Tuesday, August 31, 2021

‘Picnic’ 1955

William Holden & Kim Novak as the drifter & the beauty queen in 1955's "Picnic."


Picnic portrays the lives of quiet—or raucous, in the case of Roz Russell—desperation. Set in a small Kansas town during the 1950s, the story revolves around the effect that a charismatic young drifter has on the repressed townspeople one sizzling Labor Day.

Picnic is the Pulitzer Prize winning play by William Inge, at the height of his acclaim. The domestic drama was a huge Broadway hit that was brought to the screen by its stage director, Joshua Logan. Noteworthy about the stage version were some up-and-coming actors: Ralph Meeker as drifter Hal Carter; Paul Newman in his Broadway debut as rich kid Alan; Janice Rule as beauty queen Madge; and Kim Stanley at age 28, as kid sister Millie! Eileen Heckart portrayed Rosemary, the spinster teacher who spins out of control on Labor Day evening.

William Holden's "boyishness" act as Hal is as awkward as Kim Novak's acting. 

I’m sure Columbia Studios paid William Inge a pretty penny to bring his play to the big screen. Columbia head honcho Harry Cohn was giving Kim Novak a huge build up and decided this property would be perfect to launch her as a leading lady. Therefore, a “name” leading man was needed. Instead of going off the studio lot for a suitable male star to play the sexy young college dropout/drifter—say Brando?—Cohn chose studio homeboy William Holden to play Hal. And Harry didn’t have to pay a pretty penny for Bill, because it was the last film on Holden’s old studio contract. It’s a shame Marlon Brando did Guys and Dolls instead of Picnic. Brando was six years younger than Holden, far more boyishly charismatic.

William Holden was a fine actor, but too careworn & not carefree as Hal in "Picnic.

While Holden was an especially subtle male actor for the era, he was a decade too old for the part. What made this especially noticeable was that while Bill’s bod was still in fine form, Holden’s face was already showing signs of alcoholic dissipation at just 37. When Holden acts like an over-aged teenager, it’s especially awkward as he tries to impress Madge, played by 22-year-old Novak.

William Holden's form was fine, but his close-ups showed hard living in "Picnic."

Still, Bill had charisma, authority, and “rugged” sex appeal, so Holden as the young stud wasn’t a total dud. Hal Carter reminds me of Tennessee William’s later character, Chance Wayne, in Sweet Bird of Youth. They’re golden boys who come to a small town and stir things up, and both want to make off with the lovely ingénue. Both are Peter Pans, star athletes with aspirations of movie stardom, but neither have never amounted to anything. Ironically, Paul Newman was the same age as Holden in Picnic when he played Chance in ’62. While Newman liked his beers, it didn’t show, like the effects of whatever Holden hoisted.

Rosalind Russell lets rip on William Holden's shirt, as passions get heated in "Picnic."

An amused eye roll comes when Columbia cut the line from Picnic’s climactic dance scene: “I feel just like Rita Hayworth!” I guess they were more concerned with shining a spotlight on Columbia’s new love goddess, Kim Novak!

Cliff Robertson as the rich beau that Kim Novak's Madge "should" want, in "Picnic."

Kim as Madge is a contradiction, as often is the case with Novak’s acting. Kim’s shyness and uncertainty works for the character, and she was often cast thusly. I’m sure playing a girl who is valued mainly for her looks hit home for insecure Kim, who was treated like an object by Harry Cohn. Yet, Novak’s studio-trained mannerisms and dazed demeanor reminds me of another actress who often felt uncomfortable in front of the camera, Jennifer Jones, thrust into the spotlight by her Svengali, David O. Selznick. Kim’s Madge is an uneven performance, yet her vulnerability goes a long way, and she and Holden have a strong chemistry. Kudos to whoever decided that Novak temporarily drop her “lavender blonde” look. With her simple makeup and a long reddish brown wig, Kim looks pretty yet realistic as the local beauty queen.

Columbia Studios' blonde bombshell Kim Novak was toned down
for the small town drama "Picnic."

