Monday, July 11, 2022

Holden Woos Novak via a Steamy, Involving Picnic

                One of the most successful studio offerings of its era, Columbia Pictures’ Picnic provides a rich, atmosphere story detailing the various characters and conflicts involved in an annual Labor Day picnic set in a small Kansas town. The 1955 screen adaptation of William Inge’s 1953 Broadway hit offers the play’s director, Joshua Logan, the chance for a first-rate cinematic debut and, armed with a top-flight cast and wonderful on-location filming in Kansas (lensed by ace cinematographer James Wong Howe), Logan manages to creatively blend florid dramatic and comedic situations and performances within a naturalistic setting as the film follows the exploits of Hal Carter, an aimless drifter who looks to find himself in a new setting, and instead causes a good degree of restlessness among the community, particularly in the case of one Owens household, which includes the town’s prettiest girl, Madge, and with Hal’s college chum Alan Benson, who happens to be Madge’s intended. The tempering of theatrical aspects tied to the material’s stage origins via a more realistic milieu brought about by the Kansas locales help the movie maintain a compelling freshness over 65 years after its general release, specifically during the centerpiece picnic, wherein a variety of activities and townsfolk are intermeshed with the main characters (Picnic must rank among the best examples of “opening up” a stage work for the screen, as in the original play no picnic is to be found; Daniel Taradash’s crafty screenplay does a fantastic job of moving the action frequently to different parts of town).

                As the magnetic, hunky Hal, William Holden offers another in his line of no-nonsense, All-American heroes and anti-heroes, which allowed for him to reach his leading man apex in the 1950’s. After a strong start in 1939’s Golden Boy, followed by his perfect, gentle work as a George for the ages in Our Town, Holden slowly progressed through the 1940’s in standard fare before, armed with a new cynicism which provided a fascinating contract to his more agreeable, boyish demeanor, he broke through to another level as a star and actor in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, which brought Holden the 1953 Best Actor Oscar over stiff competition, specially Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity. Although some commented Holden (at about 37) might have been too mature for the roving, sexy Hal, Holden’s earnest, energetic playing and confident ease are well-suited to the role and, also in line with Hal, he reveals himself to have possibly the best male physique going in Hollywood. Holden’s string of box-office hits during the decade, including the huge success of Picnic, led him to being named the #1 box-office star of 1956 (according to the industry’s standard-bearer, Quigley Publications), followed by Holden immediately thereafter offering forceful work headlining one of the decades biggest blockbusters and critical hits, The Bridge on the River Kwai.

 Kim Novak gained major headway as Columbia’s resident star-on-the-rise as the ethereal, beautiful Madge. Possessing a uniquely introverted camera presence to match her loveliness, Novak’s halting, sensitive delivery and forlorn, subtle demeanor stands in nice contrast to the more overt playing of most of the cast, and she generates plenty of erotic chemistry with Holden during the film’s most iconic moment, wherein Hal and Madge’s romance takes full bloom as they dance at the picnic to the lush strains of George Duning’s wonderful theme music, which is perfectly meshed with the standard “Moonglow.” With the one-two punch of Picnic and Novak’s possibly even-better work as the girl who tries to set Frank Sinatra straight in Man with the Golden Arm (also released in late-1955), Novak found herself rapidly rise to the top of the Hollywood pack, with Life and Time covers to come during the following year, along with her own placement with Holden among Quigley’s Top Ten Stars of 1956.

As Millie, Madge’s bookworm younger sister, Susan Strasberg fully commits to her role and offers one of the movie’s most vivid, emotionally-driven performances. Adeptly handling lighter moments as well as displays of the more stark emoting seen at the Actor’s Studio helmed by her father, Lee, the young star illustrates why she was considered one of the most talented newcomers of the time, following her film debut earlier in 1955 via The Cobweb, and after also making a major impact the same year on Broadway as the title character in The Diary of Anne Frank. Although a solid career in films (check out 1961’s Scream of Fear for another top Strasburg effort) and as an author followed, Picnic remained Strasburg’s biggest screen success, and her mature-beyond-her years dramatic prowess and fine interplay with each of her costars adds richly to the movie’s overall effectiveness. Also, although some commented Strasburg was too attractive to play the tomboyish Millie, Strasburg does a great job conveying Millie’s independent spirt as a driving force in her not playing into conventional norms regarding beauty and how she should behave as a girl or woman (Strasburg does an intelligent, skillful job of illustrating how Millie is transitioning into adulthood), while also suggesting Millie doesn’t view herself as desirable even if she is lovely; when Strasburg moans “Madge is the pretty one” in heartbreaking fashion during one of the film’s most riveting scenes, you believe in Millie’s torment at placing second to her beauty queen sister’s appeal with men (specifically Hal), and the vulnerable Strasburg makes the moment one of the film’s most moving.

