Splendor in the Grass (1961): Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty

Splendor_Sheet_ALike William Inge’s earlier piece, Picnic, or some of Tennessee Williams’ most substantial work, Splendor in the Grass seems to hinge on the fact its content is in some way pushing the envelope as far as social issues and subsequent taboos go. It’s no surprise Elia Kazan was often drawn to such content over the course of his career on stage and screen. Hence his numerous collaborations with some of the landmark playwrights of the mid-20th century.

But again, in spite of being a Depression-era period piece, Splendor in the Grass comes off as a bit dated for how it’s trying to grapple with its contemporary moment — at least to begin with.

Our protagonists Norma Dean (Natalie Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty) are coming of age in a society with a curious way of making sense of sexual mores. They are so confusing and no one seems willing to talk about them. When they do their advice only complicates matters.

Because the two teens look into each other’s eyes lovingly in the hallways at school. The affection is palpable and they want to do it right. They believe that the other is probably the “One.” Norma Dean has a Bud triptych up in her bedroom. Her devotion verging on obsession. Bud tells his boisterous father (Pat Hingle) he’s bent on marrying the girl.

They want to have intimacy but no one seems capable of dispelling the myths for them. Mrs. Loomis is quick to make sure her daughter hasn’t gone too far with her beau. She doesn’t want her daughter to be one of those girls — easy pickings with no respectability. It’s like a death sentence in a small town like theirs.

Kazan also captures the almost incoherent whisperings of bystanders whether concerned parents, students, neighbors, or partygoers. Because it’s true every slight tilt toward something “abnormal” gets the whole community talking. There’s a stigma attached to so many things.

The perfect example is Bud’s own sister, a prototypical floozie named Ginny (Barbara Loden), who is used to a good time and cavorts with nearly any man who will take her. Her father tries to keep a rein on her and Bud begs his sister to pull herself together. You can tell he’s genuinely worried about what she is willfully doing to herself.

Whereas Norma Dean’s mother preaches chastity to her little girl, Bud’s own father encourages him to find another type of girl — a girl in fact not unlike his daughter — someone who is easy. He preaches a gospel of sowing his wild oats before settling down to a life of prosperity and a Yale education. Bud eventually takes the advice and generally finds it lacking, though he still winds up terminating his relationship with Deanie. His experiences in college aren’t much better as he’s always maintained humbler aspirations.

Already so devoted to him, Deanie is emotionally torn apart by the separation, going so far as to teeter on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Her mother encourages her to court another boy named Toots (Gary Lockhart) who comes a calling, but it literally drives Deanie to the brink where she looks to jump off and save herself any future heartache.

When she enters her home and her parents seem oblivious to her feelings, bombarding her with happiness, it somehow feels like a precursor to Benjamin Braddock’s suffocation. It’s not simply that we begin to take on Deanie’s point of view, but there’s such a relational disconnect. Parents have no idea what their kids are going through and they seem hardly capable of empathizing with them.

So they go it alone. Natalie Wood soaking in the bathtub. Her voice gets more airy and unsettled by the minute. She’s the epitome of fragility. Bud struggling away from home and looking for understanding in another girl (Zohra Lampert) or a benevolent school official who actually chooses to listen to him, unlike his father.

However, far from demonizing parents, we realize just how much pressure there is on them, so many mistakes to be made, ways you treat your kids, which unwittingly affect them in their future. It’s just the way it is. Art Stamper cares so much about the success of his kids and he’s put his entire life into setting up their good fortune. Where does it get him in the end? Likewise, Mrs. Loomis dotes incessantly over her daughter confessing she did her best as a mother, afraid Norma Dean holds past failings against her.

Then, her parents make the heady decision to send her away for therapy and things begin to reach an equilibrium. The plot feels like vague fragments rather than a fully cohesive narrative from start to finish, but it gives us hints and contours of our main characters trying to decipher their lives.

As times passes, there’s less and less of Kazan’s more dramaturgical entries and more of Wild River another Depression-era drama, which was equally blessed with understatement in its most crucial moments. I think Splendor in The Grass does well to ditch drama for a near wistful milieu feeling at home in the poetic romanticism of William Wordsworth. Regardless, it proves a healthier place to wind up.

It’s a more hopeful rendition of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The romance we thought would be something — even marred by scandal — was nothing of the sort. It just dissipated and with the passage of time two people found others and it seemed right.

When Bud and Deanie meet again, in the end, they muse how strangely things work out sometimes. Neither of them would have foreseen things this way. He’s a farmer now, with a kindly wife, and a boy with another child on the way. She’s to marry a successful doctor whom she met while she was in the care facility. It really is a satisfying denouement.

Instead of thinking about happiness, they take what comes and find contentment wherever life leads them. For people so young, they seem to have a fairly clear handle on doing precisely that.

With his debut, Warren Beatty readily became another protege of Elia Kazan gleaning anything he could, serving him well in a diverse career as an actor, producer, and director that is still going to this day. Meanwhile, Natalie Wood benefited as well in a performance that though it borders on the spastic, nevertheless seems to cull depths of emotional instability yet untouched in her career.

Now we cannot immediately label those the hallmarks of a great performance. Yet maybe the vulnerability brought on makes it so. The film is at its best in its innocence and transparency finally giving way to a newfound maturity. The old maxim manages to ring true; time heals all wounds.

