Monday, September 7, 2009

Picnic - 1955

“Picnic” (1955) takes place on Labor Day, in a Midwest small town. In the middle of the country, in the middle of the 1950s, we arrive at a point in the lives of the characters in this film when they are both looking back and looking forward. For most, it seems their prospects are as flat as the horizon.

William Holden plays Hal, an unrealistic dreamer and likable screw-up who arrives in town riding a boxcar, with little more than his father’s boots to his name. Holden is often judged by many as being too old to play this boyish character, and perhaps that is true. Already having successfully played more mature men of the world, one can sense in some scenes what might have been Mr. Holden’s discomfort at playing a man in his 20s with the emotional maturity of a teenager. But with a little makeup around the eyes, a little combing of his hair in bangs over a slightly receding hairline, Holden does fine showing us Hal’s loveable foolishness, his pathetic braggadocio, and brings a certain wistful pang of remorse to the inevitable harsh self-knowledge of his own failure. Perhaps a younger, less experienced actor would not have brought the enormous expression of regret we see in Hal’s face, a self knowledge that only time brings.

Besides, William Holden can heave the entire body of young Susan Strasberg over his head and carry her with one hand in a picnic race, and this is pretty impressive for a man in his late 30s.

Susan Strasberg shines as the brainiac teenager Millie, rebellious and restlessness, and deeply jealous of her pretty older sister, Madge, played by Kim Novak. “Madge is the pretty one!” Miss Strasberg wails, her teenage pain acute, with no one and nothing to comfort her.

I believe it was in this movie that director Joshua Logan said of Kim Novak that she “wears her beauty like a crown of thorns.” A pretty well-repeated comment of Kim Novak by now, and in this role, remarkably true. Miss Novak is the anxious beauty queen Madge, who is as equally jealous of her younger sister because of the younger girl’s roundly acknowledged intellect. Her geeky little sister is more confident, dares to be more brash, and is headed off to college. Madge is going nowhere. Her only hope for a happy future, at least according to her worried mother, played by Betty Field, is for her to marry the rich boy in town.

The rich boy, son of the town’s grain elevator company owner, is played by Cliff Robertson. No struggle for Madge to snag him, because he’s already after her. The problem is Madge. She’s deeply insecure about her much-proclaimed beauty, wanting instead to be appreciated for more than that. Her fear is that there isn’t much more to her. She’s not really in love with Robertson, and she, a girl who has grown up fatherless by the railroad tracks, feels out of place among his wealthy set. And then William Holden arrives in town.

There are a lot of interesting comparisons to make to “Peyton Place”, which we covered last time. Both reflect the turmoil of the individual’s fitting into a tight-knit, and often judgmental community. Both, though launching the plot off the sexual desires of the youth, also reflect the emotional crises of the older generations with poignancy.

Rosalind Russell plays the spinster schoolteacher who boards with Betty Field’s family, and plays her like a force of nature, occasionally chewing the scenery. Footloose and fancy free, she boasts of relationships she has broken off to keep her independence, but we soon learn the only man willing to keep company with her these days is the befuddled Arthur O’Connell, one of the terrific character actors of this era. He is a confirmed old bachelor who brings liquor to liven up the party, and contentedly comforts himself in his bachelor apartment with his 21-inch TV. I love how his tie is too short.

Their relationship is old, stale, but livens up after a climatic scene when Miss Russell paws Holden in a desperate cry for attention, and afterward she realizes tearfully, with repentance and in some panic that Mr. O’Connell is the only man left to her who will keep her from being alone. She begs him to save her from a life of spinsterhood.

One of the interesting differences in “Picnic” to “Peyton Place” is the role of the mother of the lead characters. Lana Turner is the mother who bore her child out of wedlock and afterward spends considerable energy keeping her teenaged daughter from any kind of intimate contact with any boy, who warns her of sex and accuses her of sex, but will not otherwise talk about it.

Betty Field in “Picnic”, however (in contrast to her own role in “Peyton Place” as the tragic figure so beaten by the circumstances of her life that she cannot comfort a brutalized daughter, only obsess over what the neighbors will think) practically throws Kim Novak at the rich boy. Field questions her daughter on how far she lets Cliff Robertson go on dates, not to warn her off intimacy before marriage, but to encourage it so that there will be a marriage. We can see Novak’s embarrassment with this discussion, and Betty Field’s determined desperation.

In both films we have the camera shots from high above, a point at which the characters can look down on the town and consider it. In “Peyton Place” it is Russ Tamblyn and Diane Varsi on the top of the mountain looking down upon the town. In “Picnic” it is William Holden and Cliff Robertson on the top of the grain elevator, a symbol of his family’s wealth and power, overlooking this Kansas town. Still, it is difficult to see the town even from this vantage, just as we might have to stand far back from a painting in a museum to really appreciate it. Some of these characters in both these movies will need to actually get out of town to see it for what it is.

