Picnic (1955 film)
original film poster
|Directed by||Joshua Logan|
|Written by||William Inge (play)
Daniel Taradash (screenplay)
|Music by||George Duning|
|Cinematography||James Wong Howe|
|Editing by||William A. Lyon
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
|Release date(s)||November 1955 (limited screenings)
16 February 1956 (US)
|Running time||115 mins.|
$6,300,000 (US / Canada)
Picnic is a 1955 Cinemascope production, the film adapted for the screen by Daniel Taradash from William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning play. Joshua Logan, director of the original Broadway stage production, directed the film version. Picnic was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning two.
The film starred William Holden and Kim Novak in leading roles. The supporting cast members were Rosalind Russell, Susan Strasberg, Cliff Robertson, Arthur O'Connell, Nick Adams, Betty Field, Verna Felton and Raymond Bailey
The film dramatizes twenty-four hours in the life of a rural Kansas town set in mid-twentieth century America. It is the Labor Day holiday and an anchorless, ex-football hero drifts in looking to re-connect with his old college friend, son of a wealthy grain elevator operator. This is the story of the proverbial outsider who blows into town and subsequently manages to upturn complacency, shake convention, disrupt, rearrange lives and—reset the fates of all those with whom he comes into contact.
Hal Carter (William Holden) is a former college football star, adrift and unemployed after army service and a failed Hollywood acting career. On Labor Day (September 5, 1955), he arrives by freight train in a Kansas town to visit his fraternity friend, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), the son of a wealthy grain elevator owner, Mr. Benson (Raymond Bailey). Working for his breakfast by doing chores in the backyard of kindly Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton), Hal stops paperboy Bomber (Nick Adams) from pestering neighbor Madge Owens (Kim Novak), who happens to be dating Alan. Her single-parent mother (Betty Field) is hoping Madge will marry Alan, which would thus raise both Madge and herself into the town's highest, respectable social circles. Alan wants to marry Madge, but his father thinks she is beneath him. Madge tells her mother she doesn't love Alan and is weary of being liked only because she is pretty.
Hal gets along wonderfully with almost everyone, and Alan is very happy to see "same old Hal", whom he takes to the family's sprawling grain elevator operations. He promises Hal a steady job as a "wheat scooper" (though Hal is disappointed he is not made an executive) and invites Hal to the town's Labor Day picnic. Hal is wary about going to the picnic, but Alan nudges him into it, saying Hal's "date" for the picnic will be Madge's bookish younger sister Millie (Susan Strasberg), who is quickly drawn to Hal's cheerful demeanor and charisma. Alan reassures Mrs. Owens that although Hal flunked out of college and lost his football scholarship because he did not study, there are no worries about him. The afternoon carries on very happily, until Hal carelessly starts talking about himself too much and Alan stops him with a cutting remark. As the sun goes down, everyone wanders off. Millie draws a sketch of Hal and tells him she secretly writes poetry. Hal's behavior towards her is friendly and utterly trustworthy, but his replies show he has no understanding of her world at all. Madge is named the town's annual Queen of Neewollah ("Halloween" spelled backwards), and Hal longingly gazes at her as she is brought down the river in a swan-shaped pedal-boat. They shyly say "Hi" to each other as she glides by.
Middle-aged schoolteacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell), who rents a room at the Owens house, has been brought to the picnic by store owner Howard Bevens (Arthur O'Connell). When the band plays dance music, Howard says he can't dance, so Rosemary dances with Millie. Hal and Howard then start dancing together, which nettles Rosemary. She grabs Howard, who then dances with her. Hal tries to show Millie a dance he learned in Los Angeles, but Millie can not quite get the beat. Madge stumbles upon this, begins clapping handily to the beat, and the two begin dancing together. Having been cast aside and ignored by both Rosemary and Hal, Millie sulks off and starts drinking from a whiskey flask hidden in Howard's jacket. Rosemary, drunk from the same whiskey, jealously breaks up the dance between Madge and Hal. Rosemary flings herself at Hal, saying he reminds her of a Roman gladiator. When Hal tries to ward off the schoolteacher, she rips his shirt then bitterly calls him a bum. Mrs. Owens and Alan show up and think Hal has caused a messy scandal, made all the worse when Millie breaks down, screaming, "Madge is the pretty one!" and becomes ill from the whiskey. Rosemary, still blinded by her anger, tells Mrs. Owens that Hal gave Millie the whiskey, while Howard's plea that he brought the whiskey seems to fall on deaf ears. By now a crowd is watching, and Hal flees into the darkness.
