Thursday August 8, 1996
From its opening images of William Holden jumping off a freight train with huge grain silos in the background and then walking into an idyllic small Kansas town preparing for Labor Day festivities, "Picnic" exudes the irresistible pull of nostalgia. It is playing at the Nuart through Wednesday.
But Inge himself already knew what nostalgia was all about, and its treacheries. What gives "Picnic" its enduring tension is that while Inge clearly loved small-town charm and its friendliness, he knew only too well how it could stifle the spirit.
Holden's Hal Carter is a sexy drifter whose impact on the town is like that of a prairie fire. A onetime college football star and a World War II vet, he's turned up in hope that his fraternity brother Alan (Cliff Robertson), son of the local grain tycoon, will give him a job.
Alan, in turn, is hoping that Madge (Kim Novak), the prettiest girl in town, will marry him. Even before they meet, you just know that when Hal and Madge see each other that the mutual attraction will be galvanic. Indeed, their encounter later that evening, when they dance to "Moonglow," has become one of the movies' classic moments of sexual magnetism--the most graceful and sensual of mating dances.
Inge was exceedingly fortunate with those entrusted in bringing "Picnic" to the screen. Josh Logan, who directed "Picnic" on Broadway, made his screen debut with the film, and under his direction his large cast creates a glorious ensemble. No less crucial--even, arguably, more crucial--to the stage-to-screen transposition are the work of screenwriter Daniel Taradash and cinematographer James Wong Howe. These two Hollywood pros open up the play seamlessly, extending yet never violating the drama's integrity, bringing to its inherent theatricality an easy cinematic flow.
And it's hard to see how anyone in the cast could have been better. Holden perhaps brought more personal anguish to Hal than we could have known at the time; Novak is beautiful, poised and reflective. Betty Field as Madge's mother is understandably obsessed that her daughter marry well in the light of her own sad experience, and Susan Strasberg is the familiar kid sister, bright but not yet aware of how pretty she is becoming. Their wise, grandmotherly next-door neighbor is played by the incomparable Verna Felton.
When you're older you find that you're much more captivated by the middle-aged couple, Rosemary and Howard, and how brilliantly they're played by Rosalind Russell and Arthur O'Connell. Russell's Rosemary is an "Our Miss Brooks" old maid schoolteacher whose desperation is lapsing into hysteria, while O'Connell's Howard is a sweet-natured bachelor so set in his ways it becomes a matter of suspense as to whether he'll come to Rosemary's--and his own--rescue. O'Connell got an Oscar for the role he had created on stage, but it's Russell who successfully risks nearly going over the top, just as she had years earlier in her bitchy role in "The Women."
Produced by Fred Kohlmar for Columbia, "Picnic" is a classic--and let's hope its theatrical revival doesn't inspire anyone to attempt to remake it.
Picnic, 1996. PG, for mild language and thematic elements. A Columbia Pictures Repertory re-release. Director Josh Logan. Producer Fred Kohlmar. Screenplay by Daniel Taradash; from the play by William Inge. Cinematographer James Wong Howe. Editors Charles Nelson, William A. Lyon. Costumes Jean Louis. Music George Duning. Production designer Jo Mielziner. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. William Holden as Hal Carter. Kim Novak as Madge Owens. Rosalind Russell as Rosemary Sydney. Arthur O'Connell as Howard.