The climatic scene in both films takes place at the Labor Day picnic, which is as fun to watch as it is useful for helping the plot to unfold. All the lead characters in “Picnic” participate in various games and races. In one race the ladies are told they need a male partner to compete in a rather servile-looking ring-toss game, and Rosalind Russell crows, “I’ve got a man!” to the defeated looks of the ladies who don’t.

The evening brings the final event of the day, the choosing of the festival queen, in this case “Neewollah”, which is Halloween spelled backwards. Kim Novak is floated down the river on a swan boat wearing a crown and cape while the townspeople pay homage in what might look silly to an outsider, but we are no longer outsiders here. We can smile at the foolish pageantry, and understand the need for it at the same time.

Mr. Holden is captivated at the sight of her, but mostly at what she represents, a grandeur he seeks for himself. We see Cliff Robertson now has a rival. In the next scenes over the course of the evening, a lot flip-flops and lives are changed forever. Relationships break off, new ones start, and Kim Novak, who has been eyeing Holden with fascination since she met him, now finds the guts to make the biggest decision of her life.

Probably the most interesting aspect in this film of what today might be considered rampant sexism, where the women are regarded, and regard themselves, as essentially worthless if they do not attract and keep a man, is the blatant exploitation of William Holden’s masculinity. He is ogled and pawed, his clothes are ripped from him by a desperate older woman. He is shirtless and leered at by the ladies and by the camera. He is Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe in his vulnerability as a sex object.

And he is miserable. Like Kim Novak. It’s a sweet idea that the comfort they seem to bring each, their mutual woes of not being appreciated for their inner worth, will make a bridge on which they can build a lasting romance. But the film carries with it an irresistible reality that maybe happily-ever-after is a matter of degree. When Mr. Holden all but demands Novak follow him when he must hurriedly leave town ahead of the police, we may wonder if he is ever going to grow up and stop thinking only about himself. We may suspect that Miss Novak is walking into as hopeless and unsatisfying a relationship as her parents’. But we don’t really know.

We don’t really know if Roz Russell and Arthur O’Connell are really going to make a life together in his bachelor apartment with his 21-inch television. She will quit teaching, which she wants very much to do, and will likely have to anyway as many teachers in many areas of the country were still required to be single at this time. They leave for they honeymoon, she ecstatic, he dazed.

We are left with Betty Field, the well-meaning and ambitious mother of two daughters as different as night and day, with different needs and different personalities. A woman who takes in borders to make ends meet, because her own marriage failed many years ago. We are left with the gentle older neighbor Miss Potts, played by Verna Felton, who cares for the demanding and unseen mother that requires all her energy, all her time. Just as in “Peyton Place”, the older generations are seen as having paid a price, and one of the most touching moments in the film is when Verna Felton and Betty Field sit pensively on a swing at the town picnic, the evening shadows lowering, and Felton confesses that just being able to watch Field’s daughters grow up from her vantage point of her own backyard made her lonely life easier.

This is a woman denied her own family possibly by the very responsibility of caring for her invalid mother. How poignant it is to show an elderly woman calling to an even older woman, “Yes, Mama, I’m coming,” with no resentment, only concern. Miss Felton has made peace with her life, even as she lives vicariously through everyone else’s. It is she who first welcomes Holden into their lives, fusses over him and makes him comfortable. He playfully calls her his girl. It is she who first notices the attraction between Holden and Novak, and she wistfully, with wonder and captivation, but without an ounce of Miss Russell’s jealousy, comments, “Aren’t they graceful?”

Though Kim Novak is warned by Betty Field that time is flying, and she is at the peak of her bloom and needs to pursue marriage with the rich boy while she is still desirable, we are reminded that in Field herself, and in young Susan Strasberg, and in Verna Felton, time is flying for every generation. It brings to mind the old poem about gathering rosebuds while ye may, and it applies to everyone: “To the Virgins, to make much of Time,” by Robert Herrick.

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he 's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he 's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.

Verna Felton would identify more with this than either of Betty Field’s girls. But they’ll understand in time, in their own ways, with their own regrets. This is what makes the film interesting, is that it doesn’t really end. The audience decides what the ending will be. Because it is Labor Day, the summer, at least, is ending, the movie showing us a race against time that is an allegory for the broader issues.

Below, have a look at the famous dance sequence with William Holden and Kim Novak at the picnic. Enjoy your Labor Day, and may the eventual evening shadows fall gently on you and yours.



Anonymous said...

One of my all time favorite movies....thanks for posting.....

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

Was the original film made in black & white?

Taylor Sartre said...

Enjoyed this piece very much- thanks.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you very much, Taylor.

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