Picnic-ing

The intrepid Twilight Time label continues their line of limited edition Blu-Ray releases with an absolutely gorgeous version of Picnic, Columbia’s romantic smash of 1955-1956. Sold exclusively through on-line retailer Screen Archives, it presents James Wong Howe’s Technicolor cinematography in eye-titillating detail. Based on William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning play from 1953, Picnic is a garishly entertaining melodrama that sets earthy he-man William Holden after prim beauty queen Kim Novak, upending a small Kansas town in the process.

The play,  directed by Joshua Logan, ran for 477 performances, and gave Paul Newman his first big break in a co-starring role alongside Ralph Meeker and Janice Rule. After a bidding frenzy, Columbia Pictures purchased the rights in September, 1953 for around $350,000. Logan, coming off of directing and co-writing the Broadway juggernauts South Pacific (1949) and Fanny (1954), was tapped to direct the movie adaptation, despite his limited screen experience, having only co-directed (with Arthur Ripley) the 1938 Joan Bennett-Henry Fonda drama I Met My Love Again. The screenplay by Daniel Taradash met immediate disapproval by the Production Code Administration, which sought to eliminate any hint that Holden and Novak have pre-marital sex, although the finished film leaves little doubt as to their amorous adventures.

Holden plays Hal, an ex-college football star turned hobo, riding the rails into Kansas to find his rich frat brother Alan (Cliff Robertson). Walking with a tipsy swagger as if he was leaking testosterone, he stumbles past phallic imagery (grain elevators and swinging chutes) into the Owens household, where he immediately enraptures the teenage bookworm Millie (a delightfully snot-nosed Susan Strasberg) and their repressed schoolmarm neighbor Rosemary (a hysterically campy Rosalind Russell). The eldest Owens daughter, Madge (Kim Novak), is expected to marry into Alan’s wealth, but is innately attracted to Hal’s raw, destructive physicality. At the end of a Labor Day picnic, these unspoken attractions burst forth in a torrent of passion and recrimination.

Logan was never comfortable in casting Paul Newman as the lead roustabout Hal, telling him, according to Newman biographer Marian Edelman Borden, that he “did not carry any sexual threat at all”. So the part went to Holden, who at 37 seems miscast as a callow young brute, although his perpetually exposed torso was still toned enough to believably seduce an entire household (was this a template for Pasolini’s Teorema?). Newman’s old stage role of Alan was given to the appropriately starchy Robertson.

Picnic was the beginning of Kim Novak’s major star push from Columbia head Harry Cohn, who depended on James Wong Howe to make her look irresistible. After bowing as a blonde, Cohn wanted to make her a redhead as the discontented Madge, and asked Wong to make some screen-tests of various shades. Picnic, in CinemaScope and Technicolor, is worthwhile viewing for the shifting highlights of this hair alone. Depending on the lighting, it can look Titian red, and then a kind of dark golden blonde, halfway between cinnamon and honey. In one loaded shot, Novak collapses in a new dress, a sobbing puff of blue tulle. This composition, of auburn hair, blue dress, and gray-green eyes, contains the entire chromatic shift of the film, from calm blues and grays to intense, libidinous reds and back again.  This maniacal attention to color detail is part of what attracted the French New Wave to the film. After seeing Picnic, Rivette enthused rather confusingly that Joshua Logan was “Elia Kazan multiplied by Robert Aldrich” (perhaps meaning that Logan merges the realism of Kazan (Picnic was shot on location in Kansas) with moments of pure style (the Aldrich of Kiss Me Deadly)). Truffaut said of Logan, “He is a pure director, a man we know will not be walked on.”

This hypnotic aspect of Novak’s hair is one small example of the film’s mastery of color design. Together with Logan and the production design team led by Jo Mielziner (who deservedly won an Oscar), the film abounds in soft pastels, of a cream and wedgwood blue that adorns the Owens home and the suits of their male admirers. This palette continues through the centerpiece picnic sequence of the film, a bizarre bit pitched between Renoir pastoral, pure Americana corn and small-town Lynchian freak-out, which Jonas Mekas described as “a gaudy display of boobus Americanus.”  Screaming babies, seemingly cast for their old-man sourpusses, are inter-cut with an orgy of fairground games of increasing absurdity. Sack races and pie-eating give way to zombie-like warblers and a  girl-carrying competition. The crowds behind these manic episodes overflow with grays and light-blues, with Novak wearing a cream-colored dress and Russell a light-blue jacket.

