Classic Film Talk: ‘Picnic’ (1955)

William Holden Centennial

Today we reminisce about

Picnic (1955)

Directed by Joshua Logan

Starring: William Holden, Kim Novak, Betty Field, Susan Strasberg, Cliff Robertson & Rosalind Russell

Synopsis

Kansas When It Sizzles

Hal Carter (Holden) arrives in a small, rural Kansas town by hitching a ride on a train. He is dirty and hungry as he approaches a house with an unkempt yard, knocking on the door to propose his services. A kind older lady by the name of Mrs. Potts answers the door and insists upon feeling him before he starts working, after which he meets the Owens family next door. Mrs. Owens is a single mother raising her two daughters, Madge (Novak) and Millie (Strasberg), and also rents a room to a spinster schoolteacher, Rosemary Sydney (Russell). There is an instant attraction between Hal and Madge. Unbeknownst to her, Hal used to be good friends with her boyfriend Alan Benson (Robertson) and he hopes that he can stay in town by asking Alan’s father for a job. The Benson family is very wealthy, making big money in the wheat grain business, and Alan’s father does not approve of his son’s relationship with working-class Madge. Ironically enough, it is Madge that is hesitant to think about marriage with Alan despite having the certainty of living a comfortable, luxurious life.

Since it is Labor Day weekend, the town has been preparing its annual picnic which includes games and other festivities. Alan invites Hal to come swimming with him, Madge, and some other friends, eventually convincing Hal to be Millie’s date to the picnic. Though Millie and Hal have a good time, Madge eventually grabs hold of his attention and they dance very sensually together. Their very public display upsets a lot of people and Hal is ultimately chased away from the picnic after a confrontation with Alan. Madge must decide whether she will continue seeing Alan or take a chance with Hal.

 

Observations

In 1953, Picnic debuted on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre and received unanimous critical acclaim almost instantly. When Columbia purchased the rights to adapt it into a film, they decided to keep on Joshua Logan, the play’s director, to direct the film version as well. This move was somewhat bold and unprecedented though perhaps not as much as their next one –– casting William Holden in the lead role. Holden was 37-years-old when filming took place; his age being a far cry from the mid-twentysomething of his character, Hal. This discrepancy was noticed and remarked upon by everyone under the sun but luckily for Columbia, it did not do an enormous amount of harm for the film fared well and received numerous awards and nominations. Several years after the film adaptation, Picnic was turned into a musical with it being revived time and time again.

One of the principal reasons this play has fared so well is that it is based in small town American and is, by and large, a simple story with which many people can relate from the experiences with their own families and communities. Picnic touches upon the pressures of social standards, family expectations, and social identity in everyday life. Most, if not all of us have been influenced by ideas that other people have of and for us. It is not always easy to fight against these ideals and when we do, it can leave us feeling somewhat alienated. In the film, Hal is a self-described bum who feels – and is made to think – that he is undeserving of good things because he has failed so many times. He lists his many jobs: pumping gas before going into the Army, trying his hand at acting, working as a rancher in Nevada. Before that, he flunked out of university. Madge does not care about his credentials and sees a unique human being, someone unlike Alan who has been raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. The large majority of people in this world have to work hard to make ends meet and those brave enough to fight against society’s decided fate for them can come out to be stronger people in the end. Whether or not this is the case for Hal and Madge is unclear but their courage can inspire others.

Madge, Millie, Hal & Alan getting dressed after going swimming.

The film itself was a melange of good and bad elements. Different from the stage play which takes place in the same physical spot, the cinematic version takes place in several different locations. Since the movie was filmed almost entirely on-location, this is a positive characteristic of the film because it gives a special, genuine feel. I was personally surprised to see Kansas so green and with many trees rather than a tornado-ridden barren landscape. (Actually, one of the towns where they filmed had recently been semi-levelled by a tornado but it is not easily spotted on-screen.) The toughest thing for me to deal with in Picnic is the soap opera-like dramatisation that makes some moments of the film unintentionally funny and even campy. For example, after Hal and Madge dance together, there is an unexpected climactic moment that jumps out of nowhere with bold music to accompany it. Some overacting also comes into play during these moments which are rather unforgivable on the whole. If these issues had not been present, I would have had a more positive view of the entire effort. Alas, Picnic manages to remain a surprising little play that was translated to the big screen in a mediocre fashion. The editing job is disastrous in some scenes, which makes me wonder why such obvious choppiness was not noted. Clearly, the film has not aged so well and the story is a little old-fashioned but with a little personal desire and self-reflection, this film is still worth your time.

 

Golden Holden

Holden’s casting in Picnic came only one year after his smash hit Sabrina and was a departure from his usual roles. He felt that the project was very prestigious and it is clear that he tried his best in the film. Unfortunately, he pushed himself a little too hard in most scenes, giving the appearance of being overenthusiastic. Considering that he was already older than the other cast members, he stood looking rather foolish. A good part of the film has Holden shirtless, showing off a chiselled frame and unnatural hairless chest. Considering all the drinking that Holden did, I was amazed to see his lean frame. In fact, Holden drank steadily through production and was drunk when filming the dance sequence between him and Kim Novak. This was apparently encouraged by director Joshua Logan who wanted Holden’s inebriated state to calm his nerves. If anything, Holden would have been a hell of a fun drunk to be around!

Pleasantly surprising me was Kim Novak, who I found to be very mature and fitting in role of a beautiful young woman whose intellectual potential is underestimated. Although this was one of her first roles (she was 22 playing a 19-year-old), she was much more relaxed on-screen than in her most well-known film Vertigo, which I attribute to Novak feeling the pressure of the role’s importance. The red hair did not suit her very well, which was an out-of-place ode to Columbia wanting her to take Rita Hayworth’s place. The supporting cast is well-rounded and they too give a mixed bag of performances, at times being fine and other times overdoing it. Robertson was underused in my opinion and looked strikingly boyish for a man of 32. Roz Russell was a nice addition and was her usual free spirited self but I felt that she added more for star power than anything else.

There is much more to the story than I can explain in this relatively short review. It is not a complex story but with so many characters, there are various subplots that are better explored by watching the film in its entirety.

 

Trivia

The film was spelled as “Picknick” on some publicity posters.

  • William Holden’s last film for Columbia.
  • Paul Newman was considered for the role of Hal after successfully playing Alan in the Broadway production but was too much of an unknown, so Holden got it.
  • William Holden and Cliff Robertson became very good friends after doing the film together.
  • Verna Felton, who played Mrs. Potts, voiced several characters in Disney animated films including: The Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, Flora in Sleeping Beauty, and the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland.
  • Parts of this movie were filmed in Salina, Kansas. Interestingly enough, Kim Novak’s character Judy Barton in the film Vertigo hailed from Salina, Kansas, and mentions this in her discussion with Scottie.
  • Kim Novak was not appreciated by director Joshua Logan who fought her casting and continued to give her a hard time during production. She was nervous around such an accomplished ensemble cast and ended up being terrified of Logan.

When you are William Holden, you don’t need a shirt!

 

Behind-the-Scenes

On-set with Kim Novak & William Holden

Director Joshua Logan talking with William Holden