Rosalind Russell as Rosemary, the middle-aged teacher who boards at the Owens’ home, is another mixed blessing from the leads. Eileen Heckart was said to be a wow in the role on Broadway, though she was known to play big, too. While Roz bravely goes glamour-free and plays her age, unlike most of her contemporaries, Russell plays to the rafters far too often. It’s a tricky role, because Rosemary is an over the top character, which can be problematic when played by an actress who is often the same. As often the case with a “big” performance, Roz fares best in the smaller moments, when her Rosemary shares the fear of growing old alone. Russell is obviously a skilled actress and a smart one, but like the other lead actors in this film, she would have benefited from a more experienced film director, and not a theater director whose film work showed a heavy hand.

Rosalind Russell emotes as Rosemary, the desperate school teacher in "Picnic."

Arthur O’Connell is appealing and effortlessly believable as Howard, the store owner across the river, who sees Rosemary, but from a safe distance. Betty Field doesn’t play brassy for a change, as Madge and Millie’s mother. Field’s Flo has been deserted by her husband to raise the two girls the best she can. Betty is totally natural as a woman whose dreams are now for her daughters. Only in a ‘50s movie would Susan Strasberg be cast as the “plain” sister. Susan’s naturalistic as the brainy kid sister (with eyeglasses!). Strasberg’s as emotional as Novak is remote as the pretty sister, Millie’s outburst—“Madge is the pretty one!”—was the “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” of the ‘50s!

Lovely Susan Strasberg is Millie, Kim Novak's "bookworm" kid sister in "Picnic."

Cliff Robertson does what he can with the role Alan, the rich, weak kid.

In the smaller supporting roles, Nick Adams is cockily amusing as Bomber, the brash neighborhood teen; Verna Felton is most endearing as the neighbor lady who’s the first to befriend Hal; and Reta Shaw is salty as a fellow teacher. The entire supporting cast is strong, but it’s the three leads that are a mixed bag.

The superb supporting cast of "Picnic" bring reality to this slice of life drama.

Others have noted that Inge, just as popular as Tennessee Williams in the ‘50s, with a string of hits, isn’t as well remembered. Well, Williams went through a period where he was considered passé, too. I’ve read that it’s perhaps that Inge’s dialogue wasn’t as poetic and quotable. Still, William Inge did write plays about real people and their problems, often small town people. Come Back, Little Sheba, Bus Stop, Picnic, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs were huge hits. On film, he wrote screenplays for Splendor in the Grass and All Fall Down. Not too shabby!

Playwright William Inge & Director Joshua Logan surely loved this opening title!

Director Joshua Logan had an incredible string of musical, comedy, and dramatic successes on Broadway. That’s probably why Logan was asked to recreate some of those stage hits on film, as well as other blockbuster productions. That said, most films I’ve seen directed by Joshua Logan all seem a bit off-kilter: Picnic, Sayonara, South Pacific, Camelot, and Paint Your Wagon. The man had mad stage credentials, but I don’t think Logan was in film making on a regular basis to learn its intricacies. In Picnic, that’s apparent with the uneven lead performances and the very intrusive music score.

Madge gets out of Dodge at the finale of 1955's "Picnic."

Picnic is one of those movies which are frequently labeled dated. Indeed a product of its time, the drama is a snapshot of the repressed ‘50s. However, how much has really changed in small towns since then? We are obviously less repressed and are able to communicate through the internet and social media. Still, how many people feel stuck and stifled in small towns, with dreams that don’t come true? As someone who lives in rural Upper MI, I see it all the time. In that sense, Picnic is timeless.

My look at Kim Novak, teamed with Sinatra, in The Man with the Golden Arm: https://ricksrealreel.blogspot.com/2018/07/the-man-with-golden-arm-1955.html

And here’s my take on Rosalind Russell, in her signature role as Auntie Mame: https://ricksrealreel.blogspot.com/2020/12/rozs-signature-role-auntie-mame-1958.html

FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 

Check it out & join!  https://www.facebook.com/groups/178488909366865/

The poster of "Picnic" promises more than it delivers--typical of the era!


