The morning of a small town Labor Day picnic, a drifter (Hal Carter) blows into town to visit an old fraternity buddy (Alan Benson) who also happens to be the son of the richest man in town. Hal is an egocentric braggart - all potential and no accomplishment. He meets up with Madge Owens, the town beauty queen and girlfriend of Alan Benson. Written by
Erik L. Ellis <firstname.lastname@example.org>
There are a few great writers of the overheated repressed and desperate from the theater and film world of the 1950's. At the top sit the two greatest, Tennessee Williams and William Inge. In a decade of conformity and great prosperity Inge and Williams tackled subjects ahead of their time. Of course they in some cases had to veil the subject matter but that lead to some wonderful revelations in writing and reading between the lines.
In this DVD from Colombia of Inge's Pulitzer Prize winning Picnic' we have one of the best films of this genre of sexual repression, animal heat, and desperation in small town America. Most reviewers of this film might begin with the leads but I must start of with the wonderful Verna Felton as Helen Potts the sweet old lady who is caretaker of her aged mother and lives next door to the Owens family. This gifted and now forgotten character actress sets the tone of the picture as she welcomes drifter Hal Carter (William Holden) into her house for some breakfast. At the end of the film she glows in tender counterpoint to the dramatic ending. She is the only person who understands Hal, even more than Madge (Kim Novak). Her speech about having a man in the house is pure joy to watch. Her most touching scene is at the picnic when she tells Betty Field. `You don't know what it's meant to me having you and the girls next door.' It is a small but important performance that frames the entire story with warmth and understanding. Betty Field turns in a sterling performance as Flo Owens, Mother of Madge and Millie. She is disapproving of Millie's rebellious teen and smothering of her Kansas hothouse rose Madge. This deeply felt performance is a stark contrast to her lusty waitress in Inges `Bus Stop' the next year. A single Mom trying in desperation to keep Madge from making the same mistakes she did. She becomes so wrapped up in Madge's potential for marriage to the richest boy in town she completely ignores the budding greatness that is bursting to get out in her real treasure. Millie. Susan Strasberg creates in her Millie a sweet comic oddball. She is the youngest daughter who awkwardly moves through the landscape of Nickerson Kansas nearly un-noticed, reading the scandalous `Ballad of the Sad Café' - being the only one who is different and can't hide it. Her yearning to get out of the smallness of small town life is colored with the skill of a young actress with greatness her. Watch how she handles her most tender scenes with Kim Novak. Strasberg has a deep connection with Millie, an understanding of what it means to want to get out and yet want so desperately to fit in. Rosalind Russell nearly steals the show as the fourth woman in the Owens household boarder, Rosemary the schoolteacher. She is the living example of what Flo doesn't want Millie to become, a frantic, hopeless and clutching spinster. In the capable hands of Miss Russell we have a real powerhouse of a performance. She imbues Rosemary with all the uptight disapproval of a woman who knows that her time has past and there are very few options left. She is electric in her need for love. Every nuance of her emotions is sublime in her presentation. Just watch her hands alone. She is present down to her fingertips as this poor clinging woman. Floating above all of this is Madge Owens, the kind of girl who is too pretty to be real. The kind of girl who in a small town like this is not understood to have any real feelings or thoughts other than those that revolve around being beautiful and empty. Enter Kim Novak, who is just such a girl. Who could ever expect such a beauty to be anything more than just pretty? But Miss Novak, a vastly underrated actress in her day (as were most beauties of the day) paints a knowing and glowing portrait of Madge. Her explosion of sexual heat upon meeting Hal for the first time is internal and barely perceptible until she looks at him from behind the safety of the screen door the end of their first scene. It's as if that screen door is a firewall protecting her from the flames. This device is used again near the end of the film where the screen becomes something that keeps her and Hal separated from each other in a new way. At that point it is a safety net keeping them from sex by calling her home. Here she hesitates again to reveal her longing for him. She fights in the early part of the film to keep her sexual desire for Hal in check. That night she loses her fight at the picnic and we watch as she opens to reveal a woman of feelings and dreams so much deeper than the prettiness of her eyes or the luminosity of her skin. This is one of Kim Novak's early great roles and one she fills out with lush and deep emotion. The lives of all of these women of Nickerson Kansas are changed one Labor Day in 1955 when Hal Carter comes steaming into town. William Holden gives a raw and wounded portrayal to Hal, a man at the edge of his youth and on the verge of becoming a lost man. He lives as he always has, on the cache of his golden boy charm and his muscular magnetism. Holden was 35 when he made Picnic, a golden boy at the edge of his youth. He was perfect for the part. Some reviewers say he was too old to play Hal, but I disagree. Without being thirty-five in real life as well as in the story Rosemary's `Crummy Apollo' speech would not be so effective or devastating. Hal is a man 10 to 12 years out of college who never bothered to grow up, a man who never let anyone get too close for fear they might see through is bravado and discover his fears of feeling something, anything before it's too late.
Holden also brings a sexual heat to the film that is eons beyond the time it was filmed. He is presented almost like a slab of meat, something we were used to seeing in our female stars of the day, but not so blatantly in our men. He struts around in a pre-Stonewall dream of sexy hotness. Not only the girls in town notice him but a few boys too. (There are several layers to Nick Adams paperboy if one bothers to look.) When finally Holden sparks with Novak they blow the lid off of the uptight code bound studio-strangled world of Hollywood in the Fifties. The film is photographed magnificently in lush color and cinemascope by famed cinematographer James Wong Howe. The famous score by George Durning is classic not only for the famous reworking of the old standard `Moonglow' but for his virtuosity in dramatic power. This is a giant of a score from the silver age of film music. The direction by Josh Logan is perfect in every way and stands among the best of his work. The DVD has a few extras, more than most Colombia releases. However I want to point out that there is an excellent photomontage with music from the film to be found here. In watching the shots and listening to the accompanying score by Durning one can really appreciate his artistry as a composer. Finally, this is a very sexy film and should not be missed as a lesion in how really smart people got so much past the censors in an age of sexual repression and conformity.
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