A freight train rolls into a quiet Kansas town on a hot summer day, and a man named Hal Carter (William Holden) jumps off. A drifter without a home or too much money in his pocket, Hal hopes to reunite with a friend from college and maybe get a job out of it...if possible. It doesn't take too long for Hal to find the friend, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), the well-to-do son of one of the richest men in town. Even after years apart and with both men having gone down such different paths, the two fraternity buddies pick things up like they were never apart. It's Labor Day, and Hal's timing is pretty good as the whole town is heading off to an immense picnic, a farewell of sorts to the summer. Hal is a little wary of the gathering as the outsider in town but ends up going. Problem? You bet, especially when Hal sets his sights on Madge (Kim Novak), Alan's beautiful girlfriend who comes from a poor(ish) family. Let the drama begin.
In the button-down, gentlemanly, poodle-skirt era of the 1950's, people simply did not have sex. It was simply...FORBIDDEN. Or so the movies would have you think. This was a huge time of change in Hollywood as studios got away from all sorts of production codes that limited what could and couldn't be shown. So as a result, audiences got a lot of sexually charged, forbidden love movies, often set in little towns where sexual frustrations apparently ran rampant. We got movies like this, Peyton Place, God's Little Acre, A Streetcar Named Desire, Baby Doll and plenty more I'm probably forgetting. All that repression and frustration always explodes in dramatic fashion! Ah, emotions and feelings! Yeah, at times, things can go a little overboard. That's Picnic. Some good moments, some good performances, with some really heavy, overdone moments.
'Picnic' is based off a Pulitzer Prize winning play that took Broadway by storm in 1953. Director Joshua Logan helmed both the play and the feature film, picking up an Oscar nomination in the process. In its filming techniques, 'Picnic' never feels like a stage-based play turned feature film. You can't say that for a lot of like-minded films. Logan filmed on-location in Hutchinson, Kansas and explores the town. You get a feel for the town, its people and its energy. The movie itself clocks in at 115 minutes and can clearly be divided in two parts. That first hour sets the stage, introducing all this hidden drama, rivalries, personal problems and lets the tension build into the high-drama of the second half as all those issues come to center stage. As for me? I loved the first hour and tolerated the second. More on that to come.
The cast doesn't feature a ton of big names, but that's not a bad thing. Holden took some heat because at 37 he was probably a little too old for the Hal part, but probably doesn't mean much. He brings the right energy to the part, hiding some personal demons while presenting an outgoing, fun-loving, likable persona. Really? He's a man in his mid-20s trying to find his lot in life, and so far, he's come up empty wherever he's turned. This isn't always a likable character, but Holden's Hal is a sympathetic one. His chemistry with Novak's Madge is perceptible in the air, just two people drawn to each other and they can't explain it. Novak would develop into a solid actress over the years, but here, her performance is a little rough. As a presence, she's unquestioned, stunningly beautiful, her Madge sick of everyone judging her by looks and looks alone.
Who else to look for? 'Picnic' was actually Cliff Robertson's first credited feature film, his Alan being an interesting mix, a spoiled kid who doesn't want to be the spoiled kid. We do get to see a mean streak in him though so stay tuned. Betty Field plays Flo, Madge's single mother, badgering and worrying and overbearing, while Susan Strasberg is Millie, Madge's tomboy little sister, smart, a reader and sick of Madge. Rosalind Russell hams it up as Rosemary, a 40-something schoolteacher in town, with a suitor/boyfriend of sorts in shop owner, Howard (Arthur O'Connell in an Oscar-nominated turn). Also look for Verna Felton as Helen Potts, the adorable next door neighbor, a bit of a conscience for the film/town, and Nick Adams as a horny teenager.
When Picnic is good, it's really good. But when it goes? Man, it goes. Everything comes to crazy fruition at the tail end of the picnic, and all hell breaks loose. The key, momentum-changing shift is started when a shirt gets torn, and literally everyone FREAKS THE EF OUT. A movie based on a stage play becomes very stagey and overdone and hammy. EMOTIONS and FEELINGS are everywhere. It's not that the drama isn't effective. It's that it lacks all subtlety at all. It becomes painful to watch at times. The ending itself is built up as a happy ending (of sorts), but man, when you think about it, this is NO happy ending at all. Still...it's a very cool final shot, so that counts for something right?
An interesting mix in the end. I really liked parts of it, especially Holden's performance, but the whole thing gets to be a little much in the end. The positives serve as a time capsule of sports. The entire story takes place in a 24-hour time period, and my goodness, it was quite the sunny, beautiful Labor Day. This is a beautiful movie to sit back and watch and appreciate it. We get a picture of 1950's life, especially in the extended picnic sequence as the whole town comes together to celebrate. Before all hell breaks loose in the emotions department in the second half, you get a sense of a more innocent time, and then Holden's shirt gets ripped and all bets are off. Still, there's enough to recommend but be forewarned that things turn into a sappy, tawdry soap opera in the second half.
Picnic (1955): ** 1/2 /****