|'); document.write(''); //-->|
Kim Novak was a force of nature in her 1950s movies, where she entranced audiences even as critics claimed she could not act. Although she's better in some films than others the negative assessments miss the point -- successful actresses don't all need to have the skills of a Bette Davis. The successful Broadway play of Picnic had all the ingredients for a strong film adaptation -- young love frustrated; a mother that can't control her daughter. The small Midwestern town is a fine place to live but also an "Our Town" governed by the same social forces seen everywhere. The local looker may be the one to snag the rich boy for a husband, but her happiness is not at all certain. Then comes the threat that all mothers fear, the irresistible rogue male.
Picnic secured Kim Novak's stardom, in what is probably her most iconic role. Madge Owens is the Kansas high school prom queen desperate to escape her identity as the town beauty. Having raised two daughters without the aid of a father, Flo (Betty Field) wants to rush Madge into a secure marriage with the local rich kid Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson). Madge unconsciously envies her brighter, less dazzling sister Millie (Susan Strasberg), who hates small town life and wants to run away to New York to "write books that will shock everybody". Meanwhile, the spinster boarder, the schoolteacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) is living another female nightmare. Well into middle age, Rosemary has become desperate to marry the local merchant Howard Bevans (Arthur O'Connell).
A spark for this tinderbox arrives in the form of Hal Carter (William Holden), a former college buddy of Alan's who tells spicy tales of bumming around Hollywood. Hal leans on Alan to ask his dad for a job, but has no real skills to offer and unrealistic ambitions. He talks big but can't hide the fact that he's a bum and will have to start as a laborer. That doesn't decrease his appeal to Madge, much to the horror of her mother. Hal's virility also upsets Rosemary, who causes a scene at the grand Labor Day picnic that gets them all into trouble. Wanted by the police, Hal flies into a rage. Madge has already decided that she will, that she must, be his. But what future can they possible share?
Picnic's classic scene is an extended Labor Day celebration followed by an almost magical evening dance. An Americana montage of rural games and other activities gives way to an afternoon rest time, followed by the "Neewollah" ritual greeting for the year's newly crowned Labor Day Queen. A spotlight picks out Madge entering the dance area on a boat, like a goddess, and Hal realizes that she's the most desirable thing he's ever seen. Even old Howard is stirred, and has to remind himself that he "couldn't touch her with a ten foot pole". The dance on the pier gives Madge another devastating entrance, clapping her hands to the backbeat of the music. Cinematographer James Wong Howe frames Hal and Madge's slow dance with rows of glowing Japanese paper lanterns. Americana-land is suddenly a romantic fantasy world. And the pair suddenly know that they're fated for each other.
I've heard criticism of Picnic because of its theatrical dialogue. People discuss issues directly. Rosalind Russell's Rosemary expresses her panic in very clear terms, which is of course stylized. But the panic distilled in her perfectly chosen phrases conveys strong feelings: "I wanna have a good time! I wanna have a good time!" In William Inge's repressed Midwest, sex bursts free at the least convenient times. And there's no hiding the fact that Inge includes a "writer" figure in the young but knowing Millie, who may go forward to chronicle the sad tale of her older sister. Awkward and insecure, Millie has a much better chance at achieving happiness - she won't be objectified by every stranger she meets.
Made on location at great expense, Picnic is an exceptional production for Columbia, which in 1955 was putting out only a few prestige pictures per year. Cinematographer James Wong Howe's warm, diffuse colors give the show a special look, transforming the harvest picnic into a painfully poignant ritual for those in desperate need to change their lives. The superb dialogue by William Inge, the original author of the Broadway play, gives William Holden a terrific opportunity to show how appealing he can be as a tough-guy loser. We soon forget that Holden is at least ten years too old to play Hal. Kim Novak's part seems almost autobiographical -- the deceptively "shallow" girl weary of being told she's beautiful. Director Joshua Logan handles the actors extremely well, and the camera blocking is worked out to perfection; one would never guess that the accomplished stage director would helm the limp South Pacific and Camelot after this accomplishment. The final aerial shot of a bus and a train heading off across the prairie, to come back together again in Chicago, is unforgettable. If the cameraman and the studio designers worked out all the locations and technical details for Logan, at least the director was too smart to get in the way.
It's said that Inge adapted both Picnic and Splendor in the Grass from real events he witnessed back in Independence, Kansas -- tragedies that befell admired young high school celebrities. He stirred up resentment when the locals recognized the original cases. Picnic has dramatic teeth because we know that Flo Owens, the abandoned mother, is well justified in trying to stop her daughter from leaving: Hal and Madge's passion will almost certainly collapse in poverty, gambling, or liquor. That's apparently what happened in real life. But the life-urge is too great: Madge will take her chances with the cards she's dealt. Inge gives his most hopeful thoughts to the sweet lady next door, Helen Potts (Verna Felton). She's an elderly woman taking care of an even older mother, and has been long locked away from opportunities of life and love. Helen gives Madge her unspoken blessing -- she knows that a woman must follow her heart, one way or another. 1
Twilight Time's Blu-ray of Picnic does justice to the film's powerful visuals. The fine HD transfer and restoration by Sony-Columbia makes the picture sparkle, and eliminates the excessive grain of some earlier home video releases. The added detail really helps with reading facial expressions in wide shots, when five or six people are on screen. Until the 1990s and laserdiscs, I don't know how many times I saw the picture pan-scanned, wondering what it must have looked like on a big screen. William Holden and Kim Novak have incredible romantic chemistry of the kind that just doesn't exist any more -- most of our present screen idols are soon overexposed through tabloid television coverage. The movie makes them look like Gods. George Duning's score can be a little over-emphatic at times, but it fits the film like a glove.
Twilight Time supplies an Isolated Score Track that may help musical fans pick out some of the incidental music. Pennies from Heaven and Ain't She Sweet are heard, but also another bouncy tune, that I finally figured out (I'm always the last to know when it comes to music) was used as the final number for Columbia's 1936 musical Pennies from Heaven. Its title? Can't seem to find it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Picnic Blu-ray rates:
1. Young people don't always understand the anguish that Madge's mother feels -- Madge is seemingly repeating Flo's own "life mistakes" (?) and Flo cannot do anything about it. Consider for a minute that Madge's mother had to raise those two girls by herself, working whatever jobs she could, and that she never felt fulfilled. Madge and Millie aren't exactly from the wrong side of the tracks, but they aren't town society either. Jacques Demy made a mini-career of romantic stories in which young people repeat the romantic rituals and make the same romantic mistakes as the previous generation: Lola and
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Heck, John Ford does much the same thing in his The Searchers.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.