Comments on “Picnic” (1955). Director Joshua Logan. Based on a play by William Inge.
“Picnic,” released in 1955, was directed by Joshua Logan and was based on a play written by William Inge that premiered on Broadway in 1953. Logan had also directed the Broadway production and the play had met with critical and popular success. It was performed 477 times and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the New York Critics’ Circle Award for the Best Play of the season. I mention these facts to stress the point that by the time Joshua Logan undertook to turn the play into a film, the characters, the dialogue and the structure had been refined, honed and perfected. He knows what he wants. He knows what the audience wants. He knows what to show and he knows where the key moments are. He also knows what to leave out. He doesn’t film the play. He created a film from material he knew intimately, but material that had been transformed into a well-crafted screenplay by Daniel Taradash.
The stage play only used one set: the yard between two nondescript houses. In the movie, Josh Logan uses several small towns in Kansas and several outdoor locations. Logan makes cleaver use of the towering grain silos, the grandeur of the rich boy’s house, the waterfall, the thundering freight trains to accentuate the drama and the danger. The result is stunning. I always thought “Picnic” was a great movie, but having compared the film with the play, I can clearly see why. “Picnic” is one of the finest films to come out Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century.
The action focuses on the activities of a group of ordinary men and women in a small mid-Western town in the early 50s. We follow them through a twenty-four hour period on Labor Day when the town’s folk gather at an outdoor picnic to rest from their labors and enjoy some hours of innocent fun and games. Logan uses the camera in a documentary style. His “Seeing Eye” notices everything from bawling babies to under-rehearsed Barber Shop quartets with kindly irony.
Subtly and slowly, the audience becomes the Seeing Eye. Imperceptibly, we enter the film and become involved with the lives of the characters. The indoor scenes are bathed in an even gentle light. There are shadows here, but they are soft. This is an ideal world where passions are held under firm restraint and animal urges don’t exist. This a world peopled mostly by women: young girls, widows, spinsters, old maids.
The outdoor scenes are seen in natural light to emphasize the fact that the setting is real. Logan uses visual references with an imaginative cleverness. Consider the scene in which Hal Carter (played by William Holden) burns the trash of old Miss Potts. The heat coming off his naked torso is a match for the heat generated by the trash fire. No wonder when Madge, the beautiful daughter of the neighbor lady sees him, she melts. Another scene worth remembering is the scene in which Hal Carter kisses Madge near the waterfall and we see a freight train approaching in the background and hear its ominous rumble. Words are no longer necessary. All we hear is the heart-beat of the two lovers and the roar of the train. We see the danger inherent in this kiss and also the undeniable passion. And as if to further emphasize the danger, we also see a pulsing red light that keeps on morsing its warning all through the scene.
Kim Novak plays the role of the beautiful 19-year old Madge as a vision of youth and beauty and innocence. On the threshold of life, she is discovering her body and her soul. Logan’s camera worships Miss Novak and captures her face in a lyrical light. The shot of her face as she dances lit by the magical glow of Japanese lanterns is one that no man with a beating heart can ever forget.
Hal Carter, is the son of an alcoholic father and self-centered mother. He got into college on an athletic scholarship but failed to get a degree because of a poor scholastic record. Since then, he has drifted from one poorly-paid and futureless job to another. William Holden was 37 when he played the part of Hal Carter, a bit too old for the character as Inge had conceived him. But in choosing William Holden for the role, Logan’s instincts were correct. Logan wanted to show a man who has weathered a few storms in his life. Hal is all too aware himself that age is catching up with him. Logan uses a clever tactic. In the early scenes of the film, he shows us a vigorous and youthful Hal Carter, with a flat belly and rippling muscles. But in the later scenes he want us to see Hal Carter as a man approaching middle-age. He shows us the seams and wrinkles in Holden’s forehead. When Hal Carter speaks of his fears and hopes on the top of the grain silo, Logan makes a point of showing the crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes and the worry lines on his forehead. This is what makes the character of Hal Carter so believable, so endearingly vulnerable and so real. Is there a man alive who hasn’t seen Hal Carter in himself?
Rosalind Russell’s plays the part of Rosemary Sidney, the spinster school-marm terrified of growing old alone, with convincing and chilling intensity. When she delivers her devastating verbal assault on Hal Carter and denounces him as a fake and a bum-in-the-making, she is not far off the mark. Hal does not contradict her. Clearly, he himself is very aware that she is touching on the truth.
“Picnic” is essentially a meditation on the essential nature of love. Is love a lie invented to serve of societal needs and conventions? Or is it an elemental, transcendental force?
Madge’s mother gives no importance to love. She wants Madge use her beauty as bait to “catch” and marry the richest boy in town for very practical and down to earth reasons. You are pretty (she tells her daughter) and you have the chance to marry a man who can take you out of this shack of house and into a mansion. Use your beauty while you have it to hook a rich husband who will give you a comfortable, prosperous life; if you miss this chance, you will be condemned to a lifetime of impoverished spinsterhood.
But Madge rejects the idea of a loveless marriage, a marriage based purely on economic considerations. She opts to follow the dictates of her heart even though she knows that her relationship with a rootless, jobless, drifter with a dodgy past and an uncertain future could end badly. She chooses to take the risk. Because what she feels for Hal is something bigger, deeper, and more profound than conventional emotions.
I saw “Picnic” the first time in Pakistan in the late Fifties when I was twelve or thirteen years old and it permanently altered the landscape of my brain. It was an unbelievably moving experience and for several days after having seen the movie, I had trouble returning to the world of Lahore and schoolwork and ordinary reality.
Now, as I write these comments, more than half a century later, our tastes, values, concerns have changed and the world of a small Kansas town and its people seems remote and insignificant. Millennials might even jeer and mock their prudery. But if we are unable to see parallels between the lives of these characters and our own human frailties, the loss is ours.
The message of the movie is eternal. The film tries to delve deep beneath the surface of social conventions to give us a glimpse of very primal and dangerous dynamics of male-female relationships. The dance that Madge and Hal dance is the dance of life itself. It has nothing to do with middle-class mores or a picnic in a small mid-Western town, or rich boy competing with poor boy over a beautiful girl. The dance represents the raw, natural, magnetic energy of the Life Force seeking to express and fulfill its manifest destiny and plant its flag on the battlements of despair, decay and death.