In a decade of conformity and great prosperity William Inge and Tennessee Williams tackled subjects ahead of their time. Of course they in some cases had to veil the subject matter but that lead to some wonderful revelations in writing and reading between the lines. In this DVD from Colombia of Inge's Pulitzer Prize winning 'Picnic' we have one of the best films of this genre of sexual repression, animal heat, and desperation in small town America.
Most reviewers of this film might begin with the leads but I must start of with the wonderful Verna Felton as Helen Potts the sweet old lady who is caretaker of her aged mother and lives next door to the Owens family. This gifted and now forgotten character actress sets the tone of the picture as she welcomes drifter Hal Carter (William Holden) into her house. At the end of the film she glows in tender counterpoint to the dramatic ending. She is the only person who understands Hal, even more than Madge (Kim Novak). Her speech about having a man in the house is pure joy to watch. It is a small but important performance that frames the entire story with warmth and understanding.
Betty Field turns in a sterling performance as Flo Owens, Mother of Madge and Millie. She is disapproving of Millie's rebellious teen and smothering of her Kansas hothouse rose Madge. A single Mom trying in desperation to keep Madge from making the same mistakes she did. She becomes so wrapped up in Madge's potential for marriage to the richest boy in town she completely ignores the budding greatness that is bursting to get out in her real treasure. Millie.
Susan Strasberg creates in her Millie a sweet comic oddball. She is the youngest daughter who awkwardly moves through the landscape nearly un-noticed, reading the scandalous "Ballad of the Sad Café" being the only one who is different and can't hide it. Her yearning to get out of the smallness of small town life is colored with the skill of a young actress with greatness her.
Rosalind Russell nearly steals the show as the fourth woman in the Owens household boarder, Rosemary, a frantic, hopeless and clutching spinster. In the capable hands of Miss Russell we have a real powerhouse of a performance. She imbues Rosemary with all the uptight disapproval of a woman who knows that her time has past and there are very few options left. She is electric in her need for love. Every nuance of her emotions is sublime in her presentation. Just watch her hands alone.
Floating above all of this is Madge Owens, the kind of girl who is too pretty to be real. The kind of girl who in a small town like this is not understood to have any real feelings or thoughts other than those that revolve around being beautiful and empty. Enter Kim Novak, who is just such a girl. Who could ever expect such a beauty to be anything more than just pretty? But Miss Novak, a vastly underrated actress in her day paints a knowing and glowing portrait of Madge. Her explosion of sexual heat upon meeting Hal for the first time is internal and barely perceptible until she looks at him from behind the safety of the screen door the end of their first scene. That screen door is a firewall protecting her from the flames. She fights in the early part of the film to keep her sexual desire for Hal in check. That night she loses her fight at the picnic and we watch as she opens to reveal a woman of feelings and dreams so much deeper than the prettiness of her eyes or the luminosity of her skin. This is one of Kim Novak's early great roles and one she fills out with lush and deep emotion.
The lives of all of these women of Nickerson Kansas are changed one Labor Day when Hal comes steaming into town. William Holden gives a raw and wounded portrayal to Hal, a man at the edge of his youth and on the verge of becoming a lost man. He lives as he always has, on the fading glow of his golden boy charm and his muscular magnetism. Holden was 35 when he made Picnic, a real golden boy at the edge of his youth. He was perfect for the part. Some reviewers say he was too old to play Hal, but I disagree. Without being thirty-five in real life as well as in the story Rosemary's "Crummy Apollo" speech would not be so effective or devastating. Hal is a man who never bothered to grow up, a man who never let anyone get too close for fear they might see through is bravado and discover his fears of feeling something, anything before it's too late.
Holden also brings a sexual heat to the film that is eons beyond the time it was filmed. He is presented almost like a slab of meat. He struts around in a pre-Stonewall dream of sexy hotness. Not only the girls in town notice him but a few boys too. (There are several layers to Nick Adams paperboy if one bothers to look.) When finally Holden sparks with Novak they blow the lid off of the uptight code bound studio-strangled world of Hollywood in the Fifties.
The film is photographed magnificently in lush color and cinemascope by famed cinematographer James Wong Howe. The famous score by George Durning is classic not only for the famous reworking of the old standard "Moonglow" but for his virtuosity in dramatic power. This is a giant of a score from the silver age of film music. The direction by Josh Logan is perfect in every way and stands among the best of his work.