Thursday, May 22, 2014

Picnic ( 1955 )

The Classic Film and TV Association is hosting The Fabulous Films of the 1950s blogathon and I have chosen to highlight two films of the 1950s that are particularly dear to me - Picnic and Giant. Every year, when the flowers awaken from their dormant slumber and the magnolias begin to blossom, a familiar urge, as certain in approaching as spring itself, begins to stir within - the urge to watch Picnic. The film is indelibly linked in my mind with spring and, regardless of its Labor Day setting, the glow of May can be observed in every scene. 


Picnic focuses on the impact a vagabond drifter makes on the womenfolk in a sleepy Kansas town during the course of one summer day. Hal Carter ( William Holden ) is a bum, come to Kansas to seek out his old college roommate Alan Benson ( Cliff Robertson ) in the hopes that he will find him a job at one of his father's granaries.

"I gotta get someplace in this world. I just gotta."

Upon arriving, fresh off of a freight train, he meets Helen ( the marvelous Verna Felton ) a kindly old lady who gives him some apple pie and introduces him to her neighbors, Flo Owens ( Betty Field ) and Flo's two daughters, the tomboy intellectual Millie ( a miscast Susan Strasberg ) and the bashful beauty queen Madge ( Kim Novak ) who is going steady with Alan. Rooming with the Owens is Rosemary Sydney ( Rosalind Russell ), a local spinster schoolteacher. 


On the surface, each of these women are satisfied and content with their lives, but within they are frustrated and longing for something more. Flo Owens was deserted by her husband years ago and wants to see her daughters married off to better men than he. Rosemary Sydney, the amiable teacher always "good for a laugh" is tired of being a spinster and wants to marry Howard Bevans ( Arthur O'Connell ), a local shopkeeper. Millie is jealous of her older sister's beauty, while Madge thinks her mother favors Millie and is frustrated at being admired for her looks alone. 

"I'm tired of just being called pretty". 


When Hal arrives, his raw virility awakens in the women memories of bygone romances or, in the case of Rosemary, long-awaited for love. Every movement he makes, every muscle he flexes, sexually arouses suppressed feelings within these gals. 

William Inge's Pulitzer Prize winning play Picnic set pulses racing to packed crowds and enjoyed a successful 477 run performance at New York's Music Box Theatre in the spring of 1953. The original cast featured Ralph Meeker as Hal, Janice Rule as Madge, Eileen Heckart as Rosemary, and Paul Newman as Alan Benson. Incidentally, it was during the run of Picnic that he met his future wife, Joanne Woodward. Newman was also understudy for Meeker and often rehearsed his scenes with Rule's understudy, Joanne Woodward. 

Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn purchased the rights to the play at the sum of $300,000. He knew that he wanted William Holden to play the lead role, but it took some coaxing to convince the 37-year-old actor that his age would not make a difference in the essence of the story. Holden reluctantly agreed and, as this was the final film in his seven picture contract with the studio, had to settle for a paltry $30,000 fee. Holden worked out at a gym to get into shape for the part and even permitted to have his chest shaven for his brawny sequences. Carroll Baker was tested for the role of Madge but it was decided that she was too childlike for the role, and Columbia's newest sensation Kim Novak was signed instead. 

Susan Strasberg was making her screen debut as Millie, fresh off of a Broadway success with the lead role in The Diary of Anne Frank. Cliff Robertson also earned his first big screen role as rich boy Alan Benson. The role of Howard Bevens suited Arthur O'Connell so well that director Joshua Logan asked him to reprise it for the film. This launched O'Connell on a long and steady career as a Hollywood character actor. 

Production on Picnic began on May 16, 1955 on location around Hutchinson, Kansas. The production crew on Picnic was top-notch and included cinematographer James Wong Howe, screenwriter Daniel Taradesh ( From Here to Eternity ) and composer George Duning. Duning revived the 1930s classic "Moonglow" for the famous dance sequence and it became a hit song once again, with the dance itself becoming one of the best remembered love scenes of the 1950s. 


Logan, the director of the stage play, was selected to take helm for the film version and made an impressive directorial debut, in his subtle but compelling filming. His master strokes are in the scenes of the Labor Day picnic itself. As the camera slowly pans across the people, it unobtrusively captures vignettes straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. There are mothers with their children, elderly couples, rowdy boys, girls warbling a duet, speeches being made, the band playing old sweet songs and marching tunes, and through it all two babies wailing. All of these elements combine to create a tapestry of American life during the early 1950s. 

The principal characters are enjoying the picnic as much as anyone there and compete in all of the group events - the balloon blowing contest, ring toss, spoon catching games, and best of all, the pie eating contest, where Howard bribes a boy to push the contestant's faces into the pies. 