The blues get darker in the dusk of day’s end, which is then pricked by irruptions of red. Russell removes the jacket, revealing a blouse of blood-red flowers. These match the bouquet of roses Novak cradles after she wins a beauty contest, sailing downriver in a Queen’s red robe. As these colors set off Novak’s hair, so it initiates a purging of passions, with Russell doing screaming harridan routine, Strasberg puking in a corner, and Novak, ready to embrace her sexuality, enacting a sensuous slow-dance to “Moonglow”, a pantomime of what Logan can’t show on-screen. After this lightfooted pas de deux, which expresses inner states through action, the film starts unloading leaden slabs of exposition, love expressed in words instead of glances.

Reading the images tells a more interesting story. Muted colors return the day after the picnic, with Novak making her climactic decision in a gray-blue jacket, the image of sobriety. The bus she steps onto, however, is streaked with red – pointing towards an uninhibited, uncertain future.

0 Response Picnic-ing
Posted By JackFavell : January 24, 2012 11:37 am

It’s Jo Mielziner.

Posted By JackFavell : January 24, 2012 11:37 am

It’s Jo Mielziner.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 24, 2012 11:39 am

So it is. I have made the fix, thanks.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 24, 2012 11:39 am

So it is. I have made the fix, thanks.

Posted By Heidi : January 24, 2012 1:29 pm

I have seen this move a few times, and it has always left me feeling uncomfortable, like part of the story was left out, or not told. (Or maybe I just missed it!) I love everyone in it, which is why I have seen it multiple times, but there is just something off putting about it to me. After reading your post, I will watch it again and see what happens. Thanks for posting about it.

Posted By Heidi : January 24, 2012 1:29 pm

I have seen this move a few times, and it has always left me feeling uncomfortable, like part of the story was left out, or not told. (Or maybe I just missed it!) I love everyone in it, which is why I have seen it multiple times, but there is just something off putting about it to me. After reading your post, I will watch it again and see what happens. Thanks for posting about it.

Posted By Kingrat : January 24, 2012 4:59 pm

The William Inge play is a realistic slice of life, but the film mashes this together with Hollywood star melodrama. Kim Novak is not exactly your first choice as an innocent girl from Kansas, and as Emmet said, Holden is too old for his role, although he does self-loathing guilt really well (a Holden specialty) when Rosalind Russell attacks him. Perhaps this is why Heidi feels conflicting emotions about the film.

The comparison to TEOREMA is great; they’d make an interesting double feature.

Posted By Kingrat : January 24, 2012 4:59 pm

The William Inge play is a realistic slice of life, but the film mashes this together with Hollywood star melodrama. Kim Novak is not exactly your first choice as an innocent girl from Kansas, and as Emmet said, Holden is too old for his role, although he does self-loathing guilt really well (a Holden specialty) when Rosalind Russell attacks him. Perhaps this is why Heidi feels conflicting emotions about the film.

The comparison to TEOREMA is great; they’d make an interesting double feature.

Posted By AL : January 24, 2012 5:13 pm

I always felt the casting of William Holden was ludicrous–a middle-aged actor playing a youg man? He looked even older than his age at the time, yet no attempt was made to adjust the dialogue of the other characters, who were required to always refer to him as though he was 21. Having said that, I think his performance was excellent, as usual. Another gripe: that horrid red wig (which had been created for Rita Hayworth)was disconcerting–Kim Novak revealed in an interview that she hated being forced to wear it and that she had hacked at it in her dressing room, without permission…I still, however, consider it to be a sucessful film. The unforgettable dance is still very special.

Posted By AL : January 24, 2012 5:13 pm

I always felt the casting of William Holden was ludicrous–a middle-aged actor playing a youg man? He looked even older than his age at the time, yet no attempt was made to adjust the dialogue of the other characters, who were required to always refer to him as though he was 21. Having said that, I think his performance was excellent, as usual. Another gripe: that horrid red wig (which had been created for Rita Hayworth)was disconcerting–Kim Novak revealed in an interview that she hated being forced to wear it and that she had hacked at it in her dressing room, without permission…I still, however, consider it to be a sucessful film. The unforgettable dance is still very special.