Madge follows Hal to Alan's car and gets in with him. He angrily tells her to go home. However, she won't budge, so he drives off with her to town. By the river he tells her he was sent to reform school as a boy for stealing a motorcycle and that his whole life is a failure. Madge kisses Hal, which astonishes him. They promise to meet after she gets off work at six the next evening. Hal drives back to Alan's house to return the car, but Alan has called the police and wants Hal arrested. After trying to talk things out, Hal flees the house in Alan's car with the police following close behind. Leaving the car back by the river, Hal goes into the water, gets away from them and shows up at Howard's apartment, asking to spend the night there. Howard is very understanding and now has his own worries: a highly distraught, desperate and remorseful Rosemary has begged him to marry her. Back at the Owens house, Madge and Millie cry themselves to sleep in their shared room.
The next morning, Howard comes to the Owens house, intending to tell Rosemary he wants to wait, but at the sight of him she becomes overjoyed, thinking he has come to take her away. Flustered in front of the whole household and other schoolteachers, Howard wordlessly goes along with this. As he passes Madge on the stairs, he tells her Hal is hiding in the backseat of his car. Hal is able to slip away before the other women gleefully paint and attach streamers and tin cans to Howard's car, throwing rice and asking him where he'll take Rosemary for their honeymoon. As Howard and Rosemary happily drive off to the Ozarks, Hal and Madge meet by a shed behind the house. He asks her to meet him in Tulsa, where he can get a room and a job at a hotel as a bellhop and elevator operator. Mrs. Owens finds them by the shed and threatens to call the police. Hal runs to catch a passing freight train, crying out to Madge, "You love me! You love me!"
Upstairs in their room, Millie tells Madge to "do something bright" for once in her life and go to Hal. Madge packs a small suitcase and, despite her mother's tears (but also nudged on by Mrs. Potts), boards a bus for Tulsa.
At the time the film was cast, William Holden was 37 years old and wary of playing Hal, given Novak was only 22. Picnic was one of Novak's earliest film roles, and this movie made her a star. In the film Holden keeps his hair combed in an untidy fringe over his forehead and has the sleeves of his shirt rolled up throughout the film. He shaved his chest for the shirtless shots and was reportedly nervous about his dancing for the "Moonglow" scene. Logan took him to Kansas roadhouses where he practiced steps in front of jukeboxes with choreographer Miriam Nelson. Heavy thunderstorms with tornado warnings repeatedly interrupted shooting of the scene on location, and it was completed on a backlot in Burbank, where Holden (according to some sources) was "dead drunk" to calm his nerves.
Millie, the independently minded girl who memorizes Shakespeare sonnets and rebels against her older sister, was an early role for Susan Strasberg, the daughter of prominent 'Method' drama teacher Lee Strasberg. Elizabeth Wilson had a bit part as one of the smirking schoolteachers (12 years later she played a major supporting role in Mike Nichols' The Graduate as Benjamin Braddock's attractive, slightly high-strung mom). Verna Felton, a longtime radio and TV character actor who was well known to audiences in the 1950s, had a strong supporting role as neighbor Helen Potts. 'Bomber' the paperboy was played by Nick Adams, who dated Natalie Wood and was a friend of both James Dean and Elvis Presley. Mr. Benson played by Raymond Bailey (without his toupee), later known on television as Beverly Hillbillies banker Milburn Drysdale. Reta Shaw, Elizabeth Wilson, and Arthur O'Connell recreated their roles from the original Broadway production.
James Wong Howe's widescreen photography for the film was considered trendsetting at the time. The Cinemascope format was highlighted in the film's final aerial shot when it pulls back to frame a sprawling horizon showing both a freight train and a Continental Trailways bus separately bearing the two leading characters.
