Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Picnic" review

It was sexy, sultry, hot and sticky as the cotton slipping from the cypress trees of Riverside Park as summer gave way to fall in some backwater Kansas town.

One look at the DVD box and you can see it. The muscular leading man, his shirt torn almost clean off, casting lovemaking eyes on the looker in a pink dress. Hot stuff for 1955. That's the year Picnic was released in theaters.

Picnic is a classic '50s story, a look at life 60 years ago. The protagonist is in the Brando/James Dean/Elvis mold. He's the outsider who descends on a sleepy little town and starts shaking things up.

William Holden plays the drifter, Hal Carter, who arrives in town, riding in a box car. He plans to look up an old college buddy, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) whose family is wealthy and owns a fleet of grain elevators. Hal harbors unrealistic expectations. Thinks he can just drop in on an old friend and get set up in an office with a secretary. Be a big man behind a big desk on a big phone, making deals on Enterprise.

He scraps some change together, doing yard work for a sweet old lady, Mrs. Potts (Verna Fenton). She's a motherly woman, feeding him breakfast and washing his dirty shirt while he works, barechested, in her back yard and catches the eyes of the women next door - one of whom, Madge Owens (Kim Novak), is Alan's girlfriend. Madge's mother, Flo (Betty Field) finds Hal dangerous and there's something to that.

When he shows up on Alan's spacious lawn, it's a happy, backslapping reunion between old college roommates and fraternity brothers. They reminisce about old times, Alan shows Hal his family's grain elevators, takes him to the local swimming pool and brings him along to the Labor Day town picnic.

That's where the friendship starts to cool. Alan grows weary of Hal's blustery big talking and suggests in front of the others picnicking that Hal can get a job in his elevators - as a grain scooper. Then there's another thing that drives the friends apart - the classic wedge driver.

She stands lean, tall and perky - her big eyes set on something other than dime stores, tea parties and Kansas grain. Madge, Alan's girl.

Her mother is pushing her toward the easy life. Get crowned Miss Neewoallah (Halloween spelled backwards), marry Alan and it's lunch at the country club and Bridge parties for the rest of her life. She'll be taken care of.

It's like she tells her daughter: "You're 19, then 20 and 21. Then you're 40 and an old maid." Picnic portrays well the dead end life that awaited women at that time in that culture. It's not a life that Madge really wants. She seems lukewarm and reticent in her relationship with Alan. Then Hal comes along and lights her fire.
Hal and Madge dance together at the picnic and it falls into the category of sexy with clothes on.

Meanwhile, Alan calls the police and reports the car he let Hal borrow is stolen. He's angry and it has nothing to do with the car. Hal has been out for hours with Madge. When he arrives back at Alan's home with the car, he gets into an unrealistic looking scuffle with the police and speeds off with the car.

After losing the cops and leaving the car behind, he looks up Madge, tells her he's hopping a freight to Tulsa in the morning and begs her to meet him there. Tells her he has a job waiting for him as a hotel belhop. These two are mad for each other. "I love you, I gotta have you," Hal tells her. The two may be lovers (we can easily surmise that they made love; Hollywood didn't show the act back then) but they're not really in love. They're in lust.

The movie ends with Madge taking a bus bound for Tulsa. It's impetuous, her going after this shiftless man whom she'd just met, a man with a rap sheet. Somehow, I don't get the feeling they're going to live happily ever after in Oklahoma.

Then again, Madge needs to get the hell away from her stultifying small town Kansas life. She needs to go out and make a life for herself. In those days before women's liberation, this man, this rebel, offers her the excuse she needs to get away.

Novak was believable as the 19-year-old small town beauty queen. As for Holden's role, I wasn't buying it. He did great with what he was given, playing the swaggering roughneck, but Holden, who was around 37 at the time, looked too old to pass for a guy a few years out of college.

Of all the actors in the film, there's no question who turned in the greatest performance. That honor would go to Rosalind Russell as Rosemary Sydney, the "old maid schoolteacher" who boards in the Owens' house. She puts on airs, talking about the men who are supposedly in love with her and how she has no time for them. Inside, she's lonely, desperate and repressed.

A fortyish woman, Rosemary wants the youth, beauty and sex appeal that Hal and Madge have. Drunk on her date, Howard's, whisky, she shamelessly throws herself at Hal. Then, realizing she's made a fool out of herself, Rosemary lashes out verbal abuse at Hal. Later, she has another meltdown when she begs Howard Bevans (Arthur O'Connell) to marry her. She's vulnerable, emotionally fragile and pathetic.

Russell refused to be nominated for an Oscar in the best supporting actress category. If not for her refusal, she may have clenched it.

Filmed in Kansas, Picnic has that middle America at American mid-century feel. I love the way the director, Joshua Logan, interspersed documentary-like footage of townsfolk at the picnic with scenes of the film's stars. It made me wonder if Logan had ever directed documentaries, but there's nothing in his biographies to suggest he did.

The small town feel takes the movie to the heart of what playwright William Inge was going for when he wrote the original play, Picnic, which won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. (Logan directed the Broadway stage production as well as the film.)

While scandalous for its day, the film is tame by today's standards. It's not a perfect film, but it's worth taking a look at this portal into a time when men wore suits and ties and women wore gorgeous dresses to small town celebrations. Picnic is a slice of Americana pie in a park with a band shelter and pavilion.

The film is mostly forgotten today. But as long as boxcar loneliness and small town yearnings - the heat - exists, Picnic will have a home on community theater and high school stages across America.

Gateway films: Inge also wrote other plays that were made into movies, such as Come Back Little Sheba and Bus Stop, which was also directed by Logan. He also directed such films as Mister Roberts and South Pacific. All are worth a look.

Check out Rosalind Russell in the 1958 comedy, Auntie Mame.

It's too bad that Kim Novak is now only known to younger audiences as the woman with all the ridiculous plastic surgery who introduced Matthew McConaughey at this year's Academy Awards. In the '50s, she was one of the hottest things going. Check her out with Jimmy Stewart in the 1958 Alfred Hitchock directed psychological thriller, Vertigo.

And while on the subject of actresses once hot, still alive, but largely forgotten, I have to recommend the Hitchcock spy thriller, North by Northwest. The film starred Eva Marie Saint with Cary Grant and James Mason.

I first saw Picnic around 20 years ago on TCM (or was it the old American Movie Classics) when today's stars introduced their favorite old films. Brooke Shields picked Picnic. Rosanne Barr and then husband Tom Arnold picked the much classier Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford in The Way We Were. Country singer Travis Tritt showed Elvis's Jailhouse Rock and Kenny Rogers presented Oklahoma.

All, all are worth seeing.

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