Picnic (1955)
Picnic (1955)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 55 min.

Release Date: December 7th, 1955 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Joshua Logan Actors: William Holden, Kim Novak, Susan Strasberg, Betty Field, Cliff Robertson, Arthur O’Connell, Verna Felton, Rosalind Russell

 


 

“A

friend of mine lives here,” insists drifter Hal Carter (William Holden) as he exits a train, whose conductor seriously doubts that the apparent itinerant knows anyone in the rural Kansas town. Sure enough, Hal stops by the first house he sees, asking to rake the yard and burn the trash in exchange for a meal. Elderly Helen Potts (Verna Felton) agrees, letting the stranger eat some cherry pie before beginning various chores. As he sets about laboring, sinewy Hal removes his shirt, which immediately catches the attention of a few neighbors, including schoolteacher Rosemary Sidney (Rosalind Russell), as well as the Owens women, comprised of matriarch Flo (Betty Field) and her two daughters – the pretty one, Madge (Kim Novak), and the younger but smarter tomboy Millie (Susan Strasberg).

As it turns out, Hal does indeed know a pal from college, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), whose family owns a prosperous grain business; the two couldn’t have led more different lives since school, with Hal doing a stint in the army and then hitchhiking around the country, while Alan golfs and enjoys the luxuries afforded to him by his family’s wealth. Of course, the two will soon share a common interest during a fateful Labor Day picnic that afternoon – in Madge, who has been dating the affluent Benson lad. “With Alan, you’d live in comfort the rest of your life,” pressures Flo.

“What good is it just to be pretty?” Based on the William Inge play, “Picnic” amusingly examines the roles and expectations of young women in the ’50s, especially when it comes to the possibility of using fortuitous good looks to marry into money. As Flo Owens details, Madge only has a handful of years in her early twenties before she’s suddenly an old maid; she’ll go from 20 to 40 in the blink of an eye. And they place their worth on their marry-ability, as social mores of the era ascribed little potential for career-driven, financially successful women. Here, unwed females are often ostracized and disregarded, deemed inferior by their failure to have acquired a mate during their most eligible years. Even a “Trained Seals” game at the picnic is pointedly designed to exclude single people.

“I gotta get some place in this world.” Of course, men too have woes – of a disparate kind – as they’re supposed to make something of themselves. Hal talks big, but he doesn’t fool anyone; it’s obvious that he hasn’t attained a honorable career yet, and that that lack of accomplishment will weigh heavily on his overall respectability (as well as his own self-esteem). He may be a looker, but in the small-town setting of “Picnic,” riches and security are valued above all else, even if youthfulness has its advantages. Desperation eventually sets in for both sexes if they haven’t lived up to exterior pressures of unfulfilled potential.

When not scrutinizing antiquated customs and societal forecasts of traditional masculinity and femininity, the film is a simple yet enjoyable look at a love triangle. Mismatched couples are destined to sort out – or switch out – their partners before the night is through, occasionally in comical ways but primarily in tension-filled interactions oozing with classical sexuality or uncomfortable jealousy. Booze fuels arguments, blame, and regret, threatening to destroy reputations and friendships and expose inner ugliness, though the film continues to circle back to marriage as an ultimate goal and status symbol – something that steadily loses its significance over time.

“You got your troubles, and I got mine.” Though the film sticks with few sets and characters, resembling its stage origins, it’s still effective as a theatrical relationship drama, examining both youngsters and the older pairing of Rosemary and Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell), who feels too set in his ways to get hitched – resulting in moderate humor but also considerable unease. In the end, it’s a brief but consequential romance, boasting an unexpected, idealistic finale that, while momentous, really only works in the context of the movies.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10