The extensive use of Kansas locations highlighted the naturalistic, small-town drama. The Labor Day picnic scenes were shot and edited like a documentary film.Picnic was shot mostly on location in five central Kansas towns:
- Halstead's Riverside Park is where all the Labor Day picnic scenes (some of which are semi-documentary) were filmed. The park and many landmarks still existed at the time of the movie's 50th anniversary.
- Hutchinson, with its huge grain elevators.
- Nickerson is the location of the two adjacent houses where Madge (Kim Novak) and her family live, with Mrs. Potts next door; also where Hal (William Holden) "jumps a freight" to go to Tulsa and where Madge boards a bus in the last scene.
- Salina, where Hal jumps off a train in the opening scene and meets Alan (Cliff Robertson) at Alan's father's large house. This also is where Madge kisses Hal by the Saline River and where he escapes from the police by running under a waterfall.
- Sterling, where the pre-picnic swim in the lake was filmed.
"Theme From Picnic" was a hit song which reached number one on the 1956 Billboard charts and was number 14 overall that year. Composed by George Duning and Steve Allen (although Allen's lyrics were not used in the film), the song is featured in the famous dance scene between Holden and Novak, wherein Columbia's musical director Morris Stoloff blended "Theme From Picnic" with the 1930s standard "Moonglow". The two songs were often paired in later recordings by other artists. The soundtrack album reached #23 on the Billboard charts.
Picnic was successful both financially and critically when first released. In the wake of changing tastes and cinematic trends during the 1960s, the film was dismissed in retrospective reviews written during the next two decades. Restoration was performed on the film in the mid-1990s, which brought many art-house bookings. By the end of the 20th century, critics were praising its resonant portrayal of small-town life in America during the Eisenhower era, along with its melodic soundtrack and strong performances by a supporting cast, including Arthur O'Connell (reprising the role he played during Picnic's successful run on Broadway) and a young Susan Strasberg. A half-century later, both of these performances still drew wide praise.
Holden's charisma as Hal has been acknowledged in later reviews, but the role is not cited as among the best of his career. Although Novak's character was quietly rebelling against being thought of as "only pretty", she has nonetheless been criticized as being too passive in the role. Rosalind Russell's performance as an emotionally distraught, often overbearing middle-aged schoolteacher has drawn both admiring and highly dismissive commentary in DVD reviews. Much of Picnic's lasting appeal seems to derive from its well-drawn supporting characters and subplots, the authentic location settings in central Kansas and the time-capsule depiction of life in 1955 small-town America.
Picnic won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (William Flannery, Jo Mielziner, Robert Priestley) and Best Film Editing and was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (O'Connell, who reprised his stage role), Best Director, Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (George Duning) and Best Picture. The film won the prestigious Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association.
In 2002 Picnic was ranked #59 in AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions.
Subliminal marketing hoax
In 1957, marketing researcher James Vicary said he had included subliminal messages such as eat popcorn and drink Coca-Cola in public screenings of Picnic for six weeks, claiming sales of Coca-Cola and popcorn increased 18.1% and 57.8% respectively. However, Vicary later admitted there had never been any such messages and his announcement was itself a marketing trick.
Picnic was remade for television twice, first in 1986, directed by Marshall W. Mason and starring Gregory Harrison, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Learned, Rue McClanahan and Dick Van Patten. The second remake was in 2000, starring Josh Brolin, Gretchen Mol, Bonnie Bedelia, Jay O. Sanders and Mary Steenburgen. The screenplay adaptation by Shelley Evans was directed by Ivan Passer.
- 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956', Variety Weekly, January 2, 1957
- "All Time Domestic Champs", Variety, 6 January 1960 p 34
- Variety film review; December 7, 1955, p.8
- Harrison's Reports film review; December 10, 1955, p.198
- Ebert. Roger. Picnic, October 25, 1996
- Picnic (play)
- The Billboard Book of Number Two Singles. Watson-Guptill, 2000.
- Swap a DVD
- "NY Times: Picnic". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-22.
- "Urban Legends Reference Pages: Business (Subliminal Advertising)". The Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 2006-08-11.
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