Good, old-fashioned, classic movie storytelling doesn’t get much better than the first 80-minutes of Picnic. Comprehensive yet concise; economical but at the same time expansive; Picnic seamlessly blends sensitive drama, delicate humor, and dreamy romanticism – all the while sustaining an entertainingly effortless narrative flow.
Picnic’s depiction of life in a small Kansas town in the midst of prepping for Labor Day festivities– its people, their routines and rituals, both mundane and apart– is evocatively rendered in that uniquely idealized true/false reality Hollywood does so well. Full of finely-observed details of character and setting redolent of William Inge’s childhood spent in Independence, Indiana (where, like the character of Flo Owens, his mother ran a boarding house populated with spinster schoolteachers), Picnic is set in the then-contemporary 1950s, but has thenceforth become cloaked in a rosy nostalgia that looks back on a time when drifters hopped boxcars, marriage was the end all and be all for any single woman, and people wore ties, sportscoats, and full-skirted dresses to picnics.
|William Holden as Hal Carter|
|Kim Novak as Madge Owens|
|Rosalind Russell as Rosemary Sydney|
|Betty Field as Flo Owens|
|Susan Strasberg as Millie Owens|
|Cliff Robertson as Alan Benson|
The last day of summer serves as both the time-frame and primary metaphor of Picnic; William Inge’s wistfully contemplative look at the sometimes painful inevitability of growing up. Following the death of his alcoholic father, handsome but feckless Hal Carter (Holden) drifts into town in search of a job from college pal, Alan Benson (Robertson), whose father is a grain industrialist. The unnamed Kansas town (actually four Kansas towns in real life, Salina appearing on a sign early in the film) has a male-to-female-ratio appreciably lacking in testosterone, and thus is a virtual hotbed of sexual frustration and withered hopes.
Town beauty Madge Owens (Novak) is the vessel of everyone’s projected dreams in spite of the fact that, while not very bright, she’s smart enough to know (in 1955 yet) that being the object of the appreciative gaze is not the same as being appreciated.
Into this ripe-for-disruption environment comes Hal, whose rambunctious, superannuated frat-boy act – invariably played out sans shirt–understandably draws the attention of the local women folk. There’s favorable: the grandmotherly Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton); puppy-love: tomboy-in-transition, Millie Owens (Strasberg); distrustful: Flo Owens (Field), a mother alone raising two girls; conflicted: repressed schoolmarm Miss Sydney (Russell); and of course, love at first sight: Madge. Hal’s appearance in town has a different effect on each character, and as they all converge at the picnic, Labor Day becomes something of a day of reckoning, bringing out the best or worst in each individual. Truths are confronted, illusions shattered, facades dropped, and everyone is forced to grow up just a little bit.
|Verna Felton as Helen Potts|
TV fans will recognize Felton from her guest stint as the maid from hell on I Love Lucy, or as the voice of Wilma's mother on The Flintstones
That I expressly favor the first 80-minutes of this nearly two-hour film (those comprising the introduction of the main characters, establishment of the central plot, and the picnic scene in its entirety) speaks to director Joshua Logan’s breezy and sure-footed handling of these character-driven, slice-of-life early sequences. Winner of the 1953Tony Award for his direction of the original Broadway production, Logan shines brightest when Picnic is capturing vivid tableaux of small-town culture or compassionately conveying the defeated spirit born of withered dreams and repressed hope.
|As fellow schoolteachers, character actresses Reta Shaw (Irma Kronkie) and Elizabeth Wilson (Christine Shoenwalder) recreate roles they originated on Broadway|
Discounting this sluggish detour, Picnic gets back on track with the final scene, where story threads are tied up and Rosalind Russell’s performance single-handedly alters my opinion of which is the film’s most satisfying love story.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Even as a kid I was hard-pressed to imagine a time when a film as tame as Picnic could ever be considered racy. But of course, at that age I had no idea that Madge and Hal’s impassioned embraces alongside that barreling freight train was Censorship Code shorthand for sex, and, to be honest, only after it was brought to my attention in a college film class did it ever cross my mind that it was Inge’s intention to intimate (a little too subtly, if you ask me) that Rosemary and Howard had also had sexual relations that night. Who knew? Anyway, from its male bodice ripper ad campaign to its convention-flouting themes of sexual frustration and libidinous urges, Picnic was pretty hot stuff in its day.
Splendor in the Grass, Come Back, Little Sheba) brings to his characters.
