Sunday, 16 April 2017

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Feber i blodet
The first movie of 1961 is Elia Kazan’s ”Splendor in the Grass”. The movies I watch are now “only” 56 years old, technically, so I am approaching modern times and accordingly expect more modern movies. “Splendor in the Grass” seems to fit the brief being as it is a movie concerned with youth culture, filmed in high quality Technicolor and employing the latest in Method Acting. I should be in for a treat.

There is no arguing the qualities of Splendor in the Grass. The production quality is just about as good as it gets and with all the… not so technically accomplished movies I watched from 1960, this feels like a great leap forward. The colors are super crisp, the settings are nice and detailed and the acting is wonderful. Of course it helps that we get actors like Nathalie Wood and Warren Beatty (in his first movie and yes, he is the very same man who presented the wrong Best Picture winner at the latest Oscar show, though not by any fault of his). Youth culture movies was a new phenomenon at this time and Hollywood was still feeling its way into a genre that would eventually become a staple.

In 1961 (or 1962, if you lived far away from Hollywood) this would have been the movie teenagers went to the cinema to watch and I get the impression that its influence was significant.

In fact that there is a lot to love about this movie. Then why is it that I am not completely sold by it?

The problem with “Splendor in the Grass” is that you have to accept the premise that teenage love is the end-all and be-all of everything and being prevented to get the one you love is devastating on all accounts. This is a very romantic notion that Hollywood has endorsed unrestrained for half a century or more and convinced several generations of teenagers is true. Call me terribly unromantic, but I do not buy that premise and stories that depends on this premise tends to leave me cold. Instead I tend to get a bad case of eye-rolling, which means that I would not be your favorite pick to accompany you for a classic tear-jerker.

In the case of this movie it helps that there is a second theme in the form of sexual repression. The young couple are denied not just each other, but also the sexual release. In fact it is hammered through to them that sex is a bad thing, something bad people do, so stay off it. It is far more believable that this denial of human nature would lead to aggression, rebellion and mental collapse. In 61 we were just embarking on the sexual revolution and by setting the clock back some 30 years the movie sets up an environment with enough repression to engender the drama and the crisis, not unlike what Ophüls did by displacing his stories to the 19th century. I doubt this trick was really necessary though, sexual repression exists in many environments to this day, but it may have made the story easier to digest.

Deanie (Natalie Wood) is told that sex is what bad girls do and she can see that the boys want sex so she wants to be a bad girl, but both Bud (Warren Beatty) and her parents want her to be a nice girl, so she gets confused. Bud is coached into distinguish between sex and love and it does not really help him much.

Sexual repression is a powerful agent and had the movie dared go all out on it I am sure I would have liked the movie a lot better than I did. Instead it only goes halfway in that direction and never leaves the crushing teenage love theme. Both Deanie and Bud eventually find their release, but we constantly have to struggle with the ghost of all-encompassing teenage love and it sabotages the movie for me.

That annoys me a great deal because of the potential there is in this movie. The scenes with Deanie and her parents, the best in the entire movie, are so promising. They are so entrenched in their world view that, especially the mother, is constantly misreading her daughter. She means well, but is poison to Deanie. This, far more than the relationship between Bud and Deanie, is the heart of the movie.

“Splendour in the Grass” is not what I would call my kind of movie. It does a lot of things right and has seeds for something great. In the end however it choses another kind of audience than me and for them I have no doubt that it works.



  1. Somehow I've missed this one for all these years. Doesn't sound like my cup of tea eirher it I'll keep an open mind.

    1. There is a lot to like in this movie so it may not be a disappointment at all. If you are willing to buy into the romantic premise it may even be a hit.

  2. I think one of the main problems with this movie is that it never really overtly says what it wants to. It's clearly about teenage sex, but it never really says that. It dances around the subject without really overtly saying what it wants to say. That's frustrating.

    I liked it more than you did, though. I think Natalie Wood is astonishingly good.

    1. That is certainly an issue. I have a block when it comes to romances. If they get too pink I check out and Spendour in the Grass was pressing that bottom. I know there is a lot more here and the silly romantic elements were likely just a mask for more serious issues, but at that point it was just too late for me.
      Natalie Wood was pretty amazing.