By Mike Derderian
Ever carried a picnic basket and went into the forest knowing that the Big Bad Wolf might be lurking in the bushes? If you are to go try not to wear red clothes for the wolf might mistake you for Little Red Riding Hood.
Undecided and with a mind shifting between two movies—Annie (1982) and The Amityville Horror (2005)—I decided to go with a third option, something I almost forgot about. Probably by now, you’ve realized that I chose Joshua Logan’s 1955 classic Picnic.
I was fifteen. It was midnight. I was watching television and I was alone. Every time my parents decided to go to sleep early and the lights were out, I used to sneak out of bed with a cat-like agility and go straight into the living room, where the magic totem of my existence lingered. I used to turn the television on after lowering the volume—no need to announce to everyone that you are sitting and watching television in the middle of the night.
Sometimes I was lucky enough to watch an entire movie before being busted by the Parent Petrol. After a thundering lecture on the benefits of sleep and a cold austere stare, I walked to my bedroom with my head down.
“You have an exam tomorrow and the questions won’t be about the movie that you just saw, will it, Miko?” my mother angrily always told me at the end of a routine sting operation. She knew that I’d end up writing, just as she did before getting married, but I guess she never imagined I’d write about my love affair with movies in a newspaper column.
When the end credits flashed that night, after 115 minutes of bittersweet joy, anguish, pain and excitement, I felt happy and sad at the same time. This is what Picnic is all about and the effect it will have on you. If you watch it, you will be struck with a mild case of melancholy that is soon overcome by the feel-good sweetness of love and youth.
The plot easily interconnects with three dramatic nouns—comedy, farce and tragedy—plus a solution to everybody’s problems near the end. But if there was a single word to describe Picnic it will be ‘bewitching’.
Based on a Pulitzer Prize wining play by William Inge, Picnic stars a relatively old William Holden (37 at the time he was offered the role) as Hal Carter and a young and stunning Kim Novak, who played the role ofMadge Owens, the-soon-to-become-love-interest of Carter.
Holden and Novak’s on screen love-match was supported by the impressive performances of Betty Field; Susan Strasberg; Arthur O’Connell; Rosalind Russell and Cliff Robertson as Alan Benson, Madge’s fiancé and the son of the wealthy businessman and factory owner Mr Benson (Raymond Bailey), who is in control of the town.
By the way Cliff Roberston was Peter Parker’s (Tobey Maguire) Uncle Ben in the 2002 Spiderman movie in case you didn’t know.
Most of the characters in the film believed they are living the American dream, until Hal Carter arrives to town. What starts out as an ideal setting for a perfect life, soon turns to a hysterical offbeat psychoanalysis that each character in Picnic undergoes, quite painfully, thanks to Hal’s inconsiderate and selfish nature.
Hal is like any young man you’d meet in the streets of Amman. He is vibrant, talkative, sociable and almost perfect, but like all humans he has a flaw. He likes to brag in public about his big expectations in order to catch the attention of the people surrounding him, who are so charmed by his charismatic persona and statuesque build that they fail to see what lies beneath.
And like many young men in Amman he has big expectations, but like those young men in Amman he doesn’t know how he will achieve his dreams. So he decides to pay an old friend a visit. Yes, his friend’s name is Alan Benson. Drum rolls can be heard—sound effect.
“I gotta get somewhere in this world. I just gotta,” Hal cries out.
The cinematography is monotonous but the countryside sceneries are simply exquisite and at times quite eerie. The general feel of Picnic in terms of scenes and the situations that the character’s face transmits a feeling of artificiality.
The forced harmony between the characters mirrors a realistic outlook on life that also reflects how a closed society cannot easily allow strangers to blend in with them, no matter how genteel they appear to be. When you are a stranger you are a stranger.
Alan, out of good well, offers Hal a job, which the latter accepts without hesitance. Neither Hal nor Alan can realize that their solid friendship in a short period of time will be in jeopardy. Alan starts to feel jealous from Hal’s growing popularity, especially among the town folk, and especially Madge.
At first, everybody is intrigued by Hal, who is a good storyteller; however, as events unfold everyone will eventually dislike him. He is the unwanted catalyst and by the end of the evening—which is too late—he is like the devil roaming among a flock of impure sheep.
Hal the drifter; Madge the homecoming queen, who is betrothed to a merciless wealthy man; Millie Ownes (Strasberg), Madge’s teenage sister, who falls head over heels for Hal; Rosemary (Russell), the hysteric and boozy schoolteacher that starts to develop alcohol-prompted feelings for the wordy Hal; and even Howard Bevans (O’Connell), who begins to dislike Hal thinking that the out-of-towner is making a move on his lady, are all forced to co-exist for a single night—the big picnic night—but they all terribly fail the test.
“The ones we love are always pretty, but the ones who are pretty to begin with… everyone loves them,” the embittered Millie tells Hal in a sad tone, knowing that she will never grab his attention, especially after she realized that his heart is set out for Madge.
Picnic is one of the best movies that manage to capture the dwindling morals of a golden era; the family, friendship and society morals that by today’s standards are nothing more than egg morsels lying in a rusted boiling pan.
Must-see-scenes: Hal as brilliantly portrayed by William Holden, who manages to capture the essence of the free and wild spirited man; Rosemary’s hysterical blabbing after a drinking bout during the picnic dance, when she tears Hal’s shirt after he rejects her as a lover, and the dreamy freight train finale.