Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.
There are times when I think I should focus more on watching films in chronological order. My first impression of Picnic was that it the natural child of Peyton Place. I thought this by virtue of my having seen Peyton Place first. The truth is that Picnic came out first, so in reality, it got to this sort of small town darkness first. Both films are about repressed emotions and maintaining appearance, at least in part. There’s something about Picnic, though, that feels a little artificial.
Drifter Hal Carter (William Holden) slides into a small Kansas town on a freight train. Hal has a penchant for boasting and nothing to back those boasts up. He went to college on a football scholarship but lost it by not studying. He’s shown up in this particular town because it’s the home of his college friend Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), the son of a wealthy man who owns all of the grain elevators in the vicinity. The day Hal shows up is Labor Day, and the entire town is turning out for a massive picnic (hence the title).
Hal spends the morning cleaning up the yard of Helen Potts (Verna Felton), who lives next door to the Owens family. This will become important, since the older daughter of Flo Owens (Betty Field) is Madge Owens (Kim Novak), who happens to be the steady girlfriend of Hal’s friend Alan. Madge’s only real trait is that she’s pretty, something that her younger, brainy sister Millie (Susan Strasberg) can’t help but be intimidated by. Rosemary Sydney (Rosalind Russell), a spinster schoolteacher, boards at the Owens house as well.
What follows is the day at the Labor Day picnic and a great deal of upheaval that involves everyone named above as well as Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell, who was nominated for a supporting role for this), the beau of Rosemary. Alan attends with Madge and sets up Hal with Millie, which is a little creepy, all things considered. After all, Hal is old enough to have graduated from college several years before and Millie is still in high school.
Anyway, Hal makes a lot of boasts, gets put in his place by Alan, and makes a play for Madge almost without trying. Rosemary kind of makes a play for him then dresses him down as well. Eventually, Alan figures out that Hal is trying to move in on his girl (who his father disapproves of) and tells the police that Hal stole his car. So now the cops are after him and everything that Hal wanted has fallen apart except for the sudden relationship between Hal and Madge.
There are a couple of bright spots here, and when I say something like that, it never bodes well. It doesn’t bode well here, either. The first significant bright spot is the dance scene. While the band is playing at the picnic, Hal tries to teach a new step to Millie. It’s Madge who picks up on it immediately, though, and the two perform a surprisingly steamy dance number. It’s not merely a great scene, it’s a shocking one for 1955. In fact, the film is, while not brash or brazen, a little more open about sexuality than a lot of other major films of the time. A lot of the movie seems to be conspiring to get William Holden to take his shirt off.
Another bright spot is Rosalind Russell, who is really the best thing in the film. I don’t begrudge Arthur O’Connell his nomination, but if there was one performance deserving of it, it was Russell’s all the way. Of all the characters, hers is the most nuanced and layered. She puts up a brave front over and over and has it fall apart over and over, revealing a woman who is terrified of being alone but frequently unable to act on her desires or even her needs.
Sadly, much of the rest of the film fails to interest me that much. William Holden was flatly too old to play this part. There are times during the film when he clearly looks close to 40, which he was. In fact, Holden was only a couple of years younger than Betty Field, who plays Madge’s mother. Kim Novak was 22 playing 19; Holden was 37 playing maybe 24. Novak pulled it off and Holden flatly didn’t.
This is a real issue for me because I tend to like William Holden a lot. This might be my least favorite performance of his, though. Holden is at his best when he’s unsavory in some way, and his best performances in my opinion are the ones in which he is a bad guy trying to be redeemed. That’s certainly the role he has here, but I don’t buy it for a second. There’s nothing about Hal that seems worth redeeming and no reason to root for him at all. He’s not a lovable rascal; he’s a bad guy and kind of a jerk.
While that was a problem, the bigger issue is that the entire movie feels forced. There’s forced laughter and forced dialogue that doesn’t come across naturally. I was unaware until I looked this up after watching that it was based on a stage play. Knowing that, a number of the scenes are put into much better context for me. It feels like a stage play despite the changes in location and the number of outdoor scenes as well as the number of scenes that would be difficult to do on stage. It feels stagey, though, and that doesn’t really work.
Picnic simply feels off to me. The whole film takes place in about 24 hours and everything moves so quickly that it doesn’t feel real. I can’t imagine wanting to watch it again any time soon.
Why to watch Picnic: It made Kim Novak a star and it’s a reminder of how great Rosalind Russell could be.
Why not to watch: There’s something about it that feels forced.