Splendor in the Grass (1961)

By complete coincidence, I am at this very moment involved in Theatre Erindale’s production of Picnic, a Pulitzer Prize–winning play by William Inge, who also wrote the screenplay for the film Splendor in the Grass. So, naturally, I spent most of Splendor in the Grass comparing it to Picnic and came up with quite a few similarities as well as some pointed differences. Inge clearly has certain subject matter he likes to address: good versus bad girls, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and blatant sex.

I’m not here to write a comparative essay, but I will say this: part of what first captivated me about Picnic was the perfect, yet also challenging, writing. If there’s one thing Inge knows how to do, it’s write a story so delicate and subtle you hardly know it’s happened before it’s over. What helps even more is the truth and detail in the relationships; right from the start, there’s conflict because of a seemingly perfect relationship between a “nice” girl from a middle-class family and an upper-class boy who is his father’s pride and joy and finds himself stuck on an Ivy-League-life path he doesn’t want. Add unbridled lust into the mix, and there’s your story.

At some point or other, I’d seen so many movies constructed around the same basic plotlines that I could predict plot twists an hour and a half in advance. Splendor in the Grass, though, did not have such predictability.

Set in the late 1920s and released in 1961, Splendor in the Grass paints a picturesque small-town Kansas where everything on the surface is bubbly and cheery, but beneath it run the tensions that are true everywhere: generational conflict, the high school temptress, and more sex than anyone wants to admit exists.

Without giving away the whole plot, protagonists Deanie and Bud have the perfect relationship, set against booming 1920s prosperity that is kind even to Deanie’s grocer parents. Bud, for his part, just wants to work the ranch his father owns but doesn’t touch, while avoiding his promiscuous sister. The two star-crossed lovers are pushed away from each other by their very desire, before meeting again under circumstances neither imagined.

The aesthetic and cinematography are stunning, swinging between haunting landscapes and candy-coloured dresses and cardigans, bustling high school hallways, and crazy New Year’s parties.

Natalie Wood plays a delightful and complex Deanie, caught between wanting to be “good” for her loving parents and fighting for sexual independence. Warren Beatty, who plays Bud, gets bonus marks for good looks, but his performance is not as deeply layered as Deanie’s. Both their parents are also very intriguing characters, something I found commendable, since it’s easy to shove secondary characters off to the side. But everyone in Splendor in the Grass is a person, full of life and desires and personal problems.