Written by William Inge and Daniel Taradash
Directed by Joshua Logan
We come to the first movie in the American Theater on Film series that doesn’t work. I wondered why I didn’t hear as much about Picnic as other entries in this series I’m doing, and now it makes sense. Picnic is attempting something ambitious, it is one of the better movies in the series for cinematic visuals, but its core ideas are muddled and clunkily handled. There are cinematographic moments here that are absolutely stunning, and that’s what makes it sting so badly that the story itself is not well done. It should not surprise me that Picnic looks so good as it was the fantastic James Wong Howe behind the camera, one of the all-time great cinematographers. Does that man know how to light and frame a scene!
Vagrant Hal Carter (William Holden) arrives in a Kansas town via freight train on Labor Day 1955. He’s looking to reconnect with his old college fraternity buddy Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson). A kindly old woman offers to give Hal a room to stay in and warm meals, so Hal tries to help out, but she insists that it’s a holiday of rest for the worker. He meets the lady’s neighbor and her two daughters, Madge (Kim Novak) and Millie (Susan Strasberg). Madge is engaged to Alan; however, there are definitely sparks between her and Hal. Meanwhile, Alan shows off his family’s lucrative grain elevator operations and offers Hal a job. Not a cushy desk one but shoveling grain. For the town’s big Labor Day picnic, a large group attends, including middle-aged school teacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell), who also seems to regard Hal with lust. During the festivities, a conflict sends Hal & Madge running off together in the darkness of night and dooming Hal’s prospects in this place.
Part of the hook of Picnic is that it is a film that promises to discuss sex in a way that was quite frank for 1955. And I would say that it sort of does; there is vocabulary and concepts spoken about I wouldn’t expect from a film of the era. The problem is that the movie doesn’t do much with that and ends with an incredibly sappy, maudlin conclusion. I double-checked, thinking maybe the studio rewrote the play’s ending, but nope, it’s the same conclusion. This stands out even more in the face of a film like A Streetcar Named Desire that came out a few years prior and was barely holding back an ounce of the sexuality that story is tangled up in. If anything, Picnic comes across as a romanticized and softened version of the dark themes explored in Streetcar.
There’s a scene with a torn shirt that I expect audiences were meant to swoon over. But there’s no comparison between William Holden and Marlon Brando in acting and physical presence. Holden isn’t a terrible actor, he’s the star of one of my favorite films, Sunset Boulevard, but he’s too old to make this role work. His choices cause Hal to feel stiff and lifeless, so Madge’s attraction to him doesn’t make much sense. Kim Novak does a decent job. The only other film I’d ever seen her in was Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and she didn’t get much dialogue in that picture. I think she does alright, given what she’s expected to say, and she’s definitely an actress with charisma. I always liked seeing her on-screen far more than Holden here.
The stand-out for me was Rosalind Russell as Rosemary. Her subplot has a lot of influence on the main storyline, but I would have rather her narrative have been the main one. This is mainly because Russell is an interesting actor to observe, and she brings a lot of pain to her character. She watches the young women around her being paired off, and in a society where her old maid status makes her mostly invisible, she demands her unserious boyfriend marry her the next day. But more is needed to make this movie worth standing next to these other stage play adaptations.
Picnic wants to talk about women’s lack of agency in American culture and how they existed merely as objects for men to possess. Madge ruminates on only being someone who is looked at and never understood. Because Madge didn’t do as well in school, the expectations for her are to marry a rich man and exist. However, she falls for Hal. Why? He looks at her a certain way. It’s like the scriptwriter refused to reread his writing to find these inconsistencies. Maybe Hal does talk to Madge about what she wants out of life? Nope. He just rambles on about his rough upbringing and his dreams for the future. He just decides that Madge would look good in it and, apparently, to hell with what she wants out of life. And Madge falls deeply in love.
What would have been an interesting angle to explore is how both Hal and Madge are objectified by the characters in the story. You could have made their interactions come out of that shared invisibility & disregard. Maybe together in private, they both open up about what they want their lives to be and to look like in the future and in these utterances, they find a connection. However, this is just a single day in lives that are already careening down separate tracks. But nope, they fall in love over seemingly nothing, and she runs off to be with him, and everyone is happy for them, and we get happy music playing at the end. To say this lacks anything close to the impact of Streetcar’s finale is an understatement.