After the festivities of the day the group lazily gather together under the shade of a grove of cottonwoods and here Hal begins to realize what it is he has been searching for in life. It is a town, a place, a home that he wants. Proud as he is of his father and his old man's boots, he does not want to fill them and be a drifter all of his life. He wants a sense of belonging, either to someone or someplace. 

As evening begins to fall, everyone wanders off in pairs...Hal walks with Millie and tells her of his admiration for people with artistic talent and the love for the finer things in life; Howard and Rosemary share a bench to admire the sunset; Helen and Flo gently swing together grateful for each others company; and Alan and Madge retreat to the rivers edge to discuss their future together. 


"Look at the sunset. It's like the daytime didn't want to end. It's like the daytime was gonna put up a big scrap and set the world on fire to keep the nighttime from creeping on."

The picnic is a focal point for all of the principal characters and it is after the sun sets that their emotions begin to sizzle and finally ignite and explode like the Labor Day fireworks themselves. 


Picnic is an extremely well-written film rich with characters of substance and at its core it is the story about the inevitability of change happening to the best laid plans. Sometimes this change is welcome and sometimes it is not. 

"I got so used to things as they were. Everything was so prim. The geraniums in the window, the smell of mama's medicine, and then he walked in and it was different . He clomped around like it was still outdoors. There was a man in the house and it seemed good". 

Hal is a character that we have all met at one time or another, in a variety of different forms. He represents that person that comes into your life when you were least expecting it and disrupts everything and everyone around you. He is an intruder, and whether it is for good or bad, the change these intruders bring about cannot be ignored. 


Picnic opened in limited release on December 7, 1955 and was distributed nationally on February 16, 1956. It won critical acclaim, was nominated for six Academy Awards ( Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Music, Best Color Art Direction and Best Editing ) and grossed a whopping $6.3 million upon its release. Fifty-nine years later, Picnic remains a gem of a picture and rightly deserves its place as one of the Fabulous Films of the 1950s. 

25 comments:

  1. I'm probably one of the few classic film lovers who doesn't like Picnic. I think it hinges on the fact that I really don't care for Kim Novak--she somehow taints the film for me.

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    1. I've felt that way about alot of stars, but have learned something...the more you watch them ( no matter how much you dislike them ) you overlook their appearance and get to enjoy the films as a whole. Although, come to think of it...I'm still avoiding Shelley Winter films like the plague and really ought to give that gal another chance. Anyway, I hope you'll take another look at Picnic and enjoy it for the great film that it is!

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  2. Charming review of one of my favorite films. I suppose that William Holden is a little old for his part, but he and Kim work wonderfully together. Their dance scene, with music that transitions from "Moonglow" to the PICNIC love theme, is pure magic. The ending is interesting in that it won't necessarily be easy time for the two lovers, but at least they have one another.

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    1. Holden thought himself too old to play Hal, and I'm not really sure how old the character is supposed to be ( 28? 30? ) but in the beginning of the film the womenfolk were really stressing the words "young man" quite a bit. When it comes down to predicting the future for Hal/Madge, I'm not sure either of them met their match. Madge and Alan Benson marrying certainly would have been a disaster but this doesn't seem much better.

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  3. A poignant, and sometimes painful film, such a great choice for this blogathon. Great job.

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    1. Most people associate Picnic for the dance sequence only, and I wanted to make it clear that the film has a lot more depth to it. I certainly think it's one of the Fabulous Films of the 1950s. Thank you for your comment!

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  4. At the end of the day, I really think Rosemary and Howard can make their marriage work. I'm not so sure about Madge and Hal. The movie/play can really get under your skin.

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    1. I love how Howard comes to the Owens house all braced to give Rosemary the bad news that he decided against the marriage and - poor guy! - before he can bat an eye, the gals are throwing rice in his face and they are off to the Ozarks. Howard was actually smiling as they drove away though. That was a nice touch. And yes, it sure can get under your skin.

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  5. For all it's faults, who can resists Holden and Novak swaying to Moonglow and then the Theme from Picnic? Is there anything more romantic? A lovely review of a flawed but totally seductive film.

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    1. You've brought up a good topic for debate and I'd love to hear your thoughts on what scenes could have been improved. Personally, I cherish every scene, but then I'm favorably biased towards the film. Holden had to go on a drunk spree to muster up the courage to do the Moonglow number ( why do men detest dancing so much? ) and even after the filming, Logan thought the scenes were only good for the trashcan. It was James Wong Howe who saved the day and decided to let the lights do the dancing. Ahh...those beautiful Japanese lanterns. One of these days I'd like to go to a party that had Japanese lanterns, a "Razor's Edge" style party, with a live band too. Sigh. Thanks for your comment!

