Teenage love has been an easy thing to portray in fiction whether it be on the stage, screen or written page. This is mainly because of the extremes teenagers are likely to experience. You could never imagine a thirty year old couple committing suicide for each other unless they were mentally deranged in some way. But Romeo and Juliet’s romance is believable because they aren’t supposed to be more than sixteen. They fall in love fast, they quarrel passionately and they die for each other because they can’t deal with momentary pain of letting someone go. But these extreme emotions can also lead to high camp, something I can easily call Rebel Without a Cause. It is hard to balance the extreme emotions most teenagers have without following dangerously into long monologues about how cruel the world is. Splendor in the Grass attacks these problems head on, but does it give us more than a series of intense emotions?
Bud and Wilma Dean are high school sweethearts. They walk around school arm in arm, make out in the back of Bud’s car, and pledge their undying love for each other. But Bud and Wilma are from different social classes (does this sound familiar?). Bud is the son of oil rich magnate and Wilma is the daughter of two hard-working but slightly poor middle class people. Bud also has an older sister who has gone wild. She is a flapper in the most extreme way possible, always willing to give it up for a man and dance all herky jerky. Bud is in love with Wilma but he can’t control his longing in his loins. This loins problem conflicts with his respect for her and it is implied that if he gives it to her, she will turn out just like his sister. (Unlikely, but okay let’s go with that) Bud’s father tells him to give up Wilma and to go off to Yale in order to get his loins satisfied. Then once he has graduated, he can marry her and ride off into the sunset. Bud follows his dad’s advice (why I am not quite sure) and breaks it off with Wilma to go after a flapper in the class who is willing to get naked and stand under a waterfall with him. (of his semen! Boom!) Wilma is devastated. Her sanity is weakened and finally she decides to commit suicide off the very same waterfall Bud and the flapper did the sexy mambo near. Her parents pull out their money from the stock exchange in order to commit her to a very nice mental institution. Thank goodness this is just in time, because the stock exchange is on the verge of collapse. This will in fact ruin Bud’s father’s fortunes, a punishment for him coming in between Bud and Wilma. Wilma chillaxs in a mental institution for some time as Bud drops out of Yale, marries an immigrant that looks a lot like Wilma and gets a ranch. Once Wilma gets out of the institution, she insists on seeing Bud one more time. They have a quiet reunion, but just as most high school sweethearts inevitably find out, they have moved on without ever realizing it.
By the time this film was made, Natalie Wood was known for playing a hormonal teenager. Her breakout role as an “adult” was in Rebel Without a Cause and the same year this film came out, a little film called West Side Story was getting all of the musical buzz. She was used to acting extreme and it shows. Her outbursts echo her work in Rebel quite clearly. But the man playing Bud, Warren Beatty, had only a few credits to his name and most of those were in television. Although the role was written in the same vein as Jim Stark from Rebel, Beatty chose to understate his emotions. He was able to bring you in with his brewing moodiness, instead of angrily pushing you away like James Dean did. This dynamic between the two leads led to an interesting progression as the film went on. Natalie Wood was able to tamper her extreme emotions as she matured at the institution, while Warren Beatty played the same character all the way through. It may seem like I am dogging on this, but it was actually pretty effective.
But effective does not describe literally anyone else in the film. Kazan deals in stereotypes in most of his films. But he is able to underscore those stereotypes by enlisting great actors for the roles. But sometimes those stereotypes are so pervasive that no matter how hard the actor tries, they come out looking like a caricature. The prime example of this is Bud’s sister. She is a flapper. A flapper in the worst way possible. Literally everything she does is seen as negative. There is not one redeeming quality about her. She is just there to serve as a warning for Bud. This results in the movie deflating every time she is on screen. The action slows to a crawl so that this woman can act crazy for no reason. Kazan must have realized that she was sucking the air out of the room, because she completely disappears for the second half of the movie. To a lesser degree the parents feel much the same way. Bud’s father is the stereotypical overbearing patriarch. Wilma’s mother is the stereotypical shrieking harpie who wants nothing more than to get rich and save face. And Wilma’s father is the stoic quiet one who always has his daughter’s well being in mind. They were all so poorly written, that no actor comes out well in any of these roles. But then again you are not watching the movie to see them, but rather how they react to Bud and Wilma. It is their film, after all.