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.