Classic Movie Review: Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Splendor in the Grass is a film about two high school students in love. They have over whelming, lustful urges and overbearing parents all set at the precipice of the Great Depression. It stars Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood, and Pat Hingle and is directed by Elia Kazan.

I came at this film with the ideals of today. I felt my worst assumptions proved right about the gender politics of the time in that opening scene. As the sexually frustrated jock, Beatty as Bud, tries to pressure the cutest girl in school, Wood as Deanie, into sex I thought of switching it off. It's such a tired trope and I nearly wrote off the movie there. As I began rolling my eyes at the next few scenes, though, I stopped myself. This movie was made in 1961. It has none of the history of the glut of teen romances of the '70s, '80s, '90s, and '00s. It is a prototype for them, a road map. So, I decided it's to relate and reflect rather than repulse.

These are very real feelings I had when I was a teen. The lack of control over life is such a real emotion. That pressure about sex and the frustrations that come with overwhelming hormones. Deanie has the unfair, prudish social morays about sex forced upon her so strongly that while she doesn't want to have sex anyway, it's too much for her when others make it seem as if she's wavering in any of her convictions. Then there's Bud who's given the classic double standard speech by his father. He tells him that there are two kinds of girls, ones you marry and ones you have casual sex with and Deanie is not the casual type. I wanted to educate both of them about self-love. It could have taken some of that pressure off.

Yet, in between the teen drama and the fact that Will Smith's words have always and will always be true (Parents just don't understand), the film takes a turn. It's definitely a shift I'm so grateful for because it really turned me around. I was losing interest in the story, but the last forty minutes of the film we finally see Deanie and Bud throw off the yoke of their parents. They've hit the extremes of their personalities and are coming out the other side. Each of them has a scene with an authority figure in their life that doesn't keep them down, but lifts them up. These figures listen to Bud and Deanie, really try to understand them and I didn't expect that of a film of this time. I suppose I should have knowing who directed it.

Elia Kazan understands the restless spirit. His films are filled with characters whose youth, idealism, and ambition are screaming to be let out. He shoots his films with an eye on the faces and the expressions that capture the internal struggles. He can shoot a character as they think in some of the most beautiful ways. I especially love as Deanie leaves her doctor's office. The shot lingers after the dialogue and she's able to think, smile, giggle and nod. It's charming and it shows so much more of the character than a line of dialogue. She's a more confident person and it shows in that shot.

I don't have a lot to say about this movie as the plot is really simple and its shots and cinematography are uncomplicated, but I love that last forty minutes. As much as I want to write at length about it, I want viewers to discover it for themselves. It is a transformation to behold. You should see this film if you have seen all the pale facsimiles that have come after it. That will give an idea of where those films could have rectified themselves.

I will leave you with a final thought. It gave me great delight to learn one of the male characters is nicknamed "Toots" and every time another character mentioned it I giggled. Bring back Toots for men!

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