Splendor in the Grass

Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime
★★
☆☆
Released: 
1961
Director: 
Elia Kazan
Starring: 
Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood, Pat Hingle, Audrey Christie, Barbara Loden
The Setup: 
Repressed sexuality drives two teens to the brink of madness!
Discussion: 

A reader wrote to recommend this to me, I think based on my enjoyment of A Summer Place, and in light of this movie's concentration on repressed sexuality. On another note, one of my new little helpful phrases is "DramaX10," although this one, it must be said, starts at DramaX100 and, in its second half, ramps up to DramaX1000.

We open with pictureque teens Warren Beatty [in his first film role] as Bud and Natalie Wood, fresh and gorgeous, as Deanie. They're making out in a car by a waterfall [this is Southeast Kansas, 1928], and she's refusing to go all the way. She goes home, where her mother asks her if she's been a good girl. She says that a nice lady, once married, "just lets her husband come near her in order to have children." Obviously some family needs access to Cosmo's Guide to 101 Tantalizing Sex Secrets That Will Curl Your Toes--And HIS!!! Her mom also tells her that the family finances are doing so well, if they sell their stocks now, they can afford to send Deanie to college! Oh but guess what, they aren't selling. How's that for a mindfuck? Thanks, Mom!

Meanwhile, Bud goes home to his dad, a wealthy businessman [Deanie is poor, Bud is rich] who literally will not let his son get a word in. Dad is dead set on Bud attending Yale and, "If you do me right," will bring Bud in on the family business. But Bud wants to be a ballet dancer! No, just kidding, he wants to be a rancher. Then Bud's sister Ginny comes home from art school, looking like a flapper and outwardly rebellious to her old dad. She's quite a pip.

More dates, more blueballs. Bud hears the guys at school boasting of how they went all the way, and has to take a cold shower to cleanse away impure thoughts while sealing in moisture and infusing nourishing emollients. The next time he sees Deanie, he forces her down on her knees and wants her to say she'll do anything for him, but she says it's not even funny, because "I would go down on my knees to worship you." She makes no bones about the fact that if he wants to do the wango tango, "I'll be ready." Nevertheless, they don't.

Bud tells his dad again that he doesn't want to go to Yale, he wants to be a rancher! He also tries to confide about the intense pressures his inseam is facing as he tries to resist the allures of Deanie. His dad says, no problem--just go fuck whores! You see, there's a simple solution for almost everything. Pretty much all the adults are useless and ineffectual here--after all, it IS a movie about the 20s, but made for an early 60s audience, when issues of sexual repression had some social resonance.

SPOILERS > > >
So it's New Year's Eve and the family goes to this party. Sister Ginny--who we are to understand has been driven to the brink of sanity by all that restrictive sexual repression--is dressed like a floozy and seems bent on embarassing her father. She won't listen to Dad, or Bud, and gets drunk and makes herself available to the attentions of several men. She ends up getting attacked and groped out in the parking lot, and when Bud finds her, is in the midst of a non-consentual encounter in the back seat of a car. She drives off [and out of the movie forever], while Bud gets the shit beaten out of him. By the way, Bud has broken off with Deanie, because he JUST CANNOT TAKE IT, what with the way she shake it. If you can't tell, this is where the movie makes the abrupt transition from DramaX100 to DramaX1000.

Then it would seem that Bud's athletics and schoolwork are suffering. He asks his doctor for help about that horniness thing, but the man has nothing to say. He goes with an easy girl to the waterfall, where they cavort, and the next day that the redhead in question is being quite haughty about having gone out with Bud while virginal little Deanie is all alone. Well, now Deanie starts essentially losing her mind. She's going all kooky at school, she's wailing in a manic and imcomprehensible way at her mother, she's chopping away at her hair [which looks fabulous just after, indicating a bright future as a stylist]. But she's going wacky to such a great extent you kind of start thinking "So what her problem again? Her boyfriend stopped seeing her?" Because it seems like it should take a little more to drive her over the edge, but who knows, I guess she's a fragile little flower. She agrees to go to the dance with Toots, this other guy, but as soon as she's there she dumps him to pursue Bud. He ends up fighting her off in a car, where she wails 'I'm not a good girl!" He leaves, afraid of what his hormones might drive him to, Toots comes in and attempts to take advantage of her "non-good girl" status, then she tries to drown herself by going over the waterfall--her fatal mistake. Because next she's shipped off to a mental institution in Witchita, while Bud relents and goes to college at Yale.

In here you start to ask yourself? What happened to Ginny? You rememer, Bud's sister, who was quite the focus for a while? She just abruptly vanished from the film.

So months later, Deanie is at the institution becoming friendly with this guy who likes to make believe he's bludgeoning his parents' heads [is that healthy?], while Bud is not doing well at Yale, but attracts the attention of a young filly who... looks rather like Deanie. No one can talk Bud's dad out of him staying in Yale, and by the way, it's the depression, and "people are jumping out of windows in New York." Not unlike Bud's dad, the next victim, although it doesn't seem like Bud is going to inherit much, as his father's portfolio went bottom-up. Deanie is released from the hospital, while Bud leaves Yale to finally pursue his dream to RANCH!

In here we hear gossip that Bud's family home has been sold and all the money gone, and have a throwaway like that Ginny died somewhere back in a car accident. Well, at least they didn't forget her completely. Deanie meets up with her old friends, and they take her out to see Bud. He's looking all hardy in his ranching duds, and by the way, she's engaged to marry the parent-hammerer from the institution. But he's already married and pumped out a baby, with another on the way. They agree that life moves on and things could never be the way they were, say a bittersweet goodbye, and Deanie recalls that wistful poem about how they can never return to that golden moment of splendor in the grass, and that's the end!
< < < SPOILERS END

The trailer is on the disc and tries to make it out that this is the story of all of us, of anyone who has ever been in love, and uh, I don't think so. I don't think too many of us get sent to mental institutions because we're cracking up over our teen romances. And that's kind of the issue with the movie: it's just a little too hyped-up. At first you're like "Okay, so they have blueballs--but so, too, do all their schoolmates, and all of them seem to be handling it. Bud never asks THEM how they deal with it. So this whole thing about the repressive sexual environment kind of falls flat, as it just comes off that Bud and Deanie are just WAY more sensitive than everyone else, and maybe the real problem is not with society, but with THEM. Maybe this all came off differently in the early 60s. By the time the drama has spiked in the late middle, one is fairly alienated from the movie further by thinking "So people here are actually losing their minds and mutilating their hair because... of WHAT? Boyfriend problems?" Again, we're supposed to believe that they're literally diven insane by all this, while the question of why they HAVE to have sex before marriage [when surely there are others in the same position] and can't just go beat off or whatever is never addressed. So you have the entire movie based on your taking a position it has trouble convincing one of.

And this results, by the second half, of one just shaking one's head at all the drama happening here. Everyone's flying off their heads, and poor Ginny just vanishes halfway through. All of it caused me to watch the second half at quite a distance from the story, and thus the supposedly hard-won wisdom our characters are supposed to have earned by the last scenes just seem like so much contrivance. I suppose it would have been different in the novel, and this story does show the marks of being compressed from a far more complicated narrative. Eventually I was happy for it just to end.

So there you go--if you like hyped-up teen melodrama, I suggest you go for it. Other than that, I really can't think of any reason anyone would want to watch this. Maybe it had resonance in the 60s, but it seems to me that its time has quite definitely passed.

Should you watch it: 

If you like overwrought teen melodrama.