Oscar Winner for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color and Film Editing; Golden Globe Winner for Best Director
Joshua Logan was one of Broadway’s golden directors during the forties and fifties, directing the original runs of Annie Get Your Gun, Mister Roberts, South Pacific, Fanny, and William Inge’s Pulitizer Prize-winning Picnic (1953), and although he had dabbled in film – among his earliest credits are co-director of I Met Love Again (1938), and dialogue director for The Garden of Allah (1936) – the stage was his true calling. As he recounted in his detailed and highly bubbly 1976 autobiography Josh: My Up and Down, In and Out Life, he collaborated, shaped, edited, and guided projects through numerous hurdles, and while not all stage pieces became classics, his C.V. was sufficiently impressive that Hollywood did take notice of Logan when they wanted to import a hit show to the big screen.
Logan’s first effort – Mister Roberts (1955) – wasn’t a happy one because of credit disputes and frictions with director John Ford, but Picnic (1955) proved he could in fact direct a film with the same visual panache as anyone, and capture the essence of the play & preserve the actors’ stage nuances without rendering the final film theatrical.
Picnic is part of that special sub-genre of steamy fifties melodramas where a raw, highly sexual male causes an upheaval in a small community within a compact time period (in this case, 24 hours), and clashes with a wealthy family to the point where he’s either chased out of town, or becomes a sacrificial lamb. Some relationships are shattered, a few are broken and reassembled into something stronger, and a few social misfits blossom into their own after years of repression (forced, or perhaps caused by themselves).
Unlike Tennessee Williams’ or William Faulkner’s steamy southern dramas, Inge’s Midwestern tale of a drifter named Hal Carter (William Holden) who returns to his home town for work is wholly WASP, and celebrates the colour and splendor of small town Americana without any elements of racial prejudice (there are no visible minorities in this small Kansas town), social inequality, and sleaze.
Let’s Over-Analyze, Shall We?
Is Picnic a whitewash and celebration of some fantasyland? It could be regarded as one when seen through contemporary eyes, but while there is a genuine affection for the environment in both Inge’s prose and Logan’s direction, Inge does use the idyllic town and familiar archetypes to drop sharp little jabs and critiques of conventional social mores.
The language is sometimes surprisingly risqué for the period (a small wonder exchanges about ‘making love’ even appear in the film), and Logan manages to sneak in a lot of sexual tension by letting his actors shape their behavioral curve, and sneaking the odd naughty moment – like medium shot of one female character staring directly at Hal’s crotch just long enough for the audience to realize she’s theorizing his potential manliness.
If there’s any major flaw in the play / film’s attitude, it’s that women cannot feel complete unless they have a man; without one, life is empty, if not woefully unfulfilled. A girl should grab a guy because there may be a long period of nothingness, and she’ll literally be begging on her hands and knees for love, as occurs near the end when
Inge’s play, (adapted for film by Desirée’s [M] Daniel Taradash) however, features a surprisingly broad range of characters who interact and collide at regular intervals, ensuring there’s plenty of emotional action and character shifts to keep the drama lively and balanced. Drifter & bum Hal may be the central catalyst, but his co-stars are the four women living in the rooming house managed by Flo Owens (Betty Field).
Flo is the matriarch by default: after her drinking and philandering husband ran off, she was left with the house and two bickering daughters, so to make ends meet she rents rooms to the likes of spinster Rosemary (Rosalind Russell), the aged beauty who thinks there’s some nobility in waiting for the right man, and feels justified in shrugging off banal boyfriend Howard (Arthur O’Connell) until someone better comes around.
Flo wants eldest daughter Madge (Kim Novak) to marry pronto, because the worst that can happen to a woman is to be without a man at the age of 40, but Madge is tormented by the knowledge boys only like her for her looks. Younger sibling Millie (Susan Strasberg), a mousy brainiac, is filled with seething jealousy that she never gets noticed, and her hatred is primed to explode when Hal starts to eye Madge.
The funny thing about Inge’s women is they’re all partially responsible for their situations: meticulously attired and colour-coordinated Madge doesn’t try to see herself as smart and edify herself to self-empower; Mille is pretty but dresses down in overalls, ill-fitting glasses, and an askew boy’s cap; and Flo is so fearful of being abandoned by her kids that she reinforces their stereotypes - the Pretty One, and the Brainy One - and only intercedes as far as stopping the in-fighting when it gets too shrill. Their conflicts, while annoying, prevents them from maturing, and ensures their dependence on Flo instead of evolving into independent persons who will explore the world on their own, leaving Flo to handle her ‘empty nest’ homestead.
Rosemary is indeed responsible for her own miserable state, and neighbour Helen (Verna Felton), the Owens’ neighbour, has locked up her past memories because she’s mellowed into a devoted caregiver. Among the women, only Helen lacks anger, but perhaps that’s due to her being ‘old’; what’s left are daily chores, and simple pleasures, like admiring a shirtless Hal when he does some yard work.
When Hal unexpectedly woos Madge under the nose of her beau / Hal’s old college pal Alan (Cliff Robertson) on the night of the town’s Labor Day picnic, it causes everyone to self-analyze what the hell they’re doing wrong with their lives, and the film’s final act doesn’t slam audiences with a town mob, court trial, duel, or tragic accident; instead there is in fact hope, albeit in various levels of grey.
Still Relevant After All
For contemporary audiences, the challenge, one would think, is whether a fifties melodrama celebrating small town minutia ought to be regarded as anything more than a record of a popular play? William Holden (then 37) is point of fact too old for the role in spite of being buffed and physically ideal for the role of a late-twentysomething; Novak is not a high school senior; and Field, who plays Madge’s mum, was only 5 years older than Holden and is dusted with slight aging makeup to mask the obvious discontinuity.
