Beat it baby. I'm in a bad mood.
From the play by William Inge comes Joshua Logan's 1955 film version of Picnic. The film stars William Holden (Network, The Wild Bunch, Stalag 17) as down-on-his-luck drifter Hal Carter and Kim Novak (Bell, Book and Candle, Vertigo, Pal Joey) as local beauty queen Madge Owens.
Once a star college football player, Carter has bounced around from town to town, never living up to his potential. This time Carter has bounced into the hometown of fraternity brother Alan, played by Cliff Robertson (Escape From LA, 3 Days of the Condor, Charly). Alan' s family is the richest in this small Kansas town and Carter is hoping to get a job working for them.
Before going to see Alan, Carter needs to get cleaned up and put some food in his stomach. This he does at a kindly old lady's house. While there he gets his first glance of Madge Owens, and it is lust at first sight. Turns out Madge is Alan's fiancée and Madge is none too sure of her love for him. While there, Carter also meets the other members of Madge's household including Madge's younger sister, Millie (Susan Strasberg) and a brassy older schoolteacher named Rosemary Sidney, played by Rosalind Russell (Auntie Mame, His Girl Friday).
Carter and Alan finally get together and Carter finds himself invited to the town's annual Labor Day picnic as young Millie's escort. The picnic is fun and games until Carter, Millie, Miss Sidney and her boyfriend Howard (the always wonderful Arthur O'Connell) begin drinking a little bit too much. Millie gets sick, while Miss Sidney gets quite drunk and reveals all the little lies Carter has been living, including his obvious lust for the newly crowned town queen, Madge. Angry and exposed, Carter rushes off with Madge close behind. Alone for the first time, Carter and Madge's feelings boil to the surface and the two of them spend the night together. Early next morning the two return to Madge's house where she has to sneak in, and Carter realizes he still has Alan's car, which he had borrowed the day before. Returning the car he finds the police at Alan's house, where after seeing Madge's looks for Carter at the picnic, he has reported the car as being stolen and instructs the officer's to arrest his former friend. A fight ensues and Carter is on the run. Hiding out at Mr. Bean's place Carter returns to Madge's house the next morning to let her know what has happened. He lets her know that he loves her and is catching the next train to Tulsa. He wants her to follow as she now "belongs to him." So Madge has a choice to make: stay in her little town and live a safe, probably boring life or take a chance and go to Tulsa with Carter.
Picnic is the latest release from Columbia as part of their "Columbia Classics" series of discs, and as such, high expectations are present for each movie. Nominated for six Academy Awards and as one of Columbia's first big budget, Cinemascope films, Picnic would certainly seem to warrant the attention. If only it were so.
The video end of Picnic is, at best, a mixed bag. The print is remarkably free of defects like scratches, and it only shows the smallest amount of grain. Despite having the benefit of a new anamorphic transfer the image is, for the most part, quite soft. While I found the picture to be bright with strong contrast, there was very little detail in the colorful summer clothing worn by most of the cast. Also, fleshtones have an unnatural, pasty look to them, and digital enhancement does not help the rear projection scenes at all. Picnic, at the least the source material for this disc, has not aged well.
On the flip side of the disc there is a pan and scan version of the film that is to be avoided at all costs. The transfer is heavily cropped and quite grainy.
Sound wise, Picnic is much better served. It has its original stereo mix and it sounds quite good. Particularly good is the way George Duning's score comes through. It is one of the highlights of the film and receives wonderful treatment. There are not many directional effects to speak of, with most of the dialogue and music coming from the front soundstage. Everything that is heard, however, sounds natural, rich and full. If you listen carefully, you will hear a little bit of hiss on the soundtrack, but it is hardly a distraction and again, you really need to listen for it.
The disc is also rather slim in the way of features. There are several trailers that range wildly in quality, the worst of which is for Pal Joey. There is a video montage of photos taken from the set with music and snippets of dialogue taken from the film. It is a nice little feature but does not shine any light on the people or the film itself. Columbia's slim talent files and a couple of trailer cards round out the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is sometimes quite hard to view older films like Picnic objectively. These are characters from a different time and a different way of life. Because of the ever-present level of self-censorship in the movies of the day, adult and frank discussion of serious themes was just not possible. This is not to say that a movie could not be sexy or steamy. A lot of that would depend on the chemistry between two actors. Unfortunately, William Holden and Kim Novak did not have that chemistry.
At age 37 and showing it, Holden looks out of place playing the mid-twenties Carter. Director Logan has Holden constantly moving around and trying to act youthful; sadly, it just looks painfully forced. Long one of my favorite actors, this is one of the only times I think he gave a bad performance.
As the 19-year-old Madge, Novak comes off much better. Sitting alone reading the phonebook, Novak could send off sparks, but here she has nothing to play. All her character talks about is how she is tired of being known as "the pretty one," yet all screenwriter Daniel Taradash has her do is be just that: the pretty one. She feels that everyone thinks she is stupid but what does she do? She heads off to be with the man she has known one day while leaving behind a man who loves her and wants to care for her. The movie's idea of a happy ending.
While O'Connell is his usual wonderful self, Russell overacts to the high heavens. Every thought is telegraphed and nuance is a mere afterthought. It's like she was warming up for Auntie Mame.
Everything about the film screams "dated" and the dialogue is no help. Too many attempts are made to sound hip and cool. The word "baby" was thrown about so much I thought I was watching an old Sinatra concert.
Usually this is the spot where I would complain about the lack of supplements on the release. But in the case of Picnic, I just did not care. Chalk it up to, "the less said, the better."
Three-quarters through this review and I'm still trying to find something positive to say about this movie. The acting is mediocre, the script is full of politically incorrect ways of referring to women, and the video transfer is less than stellar. Picnic is almost dated enough to be viewed as camp, but even there it still does not cut it.
If you are a fan of William Holden, I would stay away. Stick with The Wild Bunch or wait for Sunset Boulevard, because Picnic was far from his finest hour. Kim Novak fans are a little better off. She looks spectacular but does not have anything to do. She could have been replaced with a cardboard cutout and many would not have noticed. If you are already a fan of this movie, you will probably not be disappointed. For all its faults I can't imagine it looking or sounding any better anytime soon. If you are a fan of classic movies, well, give it a spin. Just make sure it is a rental spin and not a purchase. If you are a casual filmgoer and you see the sexy cover art with Novak and Holden, thinking that it might be hot or at least interesting, it's not.
The court once again thanks Columbia for its commitment to releasing classics films on DVD. I just would have preferred something along the lines of The Bridge Over the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia. Some classics are classics for good reasons…Picnic is not.
I would normally take this opportunity to send somebody to jail, but 45 years after the film was released, what is the point? Which is kind of the feeling I had watching this movie.
That is my decision. Case dismissed.
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