but in its mythical drama.

Mythically: Romanticism reveres Early Life: As Vladimir Nabokov says in his memoir, Speak Memory:

“I may be inordinately fond of my earliest impressions, but then I have reason to be grateful to them. They led the way to a veritable Eden of visual and tactile sensations…. Nothing is sweeter or stranger to ponder than those first thrills.”

It is the classic confession of a Romantic.

Splendor in the Grass–its title is taken from a line in the peerless Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s masterpiece about Loss, Ode to Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (including that nostalgic truism of aging, the backlooking human perspective on youth that “nothing can bring back the splendor in the grass”)–is about a version of the Human Condition in which growing up and old is to suffer loss. Deanie and Bud cannot overcome all the many forces in their lives–most of them incurring false wisdom from their parents–which conspire to break them apart. Here a stern old wisdom applies: The sins of the fathers (and the mothers) are visited upon their sons and daughters. However, in a fundamental precept of Naturalism–that finally outside and often inscrutable forces, not sinful humans, determine individual human destiny–even the destructive parents are finally blameless: Inge makes certain we understand that in the world of Splendor parents (and physicians and educators–the unhelpful adult hierarchy) are largely repeating the destructive advice they themselves received from their parents who in turn were corrupted by their parents and so on back into the mists. Inge and Director Elia Kazan dramatize this rule of Naturalism in an especially touching scene near the end of Splendor when Deanie forgives her mother as ultimately blameless (an insight Deanie fostered in counsel from her psychiatrist).

Inge himself, in a cameo role as the Reverend Whitman, frames classic ideas that apply, first, to the pitfalls in a Naturalistic world and, second, to the special wisdom to hold most closely in Romanticism. Hence “Whitman” is here no accident: Inge shows a Whitmanesque belief that sympathetic souls should Depart and Search in the Land, e.g., the lead characters in Inge’s wonderful play cum movie, Picnic. Here is what Rev. Whitman, recalling “Christ’s warning to the multitude,” tells a congregation in a Sunday sermon during which Bud’s father, newly rich oilman Ace Stamper, has dozed off in his prominent pew:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19)

And he tells Deanie when he comes across her in a pew in his church praying for Bud and she asks him for words to speak from the Bible, “Your own words are best. They are your prayer.”

Avoid materialism and believe in your individuality. Naturalism will defeat all in the end, but wisdom is still meaningful for Romantics.

The movie is everywhere masterful: Inge’s compelling script with workovers by Director Elia Kazan; David Amram’s uncanny musical score; the unforgettable archetypal images of High School life in those days such as the English teacher made up to resemble the signature portrait of Emily Dickinson; the early oil frenzy in Kansas, Oklahoma and elsewhere in the region; the use of physical metaphors such as the few moments when Deanie, about to leave the hospital, is framed in farewell in the doorway of the office of her psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, clearly symbolizing the strict constraints under which she must now live (she can’t expect to bring back the splendor in the grass); the haunting old woman lost in every sense who sits in a rocker on the porch of the hospital as Deanie leaves the place; the dawning as the movie ends that Dr. Judd himself fails to understand the depth of Deanie’s continuing feelings for Bud (and falls into place in the Adult hierarchy); the deep revelation when Deanie changes to a white dress for her final meeting with Bud; and especially, and in a cast which has not a weak performance and several great ones, the superb performance of Audrie Christie as Deanie’s mother, Mrs Loomis. I’m sure you will be glad to have seen such an inspired performance among such fine actors as Wood, Beatty, Pat Hingle (Bud’s father) and Fred Stewart (Deanie’s father).

Surely many of us do not credit the classic Romantic idea that life beyond childhood and youth is a decline. But should you want to see a seemingly almost perfect piece of Romantic art, one that will touch you no matter your mindful distance from it, Splendor in the Grass is compelling. And after all, how often in Hollywood could a genuine artist like Inge get away with telling a sobering story like this!

Herewith the final scene followed by David Amram’s musical score for the movie. Deanie, home from the hospital, is driven out to Bud’s farm by two girlfriends. She has not seen Bud for nearly two years. Bud and his wife, whom he met while at Yale, are trying to make a go of farming.