3.5/5 Stars

No Down Payment (1957)

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When a film seems to materialize in front of you coming out of nowhere and subsequently moves you, it seems worthy to try and champion it to others who might also be pleasantly surprised. But first, I believe an acknowledgment of director Martin Ritt is in order because I’m not sure how much adulation he usually gets amid the myriad of prominent Hollywood workhorses out there.

Though he first started out in the theater and then television during The Red Scare years, Ritt ultimately transitioned to movies with a body of work full of variety that has all but stood the test of time on numerous accounts. Highlights include a six-film collaboration with Paul Newman including the likes of The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Paris Blues (1961), Hud (1963, and Hombre (1967). Other noteworthy successes many will know are The Spy Who Came in From The Cold (1965), Sounder (1972), and Norma Rae (1979).

He is most definitely an adherent to progressive, socially conscious filmmaking that, while never flashy in formalistic aspects, is nevertheless, chock full of depth for its commitment to humanist storytelling. It’s meant to ring true and touch on subjects that pertain to real people and the world-at-large captured through a lens of stark realism. To his credit, Ritt would never claim the title “Auteur” because he himself spent time as an actor and understood how collaborative such an art form is.

That brings us to the picture at hand, No Down Payment, which while being one of his earlier directorial efforts for film, already has his sensibilities in place. There’s nothing flashy about the picture per se but it readily digs into issues that feel uncommon and cutting edge for the very fact that we rarely see them portrayed in the 1950s. This film provides a very special opportunity and I was more than happy to oblige.

To put it succinctly, our story takes place in the residential neighborhood of Sunrise Hills. What we get is a disillusioning portrait of 1950s suburbia specifically in Los Angeles, that beacon of post-war middle-class living, observing the overlapping existence of four couples.

I enjoy how everything seems to be underlined by party chatter, Cowboys and Indians on the television, and groovy rockability — all integral parts of the ubiquitous soundtrack of the suburbs. But there’s also a veneer with two layers. The outward-facing street view with white picket fences and barbeques with the neighbors and then what’s actually going on, either when the doors are closed or when you can’t contain it anymore and rancor slowly asserts itself. Underneath we also soon realize that everybody is afraid of something.

A young couple just moving in is brought into the fold of the community. The husband (Jefferey Hunter) works as an up-and-coming electrical engineer while his pretty wife (Patricia Owens) urges him to get in a more lucrative field like sales so they can grow their social status.

If your image of Tony Randall is a nice guy or a hypochondriac, try on a philandering day drunk car salesman for size. Jerry Flagg constantly has his wife Isabelle (Sheree North) exasperated because he’s always strapped for cash and never dependable, with aspirations that keep him constantly flocking to the next big idea. Of course, he’s never able to see any of them to fruition.

Arguably, the least done up of any of the husbands is Troy (Cameron Mitchell), a war hero and Tennessee native who currently works as a car mechanic but soon hopes to be brought on as the local police chief. In fact, he’s banking on it. His wife, Leola Boone (Joanne Woodward) is intent on it as well since he’s promised they can have a child once he has greater job stability. She’s tried to bury painful memories of the baby she was once forced to give away. They too are plagued by marital bickering and late night alcohol consumption.

Last of all is Herman Kreitzer (prolific TV actor Pat Hingle) and his wife Betty (Barbara Rush). While she takes the children to church on Sunday, he stays at home and washes his car out on the street. Otherwise, there’s little discord in the house as he’s a loving husband and father who runs an appliance store and is a member of the local homeowner’s board.

Ritt’s picture, with yet another script fronted by Philip Yordan and actually written by Ben Maddow, has innumerable topics of interest. However, two that were the most intriguing to me had to do with the Kreitzers. Because it just so happens that Herman’s best employee, a man named Iko (Japanese-American though played by Aki Aleong), requested help in getting his family a home in a predominantly white neighborhood. As is, he currently has a taxing commute to work every day.

And though Herman is a good man, he’s hesitant to get involved knowing full well that housing developments have long been run by de facto laws of segregation. L.A. was like any other area where African-Americans were in places like Watts and Japanese-Americans were concentrated in Little Tokyo and even Boyle Heights for a time. That’s just the way it was. You stayed with your kind.

People wouldn’t like it one bit. Off the top of his head, he knows Troy, who fought in the Pacific, wouldn’t be too keen on a “Japanese” living in the neighborhood. So Herman ultimately brings the conversation to his church-going wife who voices similar apprehension (“Do you think you’re ready to have a Japanese as a neighbor?”). It’s this conversation over the kitchen table that causes him to reconsider. Because you see we already know he’s not a churchgoer and part of the reason we can guess has to do with the hypocrisy that is often so easy to find fault with.

That brings us back to Iko and his family. As Herman sees it, what good is a church if it doesn’t lend a helping hand to someone who needs it. How can you say you’re a “Good Christian” and not do anything to help these people? The issue is hardly resolved then and there but it’s a start. At least, in this case, we get the hint of closure in the end. Other threads aren’t nearly as sanguine.

It’s fitting that we return to an establishing shot of that perfect piece of the suburbs and all our main players are at church the following Sunday. Except for one, it means a long drive in a taxi cab to who knows where. While the others will make a go of trying to preserve their dreams, this lonely individual’s exodus is a reminder of how quickly our aspirations can crumble.

4/5 Stars