If Summer Under the Stars is classic film Christmas, then is William Holden day Christmas Eve? His day was my most anticipated and in celebration I went with a film purely based on the poster art. I bought Picnic at Barnes and Noble for one reason: The cover has a half-naked Bill Holden (I think I employed similar logic in my review of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing). Underneath that glorious exterior beats a fevered, lust-filled heart, and by that I mean the story is great; a look at small-town life and the compromises people make for security is fantastic, and despite the presence of the gorgeous Cliff Robertson and Bill Holden, the complexity comes from the female cast! I was enamored with this take on small-town life, and am happy to own this.
Hal Carter (Holden) is a drifter who stumbles into a small Kansas town during Labor Day weekend. He’s going to visit his wealthy friend Alan Benson (Robertson) who is engaged to the town beauty, Madge Owens (Kim Novak). Unfortunately, Hal inflames the female residents passions causing Madge, her little sister (Susan Strasberg), and the resident old maid (Rosalind Russell) to learn what their lives will be like if they don’t change.
A picnic is generally a small, romanticized, intimate gathering, but the movie ends up turning it into a town trial where secrets are revealed. The small-town atmosphere is shown to be a shallow façade, and that’s emphasized the minute young Millie has to hide the cigarette she’s smoking. All the residents have ambitions of grandeur, generally involving relationships: teacher Rosemary wants to get married to her long-time boyfriend (Arthur O’Connell) who secretly harbors a crush on Madge; Madge and Millie are constantly competing for attention and have differing dreams of success. No one can express their true emotions, and Hal’s presence – a sexual virus in himself – comes and infects the residents to make them honest.
I say Holden is a sexual virus, and the way he contagiously shakes up the town exhibits that. Holden is the only problem with the movie, and your enjoyment of the film is reliant on whether you can believe that Holden is a “young man” out of college. He was 37 and certainly looks it, especially when standing next to 32-year-old Cliff Robertson who could pass for late 20s. It wouldn’t be a problem if various people didn’t continually refer to Holden as a young man, or if he didn’t go on a date with Millie; Susan Strasberg was 17 and standing opposite Holden she looks like his daughter. Holden’s age isn’t a deal-breaker but he’s weathered and isn’t as smooth as in past films. Obviously, he was cast because of his good looks and if you’re looking for man evocative of potent sexual energy, you can’t do any better than William Holden. I can’t think of another film where the plot depends on Holden being shirtless, but Picnic uses that several times to convey the increasingly rampant sexual frustration of the resident ladies. Whether Holden’s taking it off himself, or having it literally ripped off him, shirts are the enemy! A character like Rosemary believes that Hal is a show-off – “Who does he think is interested” – only to have her become the one upset when he turns her down.
The ladies are so frenzied over Holden because of what he represents: Satisfaction, freedom, advantage. The various female characters are all at liminal thresholds; compelled to decide where the trajectory of their lives will go. The Labor Day picnic is the culmination of their entire lives, where success and failure awaits them. Susan Strasberg and Kim Novak do their finest work here (I enjoyed Novak far better than I did in Vertigo), both playing women who are condemned from birth for being women. Madge and Millie are sisters, and yet their relationship hangs by a thread due to the favoritism, and unequal treatment they receive from their mother and friends. Millie is young and dreams of education and adventure; she’s not boy-crazy and enjoys reading. When Madge pokes fun at her for refusing to dress and flirt with boys Millie retorts that “I’ll dress and act the way I want.” Millie wants to be above it all, but at every turn she’s undercut by her beautiful sister who takes whatever she wants. Hal and Millie would never work out, but Madge captures Hal’s heart leaving Millie alone. It isn’t Hal’s fault for falling for Madge, but it doesn’t break Millie’s heart any less. Susan Strasberg is precocious, but wise and mature for her age.
Madge has the harsher reality because she’s both condemned and blessed by a society that reveres beauty. Madge has been beautiful her entire life; however, beauty only gets you so far and Madge is painfully aware she has no skills. Her only “career” can be to find a wealthy husband who will care for her, or she can end up a faded beauty working at the “dime store.” Her mother doesn’t help matters, wistfully telling Madge that if she’s incapable of ensnaring Alan Benson now, she’ll be “20…then 21…then 40.” Her mother has no faith in her to be a productive member of society to prove that beauty isn’t everything. When Madge asks “What good is it just to be pretty,” her mother can’t even fathom that, answering “What a question!” Madge and Millie both believe the other lives a charmed life; Madge realizes Millie is smart and will go off to have grand adventures; Millie believes Madge gets what she wants and is lucky in love. Somewhere in the middle lies Rosalind Russell’s Rosemary who is smart and finds love, and ends up possessing neither in the long-run.
The men themselves are also lecherous, seeking equal fulfillment in the ladies. Howard, Rosemary’s intended, lusts after Madge, believing she’s a prize worth cherishing and possibly restoring his youth. Alan Benson also treats Madge as an object, declaring she’s the most “beautiful thing I’ve ever seen” (emphasis mine). Alan and Hal act as foils to Madge and Millie; meant to be friends and torn apart by misplaced affections. As much as I love Holden, I think Robertson’s performance is well-rounded because he looks the same age as Novak and the others. Holden is fantastic in the role of the drifter, feeling exposed in his shirtlessness at several points; it was a fun twist on the genre to put him a role commonly filled by females. His various rages and tonal shifts aren’t always effective, and while the dance sequence with him and Kim Novak is considered the story’s highlight it was apparent that he was hammered (which he openly admitted). The ending was revised from the original place to be somewhat upbeat. In the end, knowing that her relationship with Hal is doomed, Madge leaves Kansas to go off with him. Her acknowledgement that he isn’t right for her makes it realistic for the time, but I think having her find love is a bit too uplifting for this rather dour story.
Picnic isn’t necessarily Holden’s best picture, but he is the perfect catalyst to shake up small-town life. The movie, as a whole, is an astute ensemble picture envisioning a way of life for women that hasn’t budged in over 30 years. Everyone in the cast is on-point and you should definitely sit down to enjoy TCM’s airing of Picnic today.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.