Picnic (1955)

Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_PicnicIt’s easy to assume that Picnic is a film that time had not been very kind to. If you do a cursory glance at contemporary reviews, the majority appear far from glowing and my own reason for returning to this romance was based on a mild interest in a cultural artifact rather than an actual investment in the film itself.

As such it’s also easy to label Picnic as a contrived melodrama ripe with implausibilities and theatrical notes. One of those hot and sweaty numbers out the Tenessee Williams school of drama. This couldn’t possibly be real life. Even the romance feels a bit thin as if falling in love with someone through a simple dance could actually happen over the course of a single day. Yes, William Holden plays the energizer bunny inside the body of a has-been jock impressively but he’s a bit old for the part. Yes, Kim Novak is an aloof beauty extraordinaire but she still somehow feels out of place as a Kansas beauty queen. Rosalind Russell is and always will be a dynamo.

It’s Labor Day weekend in rural Kansas when drifter Hal Carter (Holden) stumbles off a train to call upon an old college chum named Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) for a job. Upon his arrival, he offers to get rid of a lady’s trash in exchange for a meal.

Due to the summer heat, it seems reasonable enough that the kindly old woman (Verna Felton) tells him to strip down to the waist but a shirtless William Holden makes a stir in town from the very first ogle. Of course, it works both ways. Madge (Novak) is the local beauty and her endlessly concerned mother wants her eldest daughter to use her looks to get a nice young man like Alan.

That’s one of the prevailing notions of the times. Women must get married. They must find a nice man with means and do it while they’re young and time is still in their favor. Better yet if they’re desirable.

The alternative is winding up like Millie (Susan Strasberg), Madge’s younger sister, who keeps her nose in books, having already landed a scholarship to college while disdaining boys and avoiding them like the plague. Further still, there’s the fate of winding up like the local school teacher, the histrionic Rosemarie (Russell) who boards with the Owens and yearns for a dream man to replace the scruffy but nevertheless good-natured Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell), who frequently calls on her. Consequently,  Ms. Potts is one of the most agreeable characters and seems the most fulfilled (even without a husband).

However, the arrival of Hal draws out such a visible reaction from all the other women he meets and it feels severe but more than anything you can see it as wholly representative of the sexual repression of the age. It’s so jarring since in some respects the magnetism of Carter feels relatively tame and the outcry against him uncalled for but that comes out of our own sex-saturated culture.

Upon ruminating on the movie a bit longer I began to consider what it truly means when we label a film to be “dated.” We look at scenes in Picnic and are quick to write them off as an indication of the time. Maybe it’s a bit of the historian coming out in me but isn’t that part of the magic of a film like this? It can act as a time capsule. It can come to us from the era it was made in. What’s wrong with that?

As usual James Wong Howe’s color photography does an impeccable job of giving us a sense of what that life was like as does the direction of Joshua Logan since the stage version of Picnic had been his baby. They interpret the quality times that communities have together with bands, songs, games, and the best kind of food made by the most loving hands.

People called on one another, courted, were generally courteous, and there was a sense of integrity. Yes, people were often frustrated and uncomfortable but we could say the same about today too, except now the same feelings come for different reasons. Neither a culture of asceticism nor utter hedonism will find us completely content.

In the end, I stole a page out of the Astaire & Rogers musicals to try and comprehend Picnic. Unquestionably the “Moonglow” sequence is beloved and I think we can look at it utilizing a certain lens. In an age that was supposedly “repressed” a dance was a highly evocative way to express the passion of two people and like many of the most guttural cinematic sequences, this one is visually impactful with nary a line of dialogue allowing us to be captured fully in the moment.

Howe’s final stroke of ingenuity is to show our two lovers simultaneously riding off by train and bus to their life together, within the same frame. Whether they can make it work and be happy is still in question. But part of the beauty of this existence is that we each have to make our own path in the pursuit of love and everything else that’s worth living for. To use an unforgivable metaphor, life isn’t always a picnic but the dance of life will continue regardless.

3.5/5 Stars

MY ENTRY IN THE 3RD GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON!

19 thoughts on “Picnic (1955)

  1. This movie is going to be the genesis of a new series on my blog some time after the Holden Blog-A-Thon. It’s going to be called something along the lines of “Movies My Wife Hates.” I mention that only because her diatribe about this film hits many of the same points you do, but her take is somewhat different.

    She was an English Lit major, so she’s read lots of stuff ans seen almost as much in terms of movies. I think her issue with “Picnic” is she has all the romantic proclivities of a cinder block. By education I’m an engineer, which means I tend to see things in terms of mathematics and sheer practicality, and even I can see the romantic fantasy better than she can.

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    1. Haha! That sounds like a great series. My mom is from the Midwest and so watching this movie gives me fond memories of time with her family.

      As far as the movie goes I tried to voice my minor criticisms but still point to what I enjoyed about the picture. I would rather focus on the positives if at all possible. Thanks for reading!

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  2. I’ve only seen this film once, and your review points out some of the reasons why I’ve kind of stayed away from it since. It can get quite overheated, that’s for sure. However, I liked all of the positives you listed, too. (If you can’t tell, I have a lot of mixed feelings about this film.)

    Thanks for this thought-provoking contribution to the blogathon! I’ll most certainly keep your review in mind when I give Picnic a second chance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, I am right there as well. I had some minor criticisms but I tried to find the good in it and was still able to enjoy it. Certainly having William Holden, Kim Novak, and Rosalind Russell does not hurt!

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  3. I have to be in the mood for Picnic, and though it happens rarely there is much I enjoy about the exploration of heightened emotions. All is played with empathy and sincerity. For the record, I think Rosemary and Howard will be able to make a go of things, while Madge and Hal are doomed to fizzle.

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    1. I really liked the characters of Rosemary and Howard Bevans in this one as well. It does seem like a movie that requires a certain mood and I was thankful that I was able to enjoy it by focusing on the positives.

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  4. Thank YOU so so much for talking Picnic and Bill- I don’t care if the film is dated- a good film is a good film. Yes it has flaws- but every film has got them! I love the time capsule angle- as that’s how I too look at it- I love the styles- and I kind of am obsessed with the part Bill’s shirt gets ripped open- haha- the music is ultra dramatic and a bit much- but its still great! Thanks for honoring the Golden Boy!

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  5. “energized bunny”…what a wonderful expression ……a great review with just the right amount of humour….cant say it is one of my fav WH movies…the story is a bit thin but hey…WH without a shirt on and THAT dance made up for any negitive remarks …..

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  6. Great and interesting review! I must admit I took a lot of time to see this film because a lot of people were saying that it was boring,but in the end I did enjoy it! The dance sequence is everything! Thanks so much for your participation to our blogathon!

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  7. PICNIC would show up on TV a lot in the 70s and seemed dated even then. But, like you say, in a good way, a time capsule. There’s a lot of great dialogue and memorable lines. “Madge is the pretty one! Madge is the pretty one!” Susan Strasberg went on to become a sex symbol herself, even appearing in Playboy magazine.

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  8. I loved the film Picnic and was lost in an era of my parents. It was a period of time when I was a little girls, but watched it years later with my parents who were younger than William Holden. He was brilliant in the film, as he is in all his work. Kim Novak complimented him with her quiet reserve, but with mystery.
    The dance scene draws you in and the music Moonglow. That one scene makes you believe anything is possible and never be cynical about love.

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