  1. SPOILER ALERT: The final scene in the film, an overhead shot in which the train that Hal Carter (William Holden) has hopped onto is followed by a bus that Kim (Madge) has boarded so that she can follow her new-found love interest is one of the most cinematically beautiful endings I have ever seen. Yes, the film is dated, but it presents a slice of life in small town America in the 1950s where the annual Labor Day picnic where (it would seem) the entire population turned out to partake of the homespun charms of such an event. Yes, perhaps Holden wasn't the perfect actor to play the drifter who set local female hearts aflutter, as he had already begun to age noticeably even at the age of just 37, the alcohol consumption having taken a toll. But rather than dwell on the inevitable 'what ifs?,' let's view "Picnic" for what it is, a near-classic of the cinematic art that puts 90% of the films made 65 years later to shame in virtually every respect.

    1. Hi John, There's actually lots to like about Picnic, and I tried to take that into account. That final shot you mentioned, was photographed by then A.D. Haskell Wexler, who went on to become a great cinematographer. As someone who grew up in a small town, I still see a lot of relevance in Picnic, as I mention in my closing paragraph. But I also try to present the pros and cons of each film I review. Thanks for writing, Rick

    2. Exactly on each point

  2. Another great choice, Rick. I just happened to read your article on Labor Day, so perfect timing in the cosmos, I guess! You are spot-on when it comes to the film's pluses and minuses, and yet the film works--at least for me. I have always liked Picnic. Maybe because it shows how confounding and inexplicable attraction and love can be!

    1. Hi Marianne, The film works for me, too, really, despite the shortcomings.
      Thought it would be a good holiday choice!
      Cheers, Rick

  3. Picnic is one of those films I find it hard to be objective about. When I first saw it, back in the mists of time (1960's), it made an impression that's stayed with me. The romance, the longing, the loneliness, and, yes, the dance sequence, grabbed my heart and never let go. I watched it again for Labor Day and the magic is still there for me. But, I have to admit, what you said about the stifling atmosphere of small towns (like the one I grew up in) and the sadness of dreams unfulfilled, came through to me like never before during this re-watch. Great review, Rick!!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Michael! I love it when people share their memories. Cheers, Rick

  4. Hi Rick - great essay on a fascinating and watchable but flawed film. I totally agree with all your assertions - Holden too old and dissipated, Russell way way over the top, Novak obviously ill at ease in her role. yet I love them all as actors and their charisma and talent do carry them through. The supporting actors are the real stars here, especially Susan Strasberg (why didn’t they let her play Anne Frank on screen after her big Broadway success? It might have made her an A List movie star!) and Betty Field (always great in everything, especially here, in Bus Stop and In Butterfield 8). In spite of all the flaws, the film does have atmosphere, and the “Moonglow” scene is haunting and romantic. I own the film and watch it at least once a year, usually around Labor Day!
    Hope all is well! Love your amazing blog!
    - Chris

    1. ...I find "Picnic," too, despite the flaws! Good point on Susan Strasberg as Anne Frank for the film, a real head scratcher!
      Thanks for the kudos, and all is okay on this end, hope the same for you,

  5. I loved this 1955 version of Picnic...I think the cast was perfect...my all time favorite film

  6. I love the movie. The eternal mystery of human attraction...mother nature unleashed, always touches me. The flaws don't glare. They blend and the dance scene is one of the most romantic in film. Holden was too old? Maybe but it worked and loneliness still hsints small towns especially on labor day....which is the annual watch for me too
    RIP Bill

    1. William Inge wrote a number of classic plays that centered on small town life beautifully. This was perhaps Inge's best. Even Holden hesitated as he knew he was too old at 37 to play post college Hal, and his drinking made him look even older. But Bill Holden was a great, natural actor, so he gave the role authority. I enjoy the entire cast and the movie on a regular basis, too. Cheers, Rick