Splendor in the Grass, Come Back, Little Sheba) brings to his characters.
|Failure to Live up to Expectations|
Alan's resentment of Hal is rooted in feeling he is a disappointment to his father
|Inability to Accept Reality|
Flo copes with past failures by projecting all of her hopes for happiness on daughter, Madge
|Lack of Identity|
Madge longs to find something to value about herself beyond her beauty
Picnic is a uniformly well-acted motion picture that, like a great many 50s films adapted from stage plays of the day (the works of Tennessee Williams come to mind), retains a certain staginess in dialog and acting style that locks it forever in particular time. That the overall appealing performances in Picnic seem also to be a tad old-fashioned plays favorably into the whole glimpse into the past, days-gone-by feel of the movie as a whole.
Perhaps because the central romance feels as if it's based solely on physical attraction (for all his talking, Hal never asks Madge anything about herself), my strongest memories of Picnic have to do with Rosalind Russell’s superb performance as Rosemary, the old-maid schoolteacher. In a career of many high points, I think this is one of her best performances and she practically walks off with the entire film. Here, the actress's trademark sardonic wit and vitality is channeled into a character whose thin veneer of nonchalance and dimming vestiges of pride show the wear of too many lonely Labor Days bleeding into solitary school semesters. Russell gives the role everything she's got, and she is, in every scene, a force of nature daring you to look at anyone else. She’s funny, moving, sad, and even pitiful; but you wind up rooting for her and she’s a marvelously sympathetic, dimensional character.
Susan Strasberg, while the right age for Millie, is far to angularly beautiful to be believable as either a tomboy or anybody's definition of "goonface." She seems out of her element in the earlier scenes, but seems to relax into both herself and the role as the film progresses. Cliff Robertson, on the other hand, is a perfect fit. I'm not much of a fan, but I like him a great deal in this movie.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
When I was a child, every single household had an LP of the Picnic soundtrack, or, if not the score itself, most certainly one of the myriad easy-listening versions of “Moonglow/ Theme from Picnic” available on instrumental collections from the likes of Living Strings or Ferrante & Teicher. I cannot honestly recall when I first heard this popular medley (which I considered “old people’s music” at the time), but it’s as much a part of my childhood as the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club, and to this day I can’t hear Moonglow (a 1933 song, I was later surprised to discover) without seeing William Holden and Kim Novak dancing so photogenically under those paper lanterns.
|In this great shot representative of the consistency in performances throughout Picnic, each character reacts differently to the sight of Madge as she's crowned "Queen of Neewollah"|
Perhaps calling their movements “dancing” is casting a rather wide net (neither star held any illusions about their dancing skills, Holden being so reluctant as to request extra pay and getting himself fairly drunk before filming), but after all these years I still get quite a kick out of that iconic sequence. Both actors radiate old-fashioned movie star luster, Novak’s steady, unbroken gaze is sexy as hell, and that elusive thing called chemistry is present in almost corporeal abundance.
Composer George Duning’s Oscar-nominated score – which, upon occasion, veers perilously close to Carol Burnett-spoof territory when significant dramatic events are histrionically emphasized by blasts of horns serving as the musical equivalent of exclamation points –is absolute perfection here. The smooth jazz arrangement of the pop standard, Moonglow, lushly underscored by the orchestral Picnic theme, creating a sense that our lovers-to-be are dancing to two songs: the tune played at the picnic, and the melody which they alone can hear.
THE STUFF OF DREAMSFor the curious, here's a YouTube link to a 1986 made-for-cable-TV production of Picnic for Broadway on Showtime starring Gregory Harrison (he produced, which should answer any "WTF?!?" questions), Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Rue McClanahan. Although set in the 50s, it has 80s written all over it.
William Inge’s Picnic won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1953, but if your only familiarity with it is the film version – rather brilliantly adapted and opened-up for the screen by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) – seeing it on stage can be quite the sobering experience. Everything occurs on the back porches and adjoining backyards of Mrs. Potts and Mrs. Owens, and the picnic of the title occurs offstage.
Happily for literal-minded me, the film version has a masterfully constructed, protracted picnic sequence that not only shines as a fine example of studio-era location shooting and serves as the film's narrative and thematic nucleus. The five-minute montage that kicks off the sequence is so good it could stand alone as a short film highlighting 50s Americana. James Wong Howe's CinemaScope cinematography basks everything in a honey-colored glow that contributes to making this amusing and appealing sequence one of the major reasons Picnic continues to stay one of my favorites.BONUS MATERIALS
I didn’t grow up in a small town, and this typically Hollywood, all-white vision of Midwestern life is nothing I clutch to my bosom with misty-eyed nostalgia (although with HD and sharp eyes you might catch a fleeting glimpse of one or two black people in the picnic scenes). But on a human level, I tend to find irresistible any story which celebrates, with compassion and dignity, the small struggles and victories of people leading simple lives. Few writers conveyed this with as much heart and humor as William Inge.
Copyright © Ken Anderson