Posted By Jenni : January 24, 2012 9:53 pm

I first saw Picnic when I was in highschool, and what it left me with were how annoying Susan Strasburg’s character was, that William Holden was too old to be a 20-something, and that Kim Novak’s character, to me, was too monotone at times in her acting. I need to see it again, perhaps I’ll appreciate it more now that I’m in my 40′s.

Posted By Jenni : January 24, 2012 9:53 pm

I first saw Picnic when I was in highschool, and what it left me with were how annoying Susan Strasburg’s character was, that William Holden was too old to be a 20-something, and that Kim Novak’s character, to me, was too monotone at times in her acting. I need to see it again, perhaps I’ll appreciate it more now that I’m in my 40′s.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 25, 2012 12:34 am

Loved your comparison of Holden’s performance (and power) to Terence Stamp in TEOREMA. I think Holden’s natural charisma (along with the onscreen chemistry he has with Novak) carries him through this film and I’ve never had any trouble believing that a whole household could be seduced by him, no matter what age he happens to be. PICNIC relies heavily on how viewers respond to Holden in general but I think it’s a great film. Would the film have been more successful with Paul Newman (or any younger actor) in his role? Possibly, but it works for me. I love the mood it evokes and the color palette (as you pointed out) is entrancing. Watching this for the first time on a late afternoon during a sweltering summer heatwave left an incredible impression on me when I was a preteen.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 25, 2012 12:34 am

Loved your comparison of Holden’s performance (and power) to Terence Stamp in TEOREMA. I think Holden’s natural charisma (along with the onscreen chemistry he has with Novak) carries him through this film and I’ve never had any trouble believing that a whole household could be seduced by him, no matter what age he happens to be. PICNIC relies heavily on how viewers respond to Holden in general but I think it’s a great film. Would the film have been more successful with Paul Newman (or any younger actor) in his role? Possibly, but it works for me. I love the mood it evokes and the color palette (as you pointed out) is entrancing. Watching this for the first time on a late afternoon during a sweltering summer heatwave left an incredible impression on me when I was a preteen.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : January 25, 2012 4:27 pm

Love this movie — great write-up! Holden, though surely realistically too old does pretty well — he’s such an engaging performer, it’s hard for him not to make something work — and perhaps because he WAS a little long in the tooth to play Hal there is a more than a little pathos in his swaggering.

The movie is definitely full of hysteria and that’s not a bad thing and makes it quite entertaining. Much credit goes to George Duning’s beautiful score, and the “Moonglow”/”Theme from Picnic” mash-up is truly mesmerizing. The film is a fascinating slice-of-life from a time gone by, especially viewed from more than 50 years later.

I’ll bet that Ralph Meeker would have been scary-good in the role on Broadway; you would have really felt the dangerous sexuality of Hal, no doubt. Too much for the movies! When Madge follows her hormones and Hal’s train we pretty much know they are doomed, that was always my take on it. They’ll be living in some dingy apartment where Hal’s dreams will slowly devolve into drudgery. Would Hal and Madge have turned into Ralph and Alice Kramden?? Quite possibly, except Madge would have been endlessly fecund and they’d have a passel of screaming kids…yikes. (Or I am I reading too much into this? lol)

Can’t wait to see this newly-minted version!

Posted By MedusaMorlock : January 25, 2012 4:27 pm

Love this movie — great write-up! Holden, though surely realistically too old does pretty well — he’s such an engaging performer, it’s hard for him not to make something work — and perhaps because he WAS a little long in the tooth to play Hal there is a more than a little pathos in his swaggering.

The movie is definitely full of hysteria and that’s not a bad thing and makes it quite entertaining. Much credit goes to George Duning’s beautiful score, and the “Moonglow”/”Theme from Picnic” mash-up is truly mesmerizing. The film is a fascinating slice-of-life from a time gone by, especially viewed from more than 50 years later.

I’ll bet that Ralph Meeker would have been scary-good in the role on Broadway; you would have really felt the dangerous sexuality of Hal, no doubt. Too much for the movies! When Madge follows her hormones and Hal’s train we pretty much know they are doomed, that was always my take on it. They’ll be living in some dingy apartment where Hal’s dreams will slowly devolve into drudgery. Would Hal and Madge have turned into Ralph and Alice Kramden?? Quite possibly, except Madge would have been endlessly fecund and they’d have a passel of screaming kids…yikes. (Or I am I reading too much into this? lol)

Can’t wait to see this newly-minted version!

