Picnic (1955)

“What good is it just to be pretty?”

Picnic Poster

Synopsis:
A hunky drifter (William Holden) arrives in a small Kansas town over Labor Day weekend, intending to look up his old college friend (Cliff Robertson) and secure some work — but he soon finds himself falling in love with Robertson’s beautiful girlfriend (Kim Novak), whose single mother (Betty Field) is eager to see Novak married off to wealthy Robertson. Meanwhile, a spinster schoolteacher (Rosalind Russell) despairs over whether her boyfriend (Arthur O’Connell) will ever marry her, and Novak’s bookish younger sister (Susan Strasberg) longs to become a writer in New York.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately notes that this adaptation (by Joshua Logan) of William Inge’s play about a drifter “whose presence arouses passions” in a town where everyone “seemed repressed” is “badly dated, especially in its portrayal of women” — given that “Novak actually starts to believe her mother’s… propaganda that a woman must marry”. He argues that “Holden seems miscast” and that the “film would have worked better with Douglas Sirk directing Rock Hudson” — an interesting proposition, given that so much of the film (helped not at all by George Duning’s overbearing score) comes across as almost laughably melodramatic, as in the following exchange:

Novak: I’m only 19.
Field: And next summer you’ll be 20…
Novak: And then 21, and then…
Field: 40.
Novak: You don’t have to be morbid!

Meanwhile, Russell is, as Peary points out, “pretty intolerable”, and Strasberg’s character — “an intellectual [who] isn’t supposed to need a man” — comes across as simply whiny and obnoxious. Peary argues that the film’s “highlight is the hot ‘mating’ dance (to ‘Moonglow’) of Holden and Novak” — and this scene is handled nicely by both Logan and DP James Wong Howe (who infuses the entire film with a soft glow). But my favorite section of the film is when Logan opens up Inge’s play to highlight various vignettes from the Labor Day picnic (only discussed in the play, rather than shown). In truth, I’m simply not a fan of this story at all — and Novak’s vacuous central performance doesn’t help matters any. Despite its status as one of the top moneymakers of its time, modern film fanatics needn’t bother checking this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The fun “picnic activities” montage
    Picnic Picnic
    Picnic Picnic2
  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
    Picnic Cinematography
    Picnic Cinematography2

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one.

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One Response to “Picnic (1955)”

  1. Not a must.

    What’s mentioned in the review is true: DP Howe has, in fact, filmed the whole thing beautifully, and a highlight is Holden and Novak doing a very semi-erotic dance together. (I think the two of them give reasonable performances overall.) But, on the whole, this is a rather silly film (its capture of the ’50s in the midwest notwithstanding – or maybe, because I live in the midwest now, due to that reason; the midwest remains very much in the ’50s to this day).

    I don’t particularly mind Russell’s performance: it’s a cross between being an absolute hoot and being totally twisted in its repression. I also like O’Connell’s understated performance as her boyfriend Howard. (Is Strasberg supposed to be a stand-in for Inge?, one wonders.)

    But this one really can be skipped. It has moments but it’s not that good.

    Note for gay ffs: Note the mention of a book Strasberg’s character is reading – ‘The Ballad of the Sad Cafe’ by Carson McCullers – as a banned book at the time.

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