Joshua Logan (director)
18 February 2019 (released)
04 March 2019
Based on the Pulitzer-prize winning play by the well-respected William Inge, one is left feeling that as a stage production, PICNIC may have worked only too well. However, director Joshua Logan’s brave attempt at turning it into a movie doesn’t altogether succeed.
Inge had a partiality for a particular motif or recurrent theme: the loner arriving in a new environment, though arguably this motif works better in the 1956 comedy-drama Bus Stop – also directed by Logan. Back to Picnic (also 1956): from the beginning we are aware that our protagonist, the no longer quite so young Hal Carter (William Holden), is probably something of a 'bum' to put it bluntly. Clearly without a cent in his pocket he turns up in a small Kansas town on Labour Day, having stowed away in an empty train carriage. Carter has a reason for alighting at this particular stop, as he wants to visit his former fraternity pal Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson). A kindly old woman called Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton) takes pity on him, feeds him and offers him work as an odd job man of sorts. His only possessions appear to be the clothes on his back. Being, it appears, a man who cannot help but to attract women of all sorts we can see that there will be trouble ahead. Mrs. Potts has a neighbour called Flo Owens (Betty Field) who turns out to be the only woman who does not appear to be taken with Hal. Flo in turn has two daughters: Madge (Kim Novak) - the town’s pin-up girl who oozes a similar sexual allure to Monroe, and the younger tomboy-like Millie (the diminutive Susan Strasberg - daughter of the actor guru Lee). One of Madge’s irksome little admirers, Bomber (Nick Adams), refers to Millie as 'Goon-face'. Bespectacled Millie is bright and even reads Carson McCullers but is very much jealous of her elder sister's popularity. Jealously is indeed a theme running throughout the entire piece, to say nothing of the ‘angst’ epidemic running throughout town.
Trouble arrives early on when frustrated and ageing schoolteacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) claps eyes on a half naked Hal (the poor sod has only got his shirt off in order to do a bit of manual work). Clearly she desires him but knows that she has no chance and has to make do with her drunken old admirer Howard Bevans (Arthur O'Connell) who is nuts about her and will put up with her nasty tantrums ad infinitum. As previously mentioned, Hal's real purpose in coming to this town is to ask his former 'friend' and fraternity pal Alan for a job. Alan just happens to be the son of the town's richest and most successful man who owns the huge industrial factory. Naturally, Flo Owens is desperately hoping to encourage a romance between her beautiful eldest daughter Madge and Alan. Initially Alan ‘appears’ only too pleased to see his old friend but is he really going to put himself out on a limb to give Hal a high-powered office job? Of course, he knows about the skeletons in Hal's cupboard.
This has got to come to a head and the Labour Day mega-Picnic provides the ideal opportunity. We all know by this time a 'rapport' has been established between Hal and Madge (the fact that Novak got second billing already told us that) - much to Flo's annoyance. After all, the man is a drifter, a bum.
It is almost an hour in before some kind of action actually occurs thanks to the frustrated Rosemary getting drunk and jealous while Madge has won the local Beauty Queen award as has no qualms dancing with Hal. The major problem is that Holden's character Hal is nothing special and from the point of view of a film it adds up to very little, not helped by the fact that everything seems imbalanced seeing how the first half of the film is dialogue-heavy but lacking in any kind of action or dramatic tension.
As a stage play it works almost definitely but as a film? Nevertheless PICNIC scored six (!) Oscar nominations and won two! As for the rather weak denouement... well, Madge certainly knew what she was letting herself in for. Love (even on the spur of the moment) overcomes all… or does it?
Commendations for performances are worth a mention. Holden invariably delivered the goods and here succeeds in bringing the pathos needed to his character. Kim Novak was referred to earlier, Rosalind Russell stands out and it is a near bravura part. Plaudits must also go to a young Strasberg who hits all the right notes here. As usual James Wong Howe's cinematography is exemplary. By nowadays standards all the fuss over social etiquette and attitudes seem somewhat out-dated. Was 1955 really that long ago?
This Blu-ray release of PICNIC comes with the usual plethora of Special Features.