Review: “Picnic” (1955)


A couple months back I sat down and watched Picnic. To be honest, I was not particularly enthralled by it. It started off seemingly disjointed and melodramatic, though I did find myself getting more invested as the film drew to a close. So I walked away thinking of it was an imperfect film with a decent conclusion, and my verdict would likely have been around a 2 or a 2.5 out of 5.

When I saw that TCM was showing it again, I decided to give it a second viewing before writing up this review. After all, it would not have been the first time that I saw a movie that I was not keen on upon first viewing only to fall in love with upon a re-watch.

Directed by Joshua Logan, Picnic is a 1955 film that centers on a drifter named Hal (William Holden) who journeys to a small Kansas town on Labor Day, just as its residents are preparing for an annual picnic. His purpose is to reunite with Alan (Cliff Robertson), who is an old college friend.

Alan is far wealthy and successful thanks, at least in part, to his own father’s success of overseeing the operation of grain elevators. He also meets a woman named Madge (Kim Novak), who just so happens to be Alan’s girlfriend. Sparks soon start to sizzle between Hal and Madge, climaxing at the picnic when the two dance and fall in love. Hal runs off following a confrontation with a now very-jealous Alan, only for Madge to follow him and jump into his car.

It is the story of the love triangle: a woman is stuck between the rich man that everyone wants for her to marry, and the rough-and-tumble bum who arrives to a squeaky-clean community and shaking it up – for better and for worse. That the two men happen to be friends from college only adds to the conflict present in this film. 

There is also a somewhat comical subplot involving a librarian (Rosalind Russell) who goes from stingy and fiercely independent, to desperate to find a man and pleading with an alcoholic shop owner (Arthur O’Connell) to marry her.

Picnic is a cliche, no doubt, and at no point did I think it was doing anything particularly unique. Even so, I must admit that my second viewing of it was much more enjoyable than the first. The dialogue and acting was far smoother, though I would not call either stellar. Both are serviceable and carry the story forward with enough life to be engaging. The characters are also fairly interesting, despite many of them being tropes that have been done to death: the tomboy who fights the “establishment” idea of femininity in the form of Madge’s younger sister, the woman who wants to be more than mere eye-candy (Madge), and the ex-jock drifter who never amounted to anything after college where he put sports above academics (Hal). They are cliched characters, but even so they are handled with enough care that one can overlook it and still enjoy the story.

As stated earlier, the direction is stagey, but it is the Logan stagey where it is clear that a lot of effort and care went into the framing of the various shots, which could also be chalked up to cinematographer James Wong Howe. Both do an excellent job making the images pop with color and life, even if there is not a great deal of deviation in regards to the lighting techniques.

It is also something that I failed to notice on the first viewing, as there are some legitimately stellar shots and scenes that are worth praise: the crowning of Madge with the town’s title of ‘Miss Neewollah” (Halloween spelled backwards), the picnic itself which looks as if it were taken straight out of a Seurat painting with a bit of Fragonard’s The Swing – all of these little moments of visual splendor really add to the mostly static film.

I also love the way it depicts the ideal small community. It’s colorful, wholesome, and full of friendly people. Though Hal acts as a sort of outside force of reality, at no point did I feel as though the film belittled people living in small-town America which, let’s be honest here, is a breath of fresh air when it seems like that’s all that comes out of modern Hollywood. Also, perhaps that is the reason why critics seem to be highly mixed on it despite it receiving several Oscar nominations when it was first released, including Best Picture. 

It might suggest that shaking things up with a little outside excitement is welcome, but it never came across as elitist or snobbish in looking down their noses at the “little people.”

In short, Picnic is a modest film. Though not necessarily a film you must see, it is certainly worth a viewing. It comes across as a sentimental product of its time, and carries themes that have been tread out time and time again, but I still could not help but enjoy it.  

Score: 3 out of 5

Picnic wiki page (also image)

Picnic imdb page

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