I have a real problem with this film being called the “quintessential film about young love” (Danny Peary). No offense to Peary. Everyone has their own opinions but this film is long, disjointed, and entirely too problematic for it to be called the quintessential film about young love.
The film tells the story of Bud Stamper and Wilma Dean “Deanie” Loomis. They’re high school sweethearts in pre-Depression era Kansas. He’s the football star and is being pressured to go to Yale by his father. She is the high school sweetheart who is virtuous and “unspoiled”. When she doesn’t want to have sex with him, Bud’s father, Ace tells young Bud that he needs to dump Deanie and go with someone who will satisfy his needs. The results of this disastrous advice are a case of pneumonia in Bud and a mental breakdown in Deanie which leads to her near-rape, attempted suicide, and subsequent institutionalization.
The problem I have with this film isn’t the acting. In fact, Natalie Wood is fantastic at playing a neurotic young girl who is struggling with herself. She did it effortlessly here and she does it effortlessly in subsequent films like Gypsy and Inside Daisy Clover. She deserved her Oscar nomination for this film. Not only that, Warren Beatty made a perfectly acceptable break into film here as well. However, it should be noted this isn’t his film, this is Wood’s and she kills it. She even overshadows the adult actors on many occasions when she shares the screen with them.
My biggest problem with this film–and maybe this is the sign of the times–is how Deanie was treated and the structure of the screenplay.
Let’s start with Deanie first.
Yes, this movie was a vehicle for Wood, I get that. She was in a slump and Splendor really lifted her from it but the fact is, Deanie deserved better. As a character, she was written as a simpering young woman who was driven by sexual repression, an unhealthy drive to make her equally unhealthy relationship thrive, and by the supposed “love” of an abusive man. I get that this is important because there are stories like this even today but there was so much more that writer William Inge could have done to make Deanie in charge of her own destiny. Instead, she is bound to listen to outside influences that are neither sound or good for her. And there was a scene when she broke down in school and the teacher was horrible to her. It’s no wonder Deanie lost control of her mental faculties.
Her parents were no help either. I realize in the late 20s women were supposed to have a sense of propriety about them but my goodness. Her mother contributed to Deanie’s break down just as much as her boyfriend did. She was pushy and uncaring when Deanie needed her most. Now, again, I realize that things like this happen in this day and age all the time. I get it. But, in a film called “quintessential”, I’d much rather see something that empowers young women and teaches them to not be like Deanie no matter how sexually frustrated they are or how devastated they are because their boyfriend left them.
The script, though. According to Wikipedia, director Elia Kazan edited a lot out of Inge’s script and it shows. As the title states, the film is extremely disjointed. Time jumps happen and there are no indications other than briefly hinted at dialogue that comes as quickly as it goes. Basically, if you’re watching this as background noise, it may be pretty hard for you to keep track of what’s going on. As a result of Kazan’s tampering, the film also drags. The runtime is 2 hours and 4 minutes but as a friend who watched it with me said, “I mean, it wasn’t bad, but I feel like it was four hours long” and I have to agree.
If the script was a little tighter and the character of Deanie had been written like a beautiful and fierce young lady instead of a simpering, lovesick child, I might have enjoyed this movie a lot better. As it was, Natalie Wood did extremely well playing Deanie as she was written. She deserved all the acolades. It still doesn’t mean that I’ll watch the film again.