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  6. I love this film, especially the dance Bill Holden does with Kim Novak. I haven't seen this film in years, but it is great!

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    1. Blogathons are great because they always remind us of movies that we haven't seen in awhile and want to again. We're glad we reignited your urge to see it again!

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  7. It's been a while since I've seen Picnic, but I enjoyed your lovely post on it. It really makes me want to see it again (especially now that summer is coming!). Thanks very much.

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    1. Picnic sure is a great summer film. Thank you for your comment and enjoy the film!

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  8. I've only ever seen bits and pieces of this film, and your wonderful review is making me wonder why I haven't made the time to enjoy the whole thing.

    With 50s superstars Holden and Novak, this is a perfect addition to the blogathon.

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    1. Now that makes us happy! We love inspiring others to watch good classics. I hope you enjoy the film and feel free to stop back here to tell us what you thought of it. We'd love to get your feedback.

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  9. How ideal that this blogathon is taking place in May, giving you a perfect opportunity to reflect on "Picnic." This is a film I've watched and enjoyed countless times. Though, on one hand, it appeals to me for its depiction of a particular time and place, its themes are timeless and so is its appeal. In recent years I've come to wish Paul Newman had been cast instead of Holden (who seems a bit too old and grizzled for the role). Newman was exactly the right age and had exactly the right looks for it. I hadn't really given much thought to Susan Strasberg before, but it's true she isn't the strongest member of the cast. I've always thought Rosalind Russell was fantastic, though - she brought so much to every scene she was in. And doesn't it seem like Arthur O'Connell was in about 90% of the films made in the '50s?

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    1. Rosalind Russell certainly is a delight in Picnic. I especially love the scenes when she pleads with Howard to marry her and - poor Howard - he's shaking his head with uncertainly until he finally utters " Well.....", with Russell interrupting "A well's a hole in the ground Howard!". Gotta love that. Only a schoolteacher would say something like that. I must agree, Picnic has great replay value and Arthur O'Connell WAS in 90% of the films of the 1950s! This is my favorite of all of his roles, although I especially love him in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. What a talented actor Hollywood would have missed had he passed up on this part in Picnic.

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  10. I don't mind Holden's age. AT ALL! Um...anyway, enjoyed reading your write-up. I like all the players in PICNIC, with Roz the best as far as performances for me. Think she deserved a nomination, in truth.

    Aurora

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    1. Doesn't it seem as though Rosalind Russell was always being overlooked when it came to dishing out the Oscars? She was such a talent in every role she portrayed and yet very underrated on the whole. As for Holden's age....I too think he looked hunky at any age!

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  11. To me, Picnic is about as quintessential a '50s movie as you can get, hard to imagine it coming from any other decade. The color cinematography, the very '50s theme of sex driving everyone crazy (it was after all, the decade of Tennessee Williams adaptations), the combination of studio stars and Method acting, it all just screams '50s to me. So a very good choice indeed for the blogathon. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I never noticed that, but how true....I wonder why Method acting really took off in the 1950s and not earlier. Although, its amazing how different films from the early 1950s, such as Picnic, were compared to those made in the late 1950s. Even those standard soap operas ( Magnificent Obsession ) had a different feel about them compared to the later ones ( Peyton Place ). It makes you wonder what Picnic would have been like had it been made in 1958 or even in 1960. Glad you enjoyed our post!

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  12. While Picnic isn't on my annual must re-watch list, Giant is. Although you've made a very convincing case on why it should be. : )

    I'm a big Holden fan although not the biggest Novak fan. Interesting about his working out prior to the role then shaving his chest. While screen grabbing Sunset Blvd, I noticed right away how hairy his chest was. Great physique though in his pool scenes. The 50s were good for him, career wise and I don't think being cast here was a bad decision at all, although I've heard others comment that they didn't care for him in the lead. 37 isn't old for us in the real world, although in star years it's pushing it. (Silly Hollywood folk)

    A really entertaining review. So glad you could join us with two great films to give your take on.
    All the best!
    Page

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    1. Novak doesn't scream "drama queen" at first glance but I think she really did a great job with this part. Any other actress probably would have given the part more depth, which is just what wasn't needed. Leaving Madge a shallow character makes her more appealing I think, and only adds to the fact that she can't quite make up in her mind just what it is she does want to have happen in her life, or who she wants to be.

      On a side note, did you notice I switched the schedule? lol Giant got posted today instead, only because I wanted to spend an extra bit of time working on it. Thanks for hosting this fab blogathon and I'm so glad you enjoyed the review!

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  13. Hi,
    I got it changed on the schedule for you so each link goes to the correct review.
    Thanks,
    Page

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