Posted By muriel : January 25, 2012 9:54 pm

William Holden was very good, but Ralph Meeker would have been great in this movie.

Posted By muriel : January 25, 2012 9:54 pm

William Holden was very good, but Ralph Meeker would have been great in this movie.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 25, 2012 10:13 pm

I saw this movie a few years ago. I remember thinking how soapy and kind of silly it was, but I still enjoyed it. I also remember thinking that William Holden was to old, but he was just so darn good in it. I really don’t see Ralph Meeker in the part. Holden had “It” and could make women swoon. Ralph didn’t have “It”. I can’t see him making a whole neighborhood of women fall for him.

Kim Novak was sexy as sin in it too.

Nice color commentary!

Posted By dukeroberts : January 25, 2012 10:13 pm

I saw this movie a few years ago. I remember thinking how soapy and kind of silly it was, but I still enjoyed it. I also remember thinking that William Holden was to old, but he was just so darn good in it. I really don’t see Ralph Meeker in the part. Holden had “It” and could make women swoon. Ralph didn’t have “It”. I can’t see him making a whole neighborhood of women fall for him.

Kim Novak was sexy as sin in it too.

Nice color commentary!

Posted By KatieB : January 25, 2012 11:38 pm

Bill Holden did not want to make this film because he thought that he was too old for the role. After seeing himself in the film, he said that he saw that he was right in the first place. He was too old to play the part.

Posted By KatieB : January 25, 2012 11:38 pm

Bill Holden did not want to make this film because he thought that he was too old for the role. After seeing himself in the film, he said that he saw that he was right in the first place. He was too old to play the part.

Posted By KatieB : January 25, 2012 11:42 pm

By the way, just a little bit of trivia here: the words to Theme From Picnic were written by Steve Allen.

Posted By KatieB : January 25, 2012 11:42 pm

By the way, just a little bit of trivia here: the words to Theme From Picnic were written by Steve Allen.

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : January 26, 2012 12:33 am

I remember this film for its odd moments: the looks on the sisters’ faces when their mother says to someone, “Madge is my pretty one, and Millie is the smart one,” thinking she’s complementing both, and you know they’re hearing, “Madge is my stupid one, and Millie is the ugly one.”
The scene at the end of the picnic when Nick Adams steers the beauty queen’s barge to shore and the camera encomapsses the whole town and there’s not a single non-white face to be seen anywhere. Only in the ’50s.

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : January 26, 2012 12:33 am

I remember this film for its odd moments: the looks on the sisters’ faces when their mother says to someone, “Madge is my pretty one, and Millie is the smart one,” thinking she’s complementing both, and you know they’re hearing, “Madge is my stupid one, and Millie is the ugly one.”
The scene at the end of the picnic when Nick Adams steers the beauty queen’s barge to shore and the camera encomapsses the whole town and there’s not a single non-white face to be seen anywhere. Only in the ’50s.

Posted By Daily Call Sheet: Do We Trust Spielberg with Moses?, Russell Brand’s a Creep … at movies.walmart.hoops227.biz : January 27, 2012 6:37 am

[...] A LOOK BACK AT WILLIAM HOLDEN IN ‘PICNIC‘ [...]

Posted By Daily Call Sheet: Do We Trust Spielberg with Moses?, Russell Brand’s a Creep … at movies.walmart.hoops227.biz : January 27, 2012 6:37 am

[...] A LOOK BACK AT WILLIAM HOLDEN IN ‘PICNIC‘ [...]

Posted By MedusaMorlock : January 27, 2012 3:22 pm

Duke, I think what Meeker clearly brought to the role — on Broadway — was the primal sexual urge which wasn’t really what Holden projected. Holden isn’t a bit dangerous, while Meeker, even in nice roles, always had a thuggish edge that lacks charm but still speaks of raw sexuality in a way that Holden didn’t. Different spin on the appeal that Hal had for the ladies — it was all about the appeal of sex, and low down and dirty sex, that Madge’s mother feared would repeat in her daughter, and what propelled Ros Russell’s schoolteacher to flip out. Verna Felton is the most honest and least hung-up about her frank appreciation of Hal — takes an old lady to cut through the crap!

