Spend Valentine’s Day with a ‘Picnic’

In my ongoing series celebrating William Holden, Trudy Ring guestblogs with a post about her favorite romantic Holden movie, Picnic.

Many thanks to Judy for contributing her thoughts!

If you want a romantic William Holden movie to watch for Valentine’s Day or any day, you can’t go wrong with Picnic.

Yes, I know many people adore Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing beats the chemistry between Holden and Kim Novak in this 1955 release. Plus it has a compelling plot, a well-drawn setting, great supporting characters, wonderful acting all around, and oh, that music and cinematography.
For those who haven’t seen the film or just need a refresher, a brief synopsis: It’s Labor Day in the 1950s in a small Kansas town. Hal Carter, who has drifted around the country since flunking out of college, rides into town on a freight train he’s hopped. He’s hoping to meet up with his old college roommate, Alan Benson, who’s from one of the richest families in the community – Alan’s father is an “elevator man,” owner of several grain elevators, an important business in the agriculture-heavy area. Hal initially just wants a job from Alan. But he soon decides he also wants Alan’s girlfriend, the ravishing Madge Owens, who lives on the wrong side of the tracks with her single mother, Flo; brainy younger sister, Millie; and Rosemary Sydney, the “old maid schoolteacher” who rents a room in the family’s home. Over the course of the day, which includes the annual Labor Day picnic, complications ensue, to say the least.

The funny thing is, William Inge, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play on which the film is based, didn’t really think of it as tomantic. According to Joshua Logan, who directed the play in its Broadway debut as well as the film, audiences weren’t supposed to look on Hal, a rather uncouth braggart, as a hero, or think it would be a good idea for Madge to end up with him (and another comment for those who haven’t seen the movie: I’m not going to reveal if she does or not). Inge even rewrote the play late in his career as Summer Brave, which, without giving spoilers, I can say is considerably more downbeat. Inge also reportedly didn’t care for what Logan and screenwriter Daniel Taradash did in adapting Picnic into a movie. I think Inge is a great playwright (and screenwriter, having written Splendor in the Grass directly for film) and deserves to be rated up there with his mid-century peers Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, but I have to say I much prefer Picnic, the film, which I’ve viewed dozens of times since I was about 10 years old (and a lot of it went over my head) to Picnic, the play.

Logan and Taradash opened up the action; the play is pretty much confined to the Owens home, and we don’t even see the picnic. OK, the picnic is a bit over the top; as the New Yorker critic wrote, “Mr. Logan’s notion of an outing in the corn country includes a choir of at least 100 voices, and a sound track let loose in the most formidable music I’ve heard in my time at the movies.” But the opening-up also allows for some glorious camera work by the master cinematographer James Wong Howe; several shots are downright breathtaking. And then, of course, there’s the acting.

Holden is not only at the peak of his sex appeal as Hal; he also makes us see the insecurity underlying the character’s braggadocio. We sympathize with him, as we do with Kim Novak’s Madge, who’s tired of only being told she’s pretty. And I have to disagree with someone else I admire; the late, great reviewer Roger Ebert thought Madge’s protestations rang hollow in view of the intense erotic chemistry between Novak and Holden, but I think they convince us that the characters’ attraction is not simply physical. I’ve also been told by an Inge scholar that the playwright thought Holden was too old to play Hal – he was 37 at the time, 15 years older than Novak. But with his looks, his physique, and his talent, he passes for a much younger man, and we can certainly see how he Madge would be drawn to him. Their dance to George Duning’s soaring Picnic theme, laid over the jazz standard “Moonglow,” is one of the steamiest moments ever put on screen. And Novak, who in her prime was praised more for her beauty than her acting ability, gives an excellent performance as well, conveying the vulnerability beneath the gorgeous exterior.

 

 

The supporting players are likewise fine. Cliff Robertson, in his film debut, is a believable spoiled rich boy as Alan (and, by the way, he was 10 years older than Novak). I had the pleasure of meeting Robertson at a screening of some of his early TV dramas back in 2006, and he was one of the nicest celebrities I’ve ever encountered – he stayed around for two extra hours to answer fans’ questions. I of course had to ask him about Picnic, and he said he came to the production as a snooty stage actor, looking down on movies, but he soon developed a respect for film acting. He also said he and Bill Holden became lifelong friends. Another standout is Susan Strasberg as Millie, who has confidence in her intellect but feels unattractive compared to Madge, although Strasberg was actually very pretty. At one point Millie says that she’s never going to fall in love, but after college she’s going to go to New York and “write novels that’ll shock people right out of their senses.” I like to think of her doing that in a Greenwich Village apartment, but hope she found love as well.

Rosalind Russell, playing the “old maid schoolteacher” Rosemary – yes, the film is very much of its time, when being unmarried after a certain age was a fate worse than death – hams it up a bit, but I can’t fail to love Roz Russell. Arthur O’Connell exudes likability as her easygoing beau, Howard Bevans, and he got a well-deserved Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, ultimately losing to the Jack Lemmon, who gave a terrific performance as Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts. Betty Field does a good job as Flo, and Verna Felton is a highlight as the Owenses’ sweet next-door neighbor, Helen Potts.

Picnic was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Logan for Best Director; Marty and its director, Delbert Mann, prevailed in those categories. It did win for Best Art Direction and Set Decoration in a color film (there were then separate categories for color and black-and-white), with William Flannery, Jo Mielziner, and Robert Priestley all receiving statuettes. That award was certainly merited, as the movie, shot partly on location in Kansas, has an authentic Midwestern small-town atmosphere. Charles Nelson and William A. Lyon won the Oscar for Best Film Editing.

James Wong Howe was robbed, with not even a nomination for his cinematography; the film’s final shot alone should have assured him of one. Those of you who’ve seen Picnic will know what I’m talking about, and those of you who haven’t, well, you can look forward to it. Duning’s music complements Howe’s camera work perfectly in that scene and enhances the entire movie; he got an Oscar nomination but lost to the redoubtable Alfred Newman for that year’s other romantic Bill Holden picture, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.

And yes, Holden deserved a nomination, but at least he’d won two years earlier for Stalag 17. Picnic added to his string of memorable films – Sunset Boulevard, Born Yesterday, The Bridge on the River Kwai, up through Network and his final movie, S.O.B., in which he acts rings around most of his castmates. With ample talent in addition to his good looks and charisma, he’s worth watching even in his lesser films, but Picnic is certainly one of his best as well as perhaps his most romantic. Queue it up whenever you’re in the mood for love.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Picnic will air on Sunday, February 25 at 6 p.m. on TCM as part of their 31 Days of Oscar celebration. The film was nominated for six Oscars and won two.

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