Concerning the film’s major sub-plot, Rosalind Russell dives into her meaty role as Rosemary, a repressed-yet-colorful middle-aged schoolteacher desperate to find marital bliss, or at least security with her easy-going but set-in-his-ways businessman boyfriend Howard, who’s not as enthused with the prospect of settling down. Russell is interesting to watch as she alternates from broad comedy early on to a more strident, melodramatic approach once Rosemary, drawn to Hal’s overt masculinity, becomes progressively more restless, until she finally has an angry outburst regarding Hal’s attraction to Madge, then leaves the picnic for a tryst with Howard. Russell certainly throws herself into this big scene with abandon, but it veers into over-the-top territory, even given the emotionally-fraught circumstances. However, Russell then has a touching, delicately handled post-rendezvous moment with Howard, wherein she pushes hard for marriage, and one admires the commitment and understatement Russell brings to the emotionally-charged scene. As Rosemary’s intended (whether he likes it or not), Arthur O’Connell deftly recreates his stage role, making the sensible Howard both funny and endearing as he struggles to do the right thing by Rosemary. O’Connell, who had spent years in small and bit parts (including popping up as a reporter in Citizen Kane) prior to his breakout role as Howard, scores so heavily in Picnic he garnered an Oscar-nomination, then subsequent success as a reliable character actor in a string of high-profile films, ending the decade with Anatomy of a Murder (another Oscar nod) and the smash Operation Petticoat.

Among the rest of the cast, Cliff Robertson makes a proficient screen debut as Alan, adeptly managing the character’s behavioral switch from outgoing and pleasant to a more complex, sinister mood once he discovers the strong attraction between Hal and Madge is placing Alan a distant third, relationship-wise. As Flo, Madge and Millie’s concerned mother, Betty Field adds a nervous edginess to her role as Flo pushes Madge to consider a marriage of convenience with Alan; this mother-daughter conflict fits right in with the generation gap themes found in films of the era, but Field also exhibits how Flo carries an understanding nature towards her girls, and is willing to listen to them, as opposed to the cinematic depictions gaining in popularity at the time of parents as one-dimensional control freaks or morons. Finally, Verna Felton, whose voice will be immediately recognizable to fans of Disney animated hits such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, gives a warm, very likable performance as the Owens kind, sage next-door neighbor, Helen Potts, who first encounters Hal at the movie’s outset, and she shares a couple of lovely moments in particular with Field.

Picnic had much going for it upon its December 1955 release, with a star at the peak of his popularity and another ascending to the top of the cinematic heap in remarkable fashion, as well as quality, proven source material, a top-grade cast and crew, and a strong romantic angle that did nothing to harm the movie’s advertising campaign, as well as covers of Life (with Strasburg) and Time (in an article centered around Holden) further raising the film’s profile. Excellent critical and public reaction to the film found it gaining six Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Director) and two wins for Film Editing and Best Art Direction- Color, as well as a Golden Globe for Logan. Regarding the movie’s popular reception, Picnic earned $6,300,000 in domestic rentals to place at #6 on the list of top 1956 earners (according to Variety), while Columbia’s resident Musical Director Morris Stoloff’s lush recording of “Moonglow and Theme from “Picnic”” heard in the film found its way to the top ten of the Billboard charts in mid-1956, and #1 on the Jockey chart. Over the years the film has maintained its rightful place among the top screen romances of the 1950’s and, with its ample mix of comedy, drama, and arresting performances unfolding in a sublimely captured specific place and time, Picnic offers an ideal summertime viewing experience for classic, or any, movie-lovers.