Picnic (1955 film)

Picnic is a 1955 American Technicolor romantic comedy-drama film filmed in Cinemascope.[3][4] It was adapted for the screen by Daniel Taradash from William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name.[5] Joshua Logan, director of the original Broadway stage production, directed the film version, which stars William Holden, Kim Novak, and Rosalind Russell, with Susan Strasberg and Cliff Robertson in supporting roles. Picnic was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won two.

Original movie poster for the film Picnic.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJoshua Logan
Screenplay byDaniel Taradash
Based onPicnic
1953 play
by William Inge
Produced byFred Kohlmar
StarringWilliam Holden
Kim Novak
Betty Field
Rosalind Russell
CinematographyJames Wong Howe
Edited byWilliam A. Lyon
Charles Nelson
Music byGeorge Duning
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • December 7, 1955 (1955-12-07)
Running time
115 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3 million[2]
Box office$9 million (rentals)[2]

The film dramatizes 24 hours in the life of a small Kansas town in the mid-20th century. It revolves around the Labor Day holiday. It is the story of an outsider whose appearance disrupts and rearranges the lives of those with whom he comes into contact.


Hal Carter is a former college football star, adrift and unemployed after army service and a failed acting career in Hollywood. On Labor Day (September 5, 1955), he arrives by freight train in a Kansas town to visit his fraternity friend Alan Benson. Working for his breakfast by doing chores in the backyard of kindly Mrs. Potts, Hal meets Madge Owens, her sister Millie , and their mother. Hal tries to be accepted and gets along with most. Alan is very happy to see the "same old Hal", whom he takes to his family's sprawling grain elevator operations. Alan promises Hal a steady job as a "wheat scooper" (though Hal had unrealistic expectations of becoming an executive) and invites Hal to swim and to attend the town's Labor Day picnic. Hal is wary about going to the picnic, but Alan nudges him into it, saying Hal's "date" will be Millie, who is quickly drawn to Hal's cheerful demeanor and charisma. Alan reassures Mrs. Owens that although Hal flunked out of college, there are no reasons to be concerned about him. The afternoon carries on happily, until Hal starts talking about himself too much, and Alan stops him with cutting remarks. It's obvious that Hal and Madge like each other. When the sun sets, everyone wanders off. Millie draws a sketch of Hal and tells him she secretly writes poetry, growing fond of him despite his lack of interest. Madge is named the town's annual Queen of Neewollah ("Halloween" spelled backward), and Hal longingly gazes at her while she is brought down the river in a swan-shaped paddle-boat. They shyly say "Hi" to each other as she glides by.

Middle-aged schoolteacher Rosemary, who rents a room at the Owens house, has been brought to the picnic by store owner Howard Bevens; both had been drinking whiskey. 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 angers Rosemary; she grabs Howard, who then dances with her. Hal tries to show Millie a dance he learned in LA to the song, Moonglow, but Millie cannot quite get the beat. Madge stumbles upon them, seductively transforming the moves Hal is showing Millie, and sways toward him, thus initiating a dance with him in which they both become increasingly mesmerized. Millie, having been cast aside and ignored by both Rosemary and Hal, sulks off and starts drinking Howard's whiskey. Rosemary, now quite drunk, 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 arrive and believe Hal has caused a scandal, made all the worse when Millie breaks down, screaming, "Madge is the pretty one!" and becomes ill from the whiskey. Rosemary, 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. Alan blames Hal for the mess and says he is ashamed that he brought Hal in the first place. By now a crowd is watching, and Hal flees into the darkness.

Madge follows Hal to Alan's car, ashamed of Alan and Rosemary's behavior, and gets in with him. He angrily tells her to go home. She won't budge, so he drives 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 and he responds. Later, outside Madge's house, they kiss goodbye and promise to meet after she finishes 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, Alan physically attacks Hal. Hal fights back against Alan and the two police officers. Hal flees the house in Alan's car with the police following close behind. Leaving the car 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 is overjoyed, thinking he has come to take her away. Flustered in front of the whole household and other schoolteachers, Howard wordlessly goes along with the misunderstanding. 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 where he'll take Rosemary for their honeymoon. While Howard and Rosemary happily drive off to the Ozarks, Hal and Madge meet by a shed behind the house. He tells her that he loves her and asks her to meet him in Tulsa, where they can marry and he can get a job at a hotel as a bellhop and elevator operator. Mrs. Owens finds them by the shed and threatens to call the police. Madge and Hal embrace and kiss. 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 urged on by Mrs. Potts), boards a bus for Tulsa.[6]

Main castEdit


Columbia acquired the rights to the play for $350,000 in September 1953.[7]

When Picnic was cast, William Holden was already 37 years old, too old according to some to play the role of Hal Carter.[citation needed] Regardless, Holden was "happy to finish his Columbia Pictures contract with such a prestigious project" despite the film paying him $30,000 instead of the $250,000 he would have otherwise earned.[5] Picnic was one of Kim Novak's early 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. 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)[specify] 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. 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, an actor who dated Natalie Wood and was a friend of both James Dean and Elvis Presley. Mr. Benson was 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.[8] This was Rosalind Russell's first Hollywood movie after a big success on Broadway with her Tony Award-winning performance in Wonderful Town (1953).

