Columbia Pictures // 1955 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // February 1st, 2012
From the moment he hit town...she knew it was just a matter of time!
For better or worse, they don't make 'em like Picnic anymore. The 1955 film, based on the stage play by William Inge, has the Cinemascope sweep of David Lean and the sexual melodrama of Douglas Sirk, plus the star-studded cast of a '70s disaster movie. There's such a unique combination of elements at work in the movie that it's somewhat surprising that it feels only above average in its best moments and, in its lesser ones, totally ordinary.
William Holden (The Wild Bunch) stars as Hal Carter, a hunky drifter who shows up in a small Kansas town to visit his old friend Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson, Spider-Man). Hal quickly draws the attention of several people in town, including the old spinster schoolteacher (Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday), precocious young Millie (Susan Strasberg, The Manitou) and her older sister, the beautiful Madge (Kim Novak, Vertigo), who just happens to be dating Hal's friend Alan. Over the next 24 hours, friendships will be tested and new love will be found all on the day of the big Labor Day picnic.
What's kind of amazing about Picnic is that for a movie that's required by its period to be somewhat prudish about sex, it seems to have only sex on its mind. Director Joshua Logan isn't shy about getting around this fact; one needs look no further than the scene in which William Holden stands next to aging Rosalind Russell, talking about what a man he is while being photographed only at crotch level, practically thrusting his hips into her face. There is absolutely nothing subtle about the moment, just as there's not much that's terribly subtle about Picnic. The fact that it stars a very young Kim Novak is a good indicator that the movie is all about sex; she comes off as beautiful and worthy of one's lust, but not much else (further proof that Hitchcock really knew what he was doing). She isn't helped much by having to play opposite William Holden, who is a terrific actor but woefully miscast here. He's too old for the part; it doesn't really make sense that he's meant to be old friends with Robertson's character, since there appears to be about a 15-year difference between them (really only five) and about 20 between him and Novak. There's a lack of chemistry between he and Novak, too, partially because of her inexperience as an actress and partially because the age difference lends their scenes a different context than the one that's no doubt intended.
Things do calm down eventually, almost like the movie grows up a bit by the halfway point. It stops feeling like a movie in heat and instead becomes more about the characters and the plot; with the novelty having already worn off, the change is a welcome one. Though there isn't much that's remarkable about Picnic, it has enough going for it to warrant a recommendation -- particularly for fans of '50s movies. Holden is miscast and Novak is something of a blank, but the supporting cast is all strong (including Rosalind Russell, aged quite a bit from her days as Hildy Johnson, Arthur O'Connell (who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work here) and, in particular, Susan Strasberg (daughter of Lee), who gives the best performance in the movie in only her second role. The movie doesn't have much to say about small town life that hasn't been said in two dozen movies both before and since, but its location and inhabitants are still well realized -- it feels like it's taking place in a real town, in which real people really live.
Picnic arrives on Blu-ray in a limited edition (only 3,000 are being released) courtesy of Screen Archives, a smaller label that's been specializing in these kinds of limited runs of late. The film looks gorgeous in 1080p HD, with its widescreen compositions showing good detail and a layer of film-like grain and showing off the lush Technicolor palette. Much of the appeal of a movie like Picnic is in simply appreciating the way that films were photographed in the 1950s, and the Blu-ray makes that a rewarding experience. The 5.1 DTS-HD lossless audio track does a fine job of delivering the dialogue and mixing it with George Duning's very pretty score. Like on previous Screen Archives/Twilight Time HD releases, the extra features are limited: all that's offered here is the original theatrical trailer and an alternate audio track that isolates Duning's score. Aficionados of movie music ought to really appreciate that.
Though it doesn't completely hold up as a film, Picnic is enough of a '50s time capsule and has a strong enough cast to be worth checking out. It's a movie of too many disparate elements that don't quite work, but the ones that do work quite well. If nothing else, it's gorgeous to look at without being too showy. The photography celebrates the beauty of everyday life, which is a lot easier to do when "everyday life" includes Kim Novak.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Columbia Pictures
* 2.55:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score