It’s a surreal experience to see the more mature cast members playing younger roles, but every now and then things click, and one becomes lost in the drama and rich local colour Logan and ace cinematographer James Wong Howe (The Thin Man, Pal Joey [M], Seconds) captured in gorgeous CinemaScope. Holden does suit a braggart and rebel, so he fits naturally as the human storm cloud that upsets everyone’s assigned and self-assigned social order.
Hal’s seduction of Madge during the course of the picnic – from ridiculous relays to watching Madge crowned Queen Neewollah (read it backwards) for the fall harvest festival – is nicely paced to make their intense attraction believable within a mere 12 hours.
Like Madge, Hal is fighting against a bad image – he was once a legendary college womanizer – and he too is cut down to size by the others through sly jabs, and Madge slowly sees he’s also suffering from unwanted typecasting that will continue if he decides to stay in town. He boasts of grand plans and associations to hide his ‘bum’ status, and amid his loud declarations, he periodically pauses and glances at Madge, and the two exchange a simple ‘Hi,’ as though he’s testing her - checking to see if she can see though his bullshit. The fact she returns a wave during the crowning ceremony makes it clear they share similar melancholy, and the much-talked about dance sequence clinches things for the pair.
The dockside dance is rightfully one of the best seduction scenes among fifties melodramas because it’s so unpretentious: two characters finding themselves through the simplicity of a slow dance, lit by pastel Chinese lanterns, and rising emotions. Rosemary’s ugly and pathetic interruption is really a dramatic conceit to get the plot moving again after a dreamy interlude, but it also opens up the drama and forces all of the aforementioned women to confront their own little demons.
Once Hal sparks a mini-civil war, it’s surprising how the performances remain balanced: Robertson consistently underplays Alan (the heir to the town’s industrial fortune has no reason to believe he’ll never get his way); Holden tries to transcend his own age by physically playing Hal as a younger, hungrier man; Strasberg almost steals the film with her fast, attitude-heavy quips and mercurial physical states; and biggest surprise of all is Russell, who’s less Big when she explodes in a drunken rage during Hal and Madge’s dance. Logan clearly tempered the actresses’ knack for being theatrically grand in gestures and voice (witness Auntie Mame), and it ensures the film avoids that mighty pit of unwanted, unintentionally funny bathos.
Logan’s decision to mine local colour also pays off by giving fifties audiences the Americana ideal in full ‘scope, but the lengthy montages also feel natural: shooting on location with local extras gives the film a minor docu-drama feel, and arguably subjugates clichés inherent to the montages, and while there’s nothing revelatory in the small town scenes, they haven’t dated badly at all. Logan also covers the entire picnic from beginning to end, filming rallies (a rolling pin toss for the hausfraus?), local music, dinner, sunsets, and the dance. (Plus footage of the legendary ‘spit-bubble baby,’ which Logan fought hard to retain in his cut.)
The river procession where Madge is ferried on a dinky barge to the dock is surreal – two banks of crowds provide syncopated incantations like some fire-lit, tribal ritual – but there are also wonderful images that starkly capture the town’s ongoing growth from a small agrarian community to a burgeoning industrial town. When Alan gives Hal a tour of the Benson family’s massive grain silos, it celebrates modernism in rural lands. The gleaming, concrete X-frames that tower above the flatlands symbolize the stark optimism in postwar America where industries were purveyors of good rather than potential environmental destroyers decades later.
The final point of the film’s relevancy as a social snapshot is the unusual time setting: Labor Day weekend. It’s the last day of total freedom before work and school, standard social order and business swing back into full gear, so the urgency among the characters to do something new before another year begins is more than palpable. New Year’s Day may signal a new calendar annum, but fall signals a need to stop and self-examine; there’s only 4 months left before everyone’s another year older, lonelier, and more complacent.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous transfer of the film in its original super-wide ratio that looks contemporarily natural because Logan fought hard – both in Picnic, and later Bus Stop (1956) - to use the CinemaScope lenses filmically in close-ups, pans, and tracking shots. The original lenses were still a bit rough, offering less depth of field in some shots, the classic CinemaScope mumps, and smooshee-head syndrome, but he and Howe proved the 2.55:1 ratio could indeed support character dramas.
For composer George Duning, Picnic marked his real launch as an A-level composer, even though he’d already scored important westerns (The Man from Laramie), WWII dramas (From Here to Eternity), and other genres entries. TT’s BR features an isolated stereo track of the score, and although several cues play quietly in the film’s original 2.0 mix, they nevertheless support the drama through striking arrangements of the popular main theme.
The dance between Hal and Madge still feels modern because of the way it’s lit, edited, and performed, and how the composer interwove his theme in gentle bursts while the couple is dancing to “Moonglow” – a clever touch that accents the pair’s emotional conflicts rather than drenching the entire scene with a dance version of the Picnic theme to sell a hit single.
Other extras include the film’s theatrical trailer (which has some spoilers), and Julie Kirgo’s taut liner notes on the cast, the film’s troubled female characters, Holden’s own plight as a self-hating / hard-drinking golden boy, and the play’s main conflicts.
Joshua Logan was able to parlay the film’s critical and box office success with several subsequent stage-to-film adaptations, including South Pacific (1958), Fanny (1961), Ensign Pulver (1964), Camelot (1967), and Paint Your Wagon (1969), although the latter such a terrible experience due to intrusive behaviour by writer Alan Jay Lerner that Logan went back the stage permanently.
William Inge’s play was subsequently adapted for TV in 1986 and 2000, and other film / TV versions of his plays include Come Back, Little Sheba (1952 / 1977), Bus Stop (1956 / 1982), Splendor in the Grass (1961 / 1981), and The Stripper (1963).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan