Hunky drifter Hal (William Holden) arrives in a small Kansas town, disturbing the status quo in "Picnic," a 1955 film based on Wiliam Inge's play and directed by Josh Logan. It co-stars Kim Novak, Susan Strasberg, Rosalind Russell, Betty Field, Cliff Robertson, Arthur O'Connell, and Verna Felton.
It's Labor Day and time for the big annual picnic. Beautiful, 19-year-old Madge Owens prepares to attend the picnic with Arthur (Robertson), a young man from a wealthy family. She fights with her jealous, nerdy sister, Millie. And she's warned by her mother (Field) that with each passing year she will become less marketable as a wife. She's advised to solidify things with Arthur. Renting a room from them is Rosemary, a schoolteacher - what one called "an old maid" back then. A brittle loudmouth, she's doesn't have not much use for her boyfriend Howard, but he's taking her to the picnic.
When Hal jumps off the train to look up his old college friend Arthur, he innocently becomes a catalyst for change. In one way or another, he manages to arouse emotions - mostly sexual - in nearly everyone he meets. A braggart who gives his loose-ends, wandering life a romantic spin, he's hoping Arthur's dad will give him a job. Then he sees Madge.
"Picnic" is a beautiful story about loneliness, settling for what you can get, love, frustration, and dreams left behind. Madge is sick of being the pretty one, Millie is sick of being the smart one, Rosemary is sick of being an old maid, Arthur is sick of not being a winner in his father's eyes. "Picnic" contains some memorable scenes, the best remembered being the classic "Moonglow" sequence when Madge shuns tradition and gives into her womanly feelings in one of the most erotic scenes ever filmed.
William Holden is too old for the role for Hal (his classmate, played by Cliff Robertson, is 29) but his casting is excellent. Virile, oozing with sex appeal and good looks, Hal turns a lot of heads when he's shirtless and when he flashes his gorgeous smile. In Madge, he sees his last chance to make something of himself; with her as his inspiration, he can do anything. Gorgeous in lavender, Kim Novak's Madge is every man's dream, and as she makes evident in her scenes with Robertson, she isn't sure this is all there is. When she meets Hal, he awakens feelings in her she's never had. Betty Field does a beautiful job as Flo Owens, a woman whose life has been one of disappointment but hopes for a good marriage for Madge. Susan Strasberg as the geeky Millie is superb - tomboyish, with feelings for things other than English literature held inside. The main characters all believe their lives are on a set path. No one believes this more than Millie. "I will be living in New York and writing books no one reads," she announces to her sister. But it's she who convinces Madge that for the fearless, life doesn't have to be set in stone.
Arthur O'Connell is effective as Rosemary's boyfriend - though he normally goes along with her, he can be tough when necessary. The scene where he's completely overcome by the town's women and can't get a word in is a classic. Arthur's afraid of change, but his life is going to change by unanimous female consent.
One of the best performances comes from veteran Verna Felton as Mrs. Potts. Her final scene with Flo Owens is so poignant as she talks about what it's meant to her to watch Flo's daughters grow up while she cares for her invalid mother. When she meets Hal, it's as if her whole existence comes alive once again. "There was a man around, and it was good," she says. Felton essays a wonderful, wise woman with an understanding of life and love and makes the role shine.
The problematic role is that of Rosemary. When people say that Picnic is dated, they're perhaps speaking of Rosemary, an old maid whose sexual desires become unbearable once she sees Hal and witnesses Hal and Madge together. "Every year I keep telling myself something will happen," she tearfully tells Howard. "But it doesn't." What's dated is the implication that an unmarried woman must be unfulfilled - the concept is dated, but it fits into '50s middle America - and don't kid yourself, step out of a big city and there are plenty of people who still feel this way. Rosemary's big confrontation scene with Howard is magnificent acting, but I frankly found Russell over the top in parts of the movie. Some of it is the character, some is not enough attention to directing her. Rosemary might be annoying, but she is also an object of pity. When you wish she'd just stop talking and leave, there's a problem.
"Picnic" doesn't tell us about the rest of these peoples' lives. The final scenes are really just the beginning. Though both Hal and Madge want to build a real life together, one wonders if they can, and if love and passion are enough to carry them through hard times. One suspects that Madge will one day return to Kansas, sadder but wiser. Hal will always have wanderlust, always put the best spin on marginal situations, and never really hold down a good job. Rosemary will be able to put on an act that she has what she wants, but that's all it will be. Without the competition of Madge, Millie may just surprise herself by blossoming, allowing the womanly part of her in, and have some opportunities in the big city that are more than career-based. In fact, of all of the characters, she perhaps has the best future in front of her.
A slice of '50s life, thought provoking, excellent characterizations - Picnic is one of the best films of the '50s with two of its brightest stars. Highly recommended.