Monday, February 14, 2011
Review – Picnic
February 14, 2011
Picnic – US, 1956
One of the most powerful moments in Joshua Logan’s film adaptation of William Inge’s play Picnic comes when Kim Novak’s character Marjorie Owens emotionally utters, “I get so tired of just being told I’m pretty.” The remark is followed by a rather passionate embrace, which would usually indicate that the person she is hugging is indeed the person who finally recognizes her as more than just a trophy, and perhaps that’s what screenwriter Daniel Taradash intended as well. However, I must confess to being unconvinced, for other than simple pleasantries, there’s nothing much in the film that would indicate a connection between Marjorie and Hal Carter other than a particularly strong physical attraction. Several times we see him watch her from afar, and all he does is mumble simple expressions indicating how impressed he is with her looks. During moments when they are in the same general area, either he’s talking about himself or the conversation never gets past basic small talk. Bearing all of this in mind, one could easily view Hal as one of those people causing Marjorie to be as frustrated as she is rather than being the one to save her from a life of pampered drudgery. Of course, none of this jives with Hal’s impassioned pleas that the two of them are meant to be together or his revelation that she makes him feel “patient”; however, it’s not hard to find examples of real people confusing loneliness and physical attraction for true love, and maybe that’s what we have in Picnic. Whether that’s what’s intended or not is another matter entirely.
Picnic tells the story of the effects that a drifter named Hal Carter has on a small town over a period of about three days. Hal is what many would consider an old-school gentleman – He refers to women as ma’am and older men as sir, never forgets to say thank you when he should, always remembers to carry the heavy things, and goes out of his way to help young ladies in distress. Personally, he’s a bit lost. He’s been everywhere, tried everything, and gotten nowhere. In the beginning of the film, we learn that he’s pinning his hopes on his best friend in school hooking him up with a job at his family’s company. All he wants, he explains, is a nice office job, a beautiful secretary, and meetings to attend.
Hal’s friend is Alan Benson (Cliff Robinson), the man who just happens to be dating Marjorie. I suppose it’s possible that he truly loves her, yet nothing he says indicates that he knows much about her or that he’s particularly interested in finding anything out. Instead, he’s interested in discovering if she looks “real in the moonlight.” I’m not exactly sure what this means, but from Marjorie’s reaction, it seems to have been yet another comment related to her appearance. Suffice to say, she doesn’t take it as a compliment.
The film positions Hal as Alan’s opposite. Alan, with his wealth and social status, is the safe bet, the kind of man that many mothers dream of their daughters marrying. Hal represents risk and danger, a life of unpredictable circumstances and economic hardship. In addition, Hal is the epitome of masculinity, a man with perfect six-pack abs, bulging muscles that cause tears in Alan’s shirts, and dark hair that looks good even after the wind has had some fun with it. In contrast, Alan looks as if he’s spent most of his days somewhere other than the gym. Marjorie’s mother Flo (Betty Fields) favors Marjorie marrying Alan, and she seems to think that time is of the essence. She has her reasons, and they are valid ones, especially considering the times in which the film is set.
The highlight of the film is the incredible performance of Rosalind Russell as a single school teacher named Rosemary Sidney. We first see her almost bragging about her singlehood and the many men who pursue her. Later, with the help of too much alcohol, she reveals her true feelings during a vicious verbal assault on Hal. Russell delivers the tongue-lashing in a way that makes us more empathetic to her character than angry. In a subsequent scene, having realized the all-too-real prospect of being alone forever, she makes a passionate plea to the man she had taken for granted to save her from a life of solitude. As Howard Bevans, Rosemary’s potential savior, Arthur O’Connell is simply perfect, and his work was rightly rewarded with a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The film works for the most part. We get a sense that life can be hard for women who are unmarried or single in their older years and that exactly what constituted old in those days was in fact quite young. In one scene, Flo asks Marjorie a series of questions that seem designed to ascertain whether she is doing enough – or should I say allowing Alan to do enough – to ensure that he marries her. As I said earlier, she has her reasons. The picnic they attend seems real enough, with the exception of the somewhat peculiar song of worship that the townspeople break into as the queen of the Neewollaw (“Halloween” spelled backwards), the town’s equivalent of a beauty queen, is announced just after the sun sets. That’s just creepy.
Oddly enough, my biggest problem with the film is the choice of William Holden as Hal Carter. Holden, about thirty-seven at the time the film was made, looks a bit older than he is, and it’s slightly off-putting to see him romancing a character who is supposed to be just nineteen. In fact, it seemed odd that Holden could have been classmates with Robinson at all, for Robinson looks young enough to be the same age as Margie. A younger-looking actor may have been more believable as a man undergoing personal angst. One particularly embarrassing scene has Holden singing about Old MacDonald and his farm animals with Marjorie’s younger sister, Millie. Neither of them is the right age to be getting that much enjoyment out of a children’s song. Moreover, Holden just looks too mature to be struggling with his attraction to a nineteen-year-old. This is a film that called for him to sacrifice a little personal happiness for the greater good. Instead, it rewards him for buying into the notion that all it takes to put a man on the right track is the love of a much younger woman. If only it were that easy. (on DVD)