During filming of the actual picnic scenes in Halstead, Kansas, a tornado swept through the area, forcing the cast and crew to take cover. While the storm spared the set, it devastated the nearby town of Udall, Kansas, and the film crew drove their trucks and equipment there to help clean up the damage.[9]

James Wong Howe's widescreen photography for the film was considered trendsetting at the time.[citation needed] 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. Picnic was shot mostly around Hutchinson, Kansas.[5] Other Kansas locations include:

  • Halstead's Riverside Park is where the Labor Day picnic scenes were filmed.[10][11][12] The park and many landmarks remained at the time of the movie's 50th anniversary. The merry-go-round and cable suspension footbridge, which spans the Little Arkansas River, are still located there.
  • Nickerson is the location of the two adjacent houses used for the Owens family home and that of Mrs. Potts. It is where Hal (William Holden) "jumps a freight" to go to Tulsa and where Madge boards a bus in the last scene.[13]
  • Salina, for the opening scene where Hal jumps off a train, then meets Alan (Cliff Robertson) at Alan's father's large house. This location is also used for the Saline River (where Madge kisses Hal) and the scene where Hal escapes from the police by running under a waterfall.[14]
  • Sterling, where the pre-picnic swim in the lake was filmed.[15]


The film's release was accompanied by a Time magazine cover story.[16]

It earned theatrical rentals of $6,300,000 in the United States and Canada and $9 million worldwide.[17][18][2]

The film was restored in the mid-1990s,[19] which brought many art-house bookings.[20] Stephen Holden, in a 1996 review of the restored film, began by noting:[19]

Today it probably wouldn't be worth more than a PG-13 rating (if even that), but in 1955, the "Moonglow" dance and the "torn shirt" sequences from the movie Picnic were about as steamy as Hollywood could get in evoking explosive sex.

According to Holden, "Rosalind Russell is vividly scary as an older schoolteacher who foolishly lunges after Hal. Betty Field is just right as Madge's wistful, once-beautiful mother, who years earlier ran away with a man like Hal, and Susan Strasberg does well in the role of Madge's tomboyish younger sister. George Duning's wistful, Copland-influenced score captures the mood of heated yearning that not only engulfed the movie, but also defined the country's romantic ethos in the mid-'50s."[19]

Awards and honorsEdit

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards Best Motion Picture Fred Kohlmar Nominated
Best Director Joshua Logan Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Arthur O'Connell Nominated
Best Art Direction – Color William Flannery, Jo Mielziner and Robert Priestley Won
Best Film Editing Charles Nelson and William Lyon Won
Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture George Duning Nominated
Belgian Film Critics Association Grand Prix Won
British Academy Film Awards Best Film from any Source Nominated
Best Foreign Actor William Holden Nominated
Best Foreign Actress Kim Novak Nominated
Most Promising Newcomer to Film Susan Strasberg Nominated
Cahiers du Cinéma Best Film Joshua Logan Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Director – Motion Picture Won
Nastro d'Argento Best Foreign Film Nominated
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 9th Place
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Written American Drama Daniel Taradash Nominated

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


"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 often were paired in later recordings by other artists. The soundtrack album reached number 23 on the Billboard charts. The Theme from Picnic was also a popular song recorded by the McGuire Sisters, and was a top 10 hit in 1956.[23]

Subliminal marketing hoaxEdit

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 such messages, and his announcement was a marketing trick.[24]


Picnic was remade for television twice. The first was 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.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Picnic (1955)
  2. ^ a b c "Wall St. Researchers' Cheery Tone". Variety. November 7, 1962. p. 7.
  3. ^ Arneel, Gene (December 7, 1955). "Film Reviews: Picnic". Variety. p. 8. Retrieved January 30, 2021 – via Archive.org.
  4. ^ Harrison's Reports film review; December 10, 1955, p.198
  5. ^ a b c Miller, Frank. "Picnic". Articles. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 25, 1996). "Picnic". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved 2014-02-15. Director Joshua Logan, among the worst filmmakers of his time, spends so much footage on the picnic, you'd think this was a documentary: There are crying babies, laughing babies, frowning babies, three-legged races, pie-eating competitions, balloon drops, concerts and boy-girl contests.
  7. ^ "Up Bids For Stage Plays". Variety. September 23, 1953. p. 3. Retrieved October 7, 2019 – via Archive.org.
  8. ^ Picnic (play)
  9. ^ Shaffer, Bill (Spring 2005). "The Summer of Picnic" (PDF). Kansas Heritage. 13 (1): 10. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  10. ^ "Riverside Park Bridge and Falls". Kansas Travel. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  11. ^ "Halstead Kansas". Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  12. ^ Shaffer, Bill (Spring 2005). "The Summer of Picnic" (PDF). Kansas Heritage. 13 (1): 10. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  13. ^ Shaffer, Bill (Spring 2005). "The Summer of Picnic" (PDF). Kansas Heritage. 13 (1): 11. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  14. ^ Shaffer, Bill (Spring 2005). "The Summer of Picnic" (PDF). Kansas Heritage. 13 (1): 8–9. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  15. ^ Shaffer, Bill (Spring 2005). "The Summer of Picnic" (PDF). Kansas Heritage. 13 (1): 11. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  16. ^ "William Holden". Time. February 27, 1956. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
  17. ^ "Top Film Grossers of 1956". Variety. January 2, 1957. p. 1. Retrieved January 30, 2021 – via Archive.org.
  18. ^ "All Time Domestic Champs". Variety. 6 January 1960. p. 34.
  19. ^ a b c Holden, Stephen (July 26, 1996). "Critic's Choice / Film: Erotic Fantasies, 50s Style". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
  20. ^ "Picnic". SwapaDVD.com. 2007. Archived from the original on 2007-12-12. Retrieved 2014-02-15. The DVD greatly benefits from a mid-1990s film restoration project that saw Picnic back on the big screen in art houses across the country.
  21. ^ "AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Passions" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  22. ^ "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  23. ^ Feldman, Christopher G. (January 2000). The Billboard Book of Number Two Singles. Watson-Guptill, 2000. ISBN 9780823076956. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
  24. ^ "Urban Legends Reference Pages: Business (Subliminal Advertising)". The Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 2006-08-11.

External linksEdit