Movie Review: Picnic (1955)

… ain’t no picnic: quality 1950s realism ___ 8.5/10
Review by Brian Wright

[Train horn sounds several blasts]
Hal Carter: Listen, baby, you’re the only real thing I ever wanted, ever. You’re mine. I gotta claim what’s mine, or I’ll be nothing as long as I live. You love me. You know it. You love me.
[Hal turns as he runs for passing freight train]
Hal Carter: You love me.
Flo Owens: oh, Madge…
[Madge runs up to her room and Flo walks to Mrs. Potts]
Flo Owens: You liked him, didn’t you Helen?
Helen Potts: Yes, I did. I got so used to things as they were: Everything so prim, the geranium in the window, the smell of mama’s medicines. And then he walked in, and it was different! He clomped through the place like he was still outdoors. There was a man in the place and it seemed good!

Play William Inge
Screenplay Daniel Taradash
and Directed by Joshua Logan

William Holden … Hal Carter
Kim Novak … Marjorie ‘Madge’ Owens
Betty Field … Flo Owens
Susan Strasberg … Millie Owens
Cliff Robertson … Alan Benson
Arthur O’Connell … Howard Bevans
Verna Felton … Helen Potts
Nick Adams … Bomber
Rosalind Russell … Rosemary Sidney

Somehow this dialog above—which IMDb has thankfully transcribed for us —really strikes a chord with me. You wonder what was on the mind of the playwright William Inge, when he came up with that line from the neighbor lady, Helen Potts (Verna Felton): “There was a man in the place and it seemed good!” What the author is saying, I believe, is not contra women, rather pro LIFE: life as manifested by a man in full, capturing and being captured by the heart of a woman equally passionate and in tune.

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In perhaps the most compact yet convincing love story in movie history—between Hal Carter (William Holden) and Madge Owens (Kim Novak)—Picnic seems to be breaking its slice-of-life chains: by showing that love makes life worthwhile. Indeed, love is life. Yet the author/playwright doesn’t take the easy way out by giving us the happily-ever-after stroll into the sunshine. We don’t know what will happen, and Inge is shrewd to lay the cards out so either a positive hopeful outcome or a negative doubtful outcome is likely. The interpretation is ours to make.

Marvelous.

Naturally, I’m opting for the hopeful outcome. But not because of any Pollyanna instincts. Rather, like a picnic, we tend to see the best and worst of people enjoying themselves, but it is a celebration of life. What does life entail for the great majority? Well, ordinary stuff. Keeping up with the Joneses, finding someone who is at least not unpleasant for long periods, taking care of the children, working at a tolerable job, etc. In other words, most people—and the people in this Small Town, Kansas—”settle.” Not in such a bad way; the author is gentle about it:

Madge’s aunt Sidney (Rosalind Russell) is the fading-beauty, 40-something schoolmarm who longs to feel the romance and adventure of her youth, but now has come to a decision point on whether to go ahead and attract Howad Bevans (Arthur O’Connell) to wed her. For his part, Howard has gotten accustomed to his freedom and wonders if it’s worth a trade for female companionship at close quarters. Blossoming teenager Millie Owens (Susan Strasberg) is unsure of herself, especially beside the voluptuousness of her sister, Madge. She becomes an egghead and a social ciritic, but we see right through it. Millie wants to find the same sweet center of life as her aunt Sidney longingly describes.

And on the other side of the tracks, we find Hal’s college buddy, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), the son of a nouveau riche wheat tycoon (Raymond Bailey). Alan and Madge are lined up to be married, and he’s absolultely head-over-heels crazy about her, but she demurs. As she puts it later in the story, no one looks at her beyond her looks. She’s typecast by physical beauty, and Alan—as most men, and most people for that matter—completely lacks any sensitivity toward the creative soul that lies beneath. Don’t forget we’re still a decade away from Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, i.e. away from the notion that women are people, too.

Alan has a good heart, but has been battered his entire life about living up to his old man’s expectations, which, by the way, do not include having Alan hook up with Madge. So in that respect, you can see Alan as willing to buck the system. [But if it came down to being disowned if he married her, I expect Alan would cave.] So Alan and the rest of the featured townspeople are pretty much going through the motions, filling a role they’ve been given. And into town comes Hal. As Helen Potts puts it, all of a sudden the world has color… reminiscent of the movie Pleasantville.

Is William Holden the best they could do? Interestingly, Paul Newman’s first big role on Broadway was in William Inge’s play, Picnic. I’m not putting Mr. Holden down, but I do think Newman would have been more fitting. There seems to be a frenetic quality in Holden’s self-deprecating scenes as Hal. Perhaps he was simply doing as the director directed, but the real Hal Carter would have been more method. Less talky in general. Still the base message comes through: Hal is a work in progress, and the work keeps getting derailed by short-term considerations. Unlike the others, it’s the fear of settling that seems to drive Hal.

Until he meets Madge. Until he dances with Madge.

Sure there are some age-old conventions at work here in the playwright’s tool chest, but the movie manages to ascend to the level of magic in that oh-so-short sequence—following a dramatic blowup from Millie and Aunt Sidney—as Hal and Madge touch and weave and take each other in with the purest of physical harmony, at night, by the lake, away from the milling crowd of the picnic. This is why anyone wants to be alive. To feel the heat and see the light in the arms of that special someone. Holden and Novak are the only ones I ever envision in this special scene.

How wonderful to pass this way again on Picnic. I’d really only viewed a view sequences when it would come on TV through the 1970s onward. It has a conventional look, with movie stars (pretty people). But when you actually sit down and view the whole thing—and I would love to see the play—you realize there is so much to it. Outstanding and a classic.

By the way you will probably recognize the theme from Picnic, played here in the song by the McGuire Sisters. The music was written by George Duning, and the lyrics were written by Steve Allen. When I was watching the movie the other night, I knew I had heard the theme—only the instrumental portion is in the film—many times before. It’s always cool to connect a well-known cultural tune to its origins. I also want to observe that the melody, moreso than the lyrics, has a wistful, even slightly haunting quality… like the movie itself.

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1 thought on “Movie Review: Picnic (1955)

  1. The main interest I have in the movie is viewing what life was like in the 1950’s. So many facets here to study. The conventions, the rhythm of life back then, faces..especially of the people at the picnic singing some song they all knew by heart. What entertained folks back then before computers and really before TV had blossomed. We can get perspective on how different life became just 10 years later 1965. I do NOT believe it a great work of cinematic art by any means, but as a chronicle of the times…its super.

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