With Labor Day just around the corner, I couldn’t help but rent Joshua Logan’s 1955 cinematic adaptation of Picnic. With a dreamy score by George Durning and star performances by Kim Novak and William Holden, upon first viewing one can assume it belongs in the annals of tawdry, pulpy cinema alongside Mark Robson’s adaptation of Peyton Place.
Picnic is not just a love story, it’s a bildungsroman exploring the idealism of adolescence when it intersects with the inevitable ennui of “growing up”.
Sure, George Durning’s heady score can make you believe it’s merely a sweeping love story of a hapless drifter (Holden) and the winsome beauty (Novak) he seduces in a small Kansas town, but it’s only a fraction of the story Inge wishes to tell. Much like his later works (most notably Splendor in the Grass), Picnic explores a hinterland fraught with Christian Morals that hinges on repressed sexuality.
At the center of the story is Madge Owens, a small-town beauty that wants to be seen as more than The Queen of Neowallah. Her mother (played heartbreakingly by Betty Field) tries in vain to reassure her that what she is surpasses her brainier kid sister, Millie (Susan Strasberg).
While Josh Logan’s adaptation is not without its flaws, the integrity of Inge’s script fleshes itself out long after the film is complete, owing largely to the cast’s performances.
Holden, while overly machismo, gives one of his best performances as Hal, a self-described “loafer”, Rosalind Russell humanizes a “harpy” schoolteacher, her performance elicits feelings of both schadenfreude and melancholy that transcends her somewhat campy performance in Gypsy. Novak makes the role of Madge Owens her own, truly recognizing the genius of Inge’s script of a young woman caught between two worlds. While I wish Novak would have given a bit more in her performance of Madge, she does incarnate the strange odyssey of coming-of-age in a repressed town.
In a most heartbreaking scene, her mother attempts to pry her away from the same mistakes she made as a young woman, Field plays with humility the all too familiar fear of déjà vu, while Madge (in an especially knowing performance by Novak) assures her mother she is aware she might repeat her mistakes, but she wants to. The strange nature of this exchange, the frustration, imprints itself upon the viewer. Instead of eluding the ghost from her past (the father that left her family), Madge embraces him in his incarnation of Hal.
There is a poignancy in the exchange between Millie as she stays, and Madge as she boards the bus. Strasberg and Novak’s facial expressions elicit the melancholy of the unknown just as Durning’s sweeping violins stir again. Then, the camera pans out and we watch as Madge’s bus follows the rusty freight train as it snakes across the brown plains to parts unknown. The ambiguity of Madge’s future sits in the viewer’s mind long after the film ends, making it one of the greatest cinematic adaptations of Inge’s work.
Viewing availability: for rental on Amazon, available through disc on Netflix.