For Valentine's Day, the NAU Arts and Letters film series presents a memorable study of young love clashing with social mores, a Romeo and Juliet for our time: "Splendor in the Grass." Director Elia Kazan and writer William Inge's Academy award winning tale of desire and madness in 1920s Kansas is notable for, among other things, the electric paring of two of Hollywood's most talented young actors of the day: Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. The passionate chemistry between them is one of the many things that make the film memorable more than half a century after its initial release.
While both young, the actors were at very different stages of their careers during the making of "Splendor." Beatty, making his film debut at the age of 23, had already garnered a Tony nomination on Broadway in Inge's play "A Loss of Roses." "Splendor" would make him a star. Wood, although Beatty's junior by a year, already had a substantial film career, having achieved Hollywood stardom at age 9 in the Christmas fable "Miracle on 34th Street." Appearances in "Rebel Without a Cause," "The Searchers" (screening at Cline Feb. 21) and "Marjorie Morningstar" established her as one of the most sought-after ingénues of the 1950s. A number of flops toward the end of the decade had put a dent in her bankability by the time of "Splendor." Beatty and Wood were both hungry: Beatty to make a name for himself, Wood to reinvent herself and put her career back on track. Their hunger drew sparks as Beatty and Wood became a couple both onscreen and off for the duration of the shoot.
Since "Splendor" was first released, a lot has changed in film, particularly where it comes to sex. Contemporary releases such as "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "A Dangerous Method," and "Horrible Bosses" have raised the bar on what can be shown and discussed in a mainstream film. Compared to the frankness of 21st century cinema, it might be initially hard to appreciate the stir that "Splendor" caused when it was first released in 1961. The heat in this film is generated more by what doesn't happen than what does.
With that said, for its time "Splendor" was strong stuff, exposing topics rarely covered in American cinema previously: promiscuity, abortion and prostitution among them. Inge, much like his contemporary Tennessee Williams, excelled in works like "Picnic," "Bus Stop" and "Goodbye, Little Sheba" at pulling away the veil of Middle American life to reveal the passion and hypocrisy hidden beneath.
Kazan, director of such classics as "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On the Waterfront," was fresh from his own effort to challenge film taboos with the racy "Baby Doll." Kazan worked closely with Inge to craft the biting, lyrical and Oscar-winning script. It would be the last original work of Inge's to find success; tragically, he took his own life in 1973.
Also featuring standout performances from Pat Hingle and Barbara Loden, "Splendor in the Grass" is a moving and passionate film that makes a perfectly romantic night out at the movies in Flagstaff. See it with someone you love.
NAU Film Series
Warner Brothers Franchises
"Splendor in the Grass" (1961)
Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty
Running Time: 124 minutes
When: Tuesday at 7 p.m. (Free and open to the public)
Where: NAU's Cline Library
More info: nau.edu/filmseries
By Jon Leon Torn
School of Communication