I think that “Picnic” is the better of the two movies starring William Holden that were nominated for “best picture of 1955. (“Marty” beat both). Indeed, pictorially, it is quite good, with cinematography by the legendary James Wong Howe (who won an Oscar that year for “Rose Tattoo” and a later one for “Hud”).
It is faint praise indeed to say that “Picnic” is better than the rancid, racist, and absurd “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” however. And before getting off the subject of the vagaries of taste from the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I have to say that the f____ed up (yet again) in not nominating “East of Eden” although I do approve of Arthur O’Connell’s being nominated for his performance in “Picnic.”
The movie is an adaptation of one of William Inge’s overwrought melodramas about mid-American small-town repression of the 1950s. (Other films based on Inge include “Bus Stop,” “Come Back Little Sheba,” “Splendor in the Grass,” and “All Fall Down.”). Indeed, “Picnic” is the play for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize (1953). (Speaking of dubious awards…)
The plot centers on a high-plains drifter hopping off a freight train in the Kansas town where his college roommate lives. The drifter hopes to make a new start with the aid of his old chum, but that rather prissy “friend” turns on him for stealing the beauty queen he wants to bed and is ready to marry. There are two major side-plots. In one the beauty queen’s younger sister is growing out of being a smart tomboy into the culturally prescribed hormone-addled subservience to males. In the other, a school marm realizes she is aging and makes a play first for the drifter and then begs the storekeeper she has been dating and to whom she has been condescending to marry her. The teacher and what seem to be a coded lesbian couple are roomers of the beauty queen’s mother.
The drifter is played by William Holden, who was too old for the part in absolute terms and could not possibly have been Cliff Robertson’s roommate in the two years before he flunked out of college. Holden was born seven years before Robertson, fifteen before Novak, and the age gap looks even greater. (Paul Newman played the part on Broadway.)
It seems that Holden spent much of the 1950s shirtless, though his appeal is mysterious to me. Over the course of a long career, Holden had some great roles (Golden Boy, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Wild Bunch, Network), but I find him mostly unconvincing as Hal Carter in “Picnic,” especially as an accomplished dancer.
The movie’s sex appeal is provided by Kim Novak. I gather she was derided by critics at the time. It is tempting to conclude they were idiots, but I see her in “Picnic” after many viewings of “Vertigo,” a film made three years later than “Picnic.” Her Madge has much of the same discomfort with being a sex object, accompanied by the passivity to be molded by an older man who finds her irresistible.* Novak’s range may have been narrow, but what she could do (look uncomfortable, convey dissatisfaction accompanied by an inability to image what she wanted instead, and draw male pole magnets) she did very well.
What is most memorable about “Picnic” (and it is remembered by the generation before mine) is Novak dancing down the steps to the tune of “Moonglow” and ripping Holden away from her kid sister (Susan Strasberg in the Julie Harris trademarked role). Risqué in the 1950s, it is still smoldering now. It can’t be entirely camerawork. At least some of it has to be Ms. Novak! Especially since Holden couldn’t dance and was not very interested in women.
Rosalind Russell chews up the scenery – in addition to ripping Holden’s shirt nearly off as she attempts to rape him on the dance floor. I find her desperation poignant even though she overplays both her earlier domineeringness and her later abjectness.
As he pedestrian beau, alarmed at her behavior on the dance floor and when he takes her home, Arthur O’Connell is splendid (as he would be as the alcoholic lawyer in “Anatomy of a Murder” a few years later).
Susan Strasberg also is abjected once she tries to compete in getting male attention. I think that she does well with what she is given, but it is very hard to believe that she could be Kim Novak’s sister, and almost as hard to believe that her protective mother (played well by Betty Field) would let her go off alone with a date old enough to be her father (Holden) , knowing she has never been on a date before and that her date is far from being respectable.
Cliff Robertson also does well in the unsympathetic role of the local rich boy slumming with Novak and Holden. And Nick Adams is mildly amusing as “Bomber,” the salacious paperboy.
There have been viewers who admire – even dote upon – the performances here of Holden, Novak, Russell, and Strasberg, and others who dismiss or loathe one or more of them.
Director Joshua Logan went on to misdirect big-budget musicals (South Pacific, Fanny, Paint Your Wagon), so credit for the electrifying “Moonglow” section can’t be his. The general lack of subtlety can be split between him and Inge.
In addition to recording some valiant performances, there is a lot of footage in “Picnic” that can be considered documentary: documenting the peculiar contests and embarrassing performances of small-town American picnics of the 1950s. I remember some of them from small-town Minnesota picnics of the early 1960s. While they will seem exotic to many, others may feel nostalgia for a cinematic record of such goings-on.
The movie is also a document of 1950s hysterias (male and female hysterias) about class and sex and the highly fraught intersection of class and sex. The courting may seem quaint to some, but, in much of the world today, even the circumscribed associations these characters are permitted are scandalous. (And those they seize are even more so.) Looks are certainly as commodified in 2014 as they were in 1955 [consider the nasty comments about the plastic surgery visible at this year’s Oscars], and yearnings have not become extinct in the nearly half century since Inge wrote the play.
The DVD has production notes, theatrical trailers, vintage advertising, and a photo montage… and an excellent transfer of Howe’s images, including the finale, which is supposedly the first film from a helicopter in a Hollywood movie.
* Staring in “Pushover” with Fred MacMurray, who was 25 years her senior, continuing through two movies with James Stewart, who was 25 years her senior, into “The Middle of the Night” with Fredric March who was 36 years her senior, and continuing even into the late 1960s with Peter Finch (who was “only” 16 years her senior).