William Holden had to shave his chest for this role, so that he appeared much younger than his true 37 years. Cliff Robertson, although not as hirsute as Holden, also got buffed for one reason or another.
The need for extras of all ages to appear in the Picnic celebration sequences filmed at Riverside Park in Halstead, Kansas caused many local schoolchildren to miss school days in order to stand in line at the small City Hall to obtain their social security cards, required for extra-work.
William Holden didn't want to do the dance sequence with Kim Novak, fearing it would make him look foolish. He told co-star Cliff Robertson, "I just don't know how to dance." Hoping to persuade the studio to cut the dance scene, Holden insisted on being paid an $8,000 "stuntman premium." To his surprise, the studio paid up and Holden was forced to do the dance scene, although he was allowed to do it under the influence of alcohol. In that scene, he is actually intoxicated, and it still remains one of only four movies that he ever danced in (the others being Sabrina (1954), Dear Ruth (1947) and Sunset Boulevard (1950)), and one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.
Rosalind Russell remarked, "Bill Inge has sisters who were schoolteachers. That helped him in writing Rosemary so perceptively." In fact, Inge's mother ran a boarding house that at one time was occupied by three women schoolteachers. In his own words: "I saw their attempts and, even as a child, I sensed every woman's failure. I began to sense the sorrow and the emptiness in their lives, and it touched me."
While selecting locals to play extras in the film, Joshua Logan said, "There's a girl with a typical Kansas face." The woman, Joan Farrell, was hired for "atmosphere" but confessed, "I'm from Brooklyn. I'm just here visiting my grandmother."
Despite its legend, this was NOT the first movie to feature a helicopter shot. They Live by Night (1948) was an early, if not the very first, film to use it (albeit in its opening shot, not the closing shot as was done in Picnic).
The last aerial shot of the bus and the train was filmed by Haskell Wexler, who was - at that time - James Wong Howe's assistant. The cameraman simply leaned out the open door of the helicopter for several minutes with no safety harness, with his right leg wrapped around a strut, following the bus overtaking the train below.
The house where Rosalind Russell lived with Kim Novak's family was located in Nickerson, Kansas, and was actually across the street from Reno Community High, where Russell's character taught school. Location shooting wrapped in nearby Sterling, Kansas, where the lake and bathhouse scenes were filmed. The movie's Labour Day festivities called for Sterling Lake to be filled with rowboats, which were in short supply since boating wasn't normally allowed. To make up the shortage, anyone who supplied a rowboat stood a good chance of being a movie extra. Sterling was also where William Holden hopped the Missouri Pacific freight train that was then tracked by cinematographer Haskell Wexler in a memorable closing aerial shot.
The town of Udall, Kansas renamed a local promenade Rosalind Russell Avenue. The actress campaigned for the Kansas Disaster Relief fund after Udall was devastated by a tornado which killed 77 people during filming of the movie.
William Holden was so nervous about having to dance in the Moonglow scene that Joshua Logan took him to Kansas roadhouses to practice his dance steps, along with choreographer Miriam Nelson. When the scene came to be shot, Holden, an alcoholic, was drunk to calm his nerves.
Filming began in Salina, Kansas, May 16, 1955. Night-time crowds watched along the Smoky Hill River near an old mill dam as William Holden whipped a "borrowed" convertible with Kim Novak in the passenger seat to a stop along the river. Joshua Logan, a perfectionist, filmed the scene over and over. A number of spectatoring small boys often got in the way of the filming. A production member was designated assistant-in-charge-of-chasing-small-boys-out-of-camera-range. Other scenes filmed were Holden being chased by police around the mill and between railroad box cars. Suddenly, the loud-speaker blared: "There's a small boy underneath the box car! Get him out of there!" When the big Holden/Novak love scene was filmed, most of the crowd had gone home. "Those who stayed said it was a dilly of a romance." Filming wrapped shortly after five in the morning. By week's end, filming moved to Hutchinson.
Columbia Pictures wanted to promote Rosalind Russell for an Academy Award nomination, but the actress refused to be placed in the best supporting category. Many felt she would have won had she only cooperated.
In 1957 a marketing investigator, James Vicary, announced that for six weeks he had included subliminal messages in showings of this movie. The messages supposedly said: "Eat popcorn, drink Coca-Cola." According to Vicary, the sales of this products increased from 18% to 57%. Even though his experiment led him to fame, Vicary never gave details of how he came to his conclusions, and admitted in a later interview that everything was just a marketing trick.
Insisting on authenticity, director Joshua Logan filmed in several Kansas towns, including Hutchinson, only 75 miles from Udall, a town leveled by a tornado days after filming began. "It's gotta look like Kansas and it will if I have to kill every last one of ya!," the volatile Logan yelled at his cast. William Holden suffered a leg gash on a railroad signal light, Kim Novak was stung on the hip by a bee underneath her $500 Jean Louis gown, and Rosalind Russell was "bruised from earlobe to toenail during a wild gambol across a suspension bridge." A local 70-year-old "spinster" saw her film debut canceled when she broke both legs and several ribs during a fall down an embankment. Filming was interrupted almost daily by hailstorms and "wailing" tornado warnings. The actual picnic was on a muddy fairground at Halstead, Kansas. Cast and crew were "half-consumed" by "carnivorous" bugs. Phone calls had to be made from old-time crank telephones at Halstead's Baker Hotel.
During the dramatic sunset scene with Rosalind Russell and Arthur O'Connell, when Rosemary, the schoolteacher, looked out at the deep red sky and remarked that sometimes the day puts up a fight against being night, what they were really looking at was the leading edge of a very large approaching thunderstorm. It contained a tornado which hit a nearby town. A few minutes after shooting the scene, the movie company themselves had to take cover.
Part of "Picnic" was filmed in Salina, Kansas during 1956. Two years later, Kim Novak played Judy Barton in "Vertigo". At some point, Judy shows Scottie (James Stewart) her driver's license indicating that her hometown was none other than Salina, Kansas. When there are thousands of potential hometowns in the United States, was this just a coincidence or deliberate?
Holden predated the "Manscaping" fad by at least 60 years: He famously shaved his chest for "Picnic." (Two years later, he shaved again for "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Several years earlier, however, in "Sunset Blvd.," he showed off a torso with a full mane of hair.)
The overture included in the Pioneer Special Edition laserdisc release (now out-of-print) of "Picnic", prepared from a compilation of segments of the film's musical soundtrack, was specially produced for the laserdisc. Theatrical showings of "Picnic" did not open with an overture.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
William Inge kept having to rewrite the ending of his original stage play while it was in rehearsals, with Joshua Logan rejecting each ending as being more depressing than the last. Inge's original idea was that Madge would stay in town, her shoulders slumped as she dragged herself to a dead-end job at a dime store, taunted by local boys who knew she'd thrown away her reputation to a drifter. The director insisted Madge had to chase after Hal and leave town, even though most of the audience would realize it would be a doomed affair. "All right, I'll write it," Inge told him. "But I want you to know I don't approve." The director later wrote in his memoirs: "It's as though he killed his favorite child."