Film Review – Picnic (1955)

Directed by: Joshua Logan
Music by: George Duning
Starring: William Holden, Kim Novak, Rosalind Russell, Cliff Robertson, Susan Strasberg, Arthur O’Connell, Betty Field
MPAA rating: None
My Rating: 8 of 10

Do you believe in soul mates? You might become a believer after watching Joshua Logan’s film adaptation of William Inge’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Picnic from 1955. A roaring success on the stage at the time, this film adaptation of the play explores areas not possible on the stage due to stage constraints and so produces a more well-rounded story. In addition, there is a subtle underlying message in this adaptation of Picnic which can be very relevant to young people in today’s discouragement-saturated culture.

The film opens with a disgruntled young bum named Hal Carter (William Holden, Sunset Boulevard) arriving off a freight train in a small Kansas town trying to track down an old fraternity friend Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson, Spider-Man) for help in trying to get back on his feet in life. As he is introduced to others in town, he meets the beautiful Madge Owens (Kim Novak, Vertigo), the teenage would-be poet Millie Owens (Susan Strasberg, Broadway’s The Diary of Anne Frank ), the Owens girls’ mother Flo Owens (Betty Field, Kings Row), the kindly Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton, Dumbo), the middle-aged schoolteacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday), and her beau, the store owner Howard Bevens (Arthur O’Connell, Anatomy of a Murder). Carter’s presence is welcomed hesitantly at the town’s annual Labor Day picnic and he seems to get along with most. However, when Madge and Hal begin to show a natural attraction towards one another, metaphorical fireworks start going off in the town’s domestic scene despite Hal’s innocence and protestations that he has no desire to offend anyone. As the film races to its conclusion, Hal and Madge go through an accelerated ‘growing-up’ process in which both learn important lessons not only about themselves but about each other and about life in general which could potentially lead to better things.

The film is extremely colorful with vibrant sets and costumes which make the film’s setting come alive in ways rarely seen in other films. The lavish complementing and contrasting colors which dominate the settings as well as the characters’ clothes symbolize the fireworks which Hal ignites inside the town’s domestic setting due to his presence. One of the more especially striking uses of colors is at the picnic itself where Hal wears the traditional blue with which men and boys are often associated and Madge wears a flowing pink with which women and girls are often associated. When the attraction between the two manifests itself most strongly, the blue and pink colors come together underneath an array of overhanging multi-colored lights as they dance together, symbolizing the butterflies of feelings which obviously exist between the two.

There are side-stories throughout the film which are meant to give the film depth but actually have mixed results on either helping or hindering the film and its power in the end. The prominent side story is the so-so romance between the middle aged Rosemary and Howard. Rosemary is clearly a desperate and unhappy woman who tries to force her will upon others and the bickering and pleading she engages in is quite annoying and detracting from the story’s main message, though Howard comes across as a very sympathetic character caught in an unpleasant situation. There is also a side-story which involves the mother of the Owens’ family, Flo, and her neighbor, the much older and wiser Mrs Potts. Flo, a single mother trying to raise two daughters, is struggling adapting to the changes happening in the life of her eldest daughter Madge, but Mrs. Potts’ wise insight, drawn from the years of her own experience, helps Flo to come to accept the decisions her daughter makes. Finally, another side-story involves the younger daughter, Millie, who is doted on by her mother, but envies her older sister Madge for her looks and charm and struggles to prove herself as more a writer and poet type. These conflicts inside her are exacerbated by the sudden mood swings which are characteristic of many children in the teenage years and show her as an individual struggling to find her own place while being handicapped by these mood swings. By the end of the film, however, she has a growing-up experience which enables her to exhibit a touching act of true love towards her sister.

The film’s strongest aspect is the subtle, underlying message which comes out as Hal and Madge finally admit to their love for each other. Hal, a disgruntled bum who has failed in two different careers after leaving college and harbors a dark secret from his childhood, struggles with believing in his own human dignity, self-worth and good qualities and often turns to anger because of this disbelief in himself. Madge is praised throughout town for her beauty but is never recognized for anything other than that. As a result she struggles with self-confidence in herself and her other qualities. In addition, she harbors a subtle, secret resentment towards her younger sister Millie for Millie’ seeming advantage in the other qualities which Madge desires. However, as Hal and Madge begin to admit to their attraction and love for each other, they begin to build each other up by each one forcing the other to confront these weaknesses in order to improve their lives.

Through this building up of each other, Hal and Madge bring across a beautiful message of human dignity and how those who have made mistakes need to give themselves second chances to do things right, no matter how the past has hindered them. Madge does not let Hal’s dark past and current struggles lower her respect and love for him and so inspires him to fight for a better life and a new opportunity to make something of himself. Hal sees past Madge’s looks and recognizes and loves her for her deeper human qualities which in turn helps give her the courage to take a new direction in her life, no matter how much uncertainty it involves.

Picnic is a beautiful film, though probably best reserved for families with older children due to certain aspects of its subject matter which might not be understood well by those on the younger end of the age spectrum. Its lessons on self-worth and rising above one’s limitations or mistakes make it a prime growing-up film for teenagers to learn from and a prime education opportunity for parents in the education of their children. Also, prepare to be mesmerized by the iconic dance scene between Hal and Madge with the lovely tune “Moonglow” playing in the background; a scene which is easily one of the most graceful dances in the history of cinema.

© 2018 Grant Dahl & On This Terrestrial Ball. All rights reserved. This material may not be re-published, re-broadcast, re-written or re-distributed without permission from the author of this piece.