I don’t think Holden projected any raw sexuality particularly but no way could Meeker have put across the overwhelming sensuality that Holden did in the dance scene with Novak. It’s a step deeper, very different and more romantic than what Meeker must have brought or could have brought to the role, but Holden’s interpretation probably wouldn’t have worked on stage. That’s why Holden was a big movie star and Meeker got the tough guy roles!

Since this was mid-50s Hollywood and not theater, there was no way that it could have been so obvious that it was all about Hal and his manhood, basically…but kudos to Holden for making it work as well as he did.

Boy, I’ve got to watch this again, soon!! And so also enlightening, as John Maddox Roberts wrote, to view an America that, as we clearly can see today by the resurgence of a brand of ultra-conservatism, more than a few people would love to return to, when men were men, women swooned, everybody was paler than pale, and it was Newollah all the time…

Posted By MedusaMorlock : January 27, 2012 3:22 pm

Duke, I think what Meeker clearly brought to the role — on Broadway — was the primal sexual urge which wasn’t really what Holden projected. Holden isn’t a bit dangerous, while Meeker, even in nice roles, always had a thuggish edge that lacks charm but still speaks of raw sexuality in a way that Holden didn’t. Different spin on the appeal that Hal had for the ladies — it was all about the appeal of sex, and low down and dirty sex, that Madge’s mother feared would repeat in her daughter, and what propelled Ros Russell’s schoolteacher to flip out. Verna Felton is the most honest and least hung-up about her frank appreciation of Hal — takes an old lady to cut through the crap!

I don’t think Holden projected any raw sexuality particularly but no way could Meeker have put across the overwhelming sensuality that Holden did in the dance scene with Novak. It’s a step deeper, very different and more romantic than what Meeker must have brought or could have brought to the role, but Holden’s interpretation probably wouldn’t have worked on stage. That’s why Holden was a big movie star and Meeker got the tough guy roles!

Since this was mid-50s Hollywood and not theater, there was no way that it could have been so obvious that it was all about Hal and his manhood, basically…but kudos to Holden for making it work as well as he did.

Boy, I’ve got to watch this again, soon!! And so also enlightening, as John Maddox Roberts wrote, to view an America that, as we clearly can see today by the resurgence of a brand of ultra-conservatism, more than a few people would love to return to, when men were men, women swooned, everybody was paler than pale, and it was Newollah all the time…

Posted By Juana Maria : January 27, 2012 10:12 pm

I have nothing truly constructive to add about the film “Picnic”,I’m sorry to say. I have seen many of Bill Holden’s movies over the yrs. Especially when TCM featured him as the Star of the Month awhile back. I don’t remember the month and year right this second. Any way, I keep picturing him in “Bridge on the River Kwai”, “Golden Boy”,”Stalag 17″,and of course in “the Wild Bunch”…”if they move kill’em!!” Ok,so here he is in this campy mildly sleezy(c’mon people we know what they are all hint at in this!) Yuck! It like the “Mucic Man” meets “Splendor in the Grass”. Both of which I feel would be completely wrong for Bill Holden. Though I will always love his performance on”I Love Lucy”. Too funny for words! Anyway, he is also a strange fit for his “tough guy persona”,he has a humor and sweetness to him(“Born Yesterday”).I learned a peculiar fact about him(please debunk it if it isn’t true)that he was a neat freak,he showered three times a day. I have often wondered how he managed that while shooting those dusty Westerns.Hmm?

Posted By Juana Maria : January 27, 2012 10:12 pm

I have nothing truly constructive to add about the film “Picnic”,I’m sorry to say. I have seen many of Bill Holden’s movies over the yrs. Especially when TCM featured him as the Star of the Month awhile back. I don’t remember the month and year right this second. Any way, I keep picturing him in “Bridge on the River Kwai”, “Golden Boy”,”Stalag 17″,and of course in “the Wild Bunch”…”if they move kill’em!!” Ok,so here he is in this campy mildly sleezy(c’mon people we know what they are all hint at in this!) Yuck! It like the “Mucic Man” meets “Splendor in the Grass”. Both of which I feel would be completely wrong for Bill Holden. Though I will always love his performance on”I Love Lucy”. Too funny for words! Anyway, he is also a strange fit for his “tough guy persona”,he has a humor and sweetness to him(“Born Yesterday”).I learned a peculiar fact about him(please debunk it if it isn’t true)that he was a neat freak,he showered three times a day. I have often wondered how he managed that while shooting those dusty Westerns.Hmm?

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