Tonight, I continued to clean out the DVR by watching the 1955 film Picnic.
Now, Picnic is kind of a strange film. It’s one of those films from 50s that takes place in a small town where everyone is obsessed with sex but, since it’s the 1950s, nobody can just come out and say that they’re talking about sex. So, instead, all of the dialogue is very discreet. For instance, when Madge Owen (Kim Novak) talks to her mother, Flo (Betty Owens), about her date with her boyfriend, Alan (Cliff Robertson), Madge confesses that they spent the night kissing. Flo asks if Madge if they have done anything more than kiss but, of course, she never comes straight out and says what “more” would be. The audience knows what she’s talking about but it’s as if the world would actually end if anyone actually uttered the word. “Oh mom!” an embarrassed Madge says before confirming that she and Alan haven’t done anything more than kiss.
Flo desperately wants Madge to marry Alan because Alan is rich and his father owns the town’s grain elevator. Marrying Alan would allow Flo to move up in the town’s strict social hierarchy. However, Madge isn’t sure that she loves Alan. Certainly, Alan seems to be a good man with a good future but he’s not a romantic. Instead, he is someone who has his entire life already mapped out for him.
On Labor Day, a stranger comes to town. His name is Hal Carter and he shows up riding on a freight train. He’s come into town to see his old friend, Alan. It turns out that Hal and Alan went to college together and were members of the same fraternity. Hal was a star football player but he eventually flunked out of school and has spent the last few years drifting around the country. However, Hal is now ready to settle down and he wonders if his old roommate Alan can get him a job at the grain elevator.
Now, here’s the strange part. Hal is played by William Holden. When he made Picnic, William Holden was 38 years old and looked closer to being 45. (By contrast, Cliff Robertson, in the role of his former college roommate, was 32 and looked like he was 25.) Hal spends a lot of time talking about his traumatic childhood and how he is finally ready to settle down and start acting like an adult. In short, Hal talks like a 30 year-old but he looks like he’s nearly 50. It’s odd to watch. But even beyond the age issue, William Holden was an actor who always came across as being both confident and cynical. Hal is a secret romantic with a deep streak of insecurity. As great an actor as he may have been, William Holden is so thoroughly miscast here that it actually becomes fascinating to watch. It brings a whole new subtext to the film as you find yourself wondering why no one is town finds it strange that a middle-aged man is still struggling to deal with his childhood. When all the town’s young women ogle that shirtless Hal, it’s as if he’s wandered into a town populated only by teenagers with daddy issues.
(Paul Newman played the role of Hal in a Broadway production of Picnic. And really, that’s who the ideal Hal would have been, a young Paul Newman.)
The majority of the film takes place at the town’s Labor Day picnic, where almost every woman in town is driven to distraction by the sight of Hal dancing. Even the spinster teacher, Rosemary (Rosalind Russell), is so turned on by Hal’s masculinity that she makes a pass at him and accidentally rips his shirt. Of course, some of Rosemary’s behavior is due to the fact that she’s drunk. Her date, the befuddled Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell), made the mistake of being whiskey to the picnic.
Hal also dances with Madge’s 13 year-old sister, Millie (Susan Strasberg). I have to admit that, even though I related strongly to Madge, Millie was my favorite character in the film. Millie wears glasses and can recite Shakespeare from memory. She knows that everyone around her is full of it and she’s willing to call them on it. Of course, Millie herself ends up with a crush on Hal and it’s a dream for her when she finally gets to dance with him.
(Strasberg was 17 years old but is believable as a 13 year-old. At the same time, since Hal appears to be nearly 50, his sudden closeness to Millie carries an icky, if unintentional, subtext.)
But then Madge suddenly appears, wearing a pink dress and literally emerging from the black night. She starts to sway to the music. As she slowly approaches Hal, he forgets about Millie and soon is dancing with Madge. It’s actually a rather striking scene, one that so full of dream-like sensuality that it almost seems more like it was directed by surrealist David Lynch as opposed to the usually workmanlike Joshua Logan.
(In the video below, the scene freezes about 12 seconds in, before starting up again at the 16 second mark. This is a glitch with the upload and is not present in the actual film.)
Needless to say, a drifter can’t just come into town and steal his ex-roommate’s girlfriend without drama following. Picnic starts out as a slightly overheated examination of small town morality and then, after about an hour, it goes the full melodrama route, complete with police chases, stolen cars, a fist fight in an ornate mansion, and a lot of big speeches about the importance of love. Needless to say, it’s all a lot of fun.
Picnic was nominated for best picture of the year. However, it lost to the far more low-key Marty.