Life's No Picnic
William Holden almost turned down the lead role in "Picnic" as he felt at 37 he was to old for the part of twenty something drifter Hal Carter. And sadly Holden was right because whilst he gives it his all to try and act younger, even shaving his chest to take on a more youthful appearance, it all looks forced and unnatural. That is not the only issue which dogs director Joshua Logan's big screen adaptation of William Inge's play as there are characters which are contradictory and an awkward balance between humour and drama. Don't get me wrong as "Picnic" is a fascinating movie, a story of drama, betrayal and jealousy as well as a look at a bygone era but the various faults drag it down to being interesting but average.
Hal Carter (William Holden - Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing) arrives in the town of Neewollah looking to catch up with old college friend Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson). Having spent the years since college drifting from town to town Hal is now feeling that he can no longer act irresponsibly and is looking to settle down and find work. But when he meets Madge (Kim Novak - Bell Book and Candle) and her family there is an immediate spark of sexual tension despite the fact that Madge is dating Alan, something her mother is happy about to the point of pushing her to get him to propose. But as the day plays out with a Labour Day picnic things change as emotions come to the fore and truth's are uncovered.
Story wise "Picnic" is one of those movies which when first released was meant to be sensational, a tale of sexual tension and jealousy. And to be honest I can see how it would have come across as that with William Holden being shirtless in a few scenes and a local beauty falling for him despite going steady with his College friend Alan. Of course the way sexual tension was shown back then is nothing like how sexual tension is shown now and of course other than some shirt ripping action, tight clinches and passionate kisses it is all rather tame.
But this story is interesting because it has some nice layers such as Hal who after college has floated along going from one town to another acting like a young man despite being older and now feeling the disappointment of not having achieved anything. Then there is the story of Madge who is pretty but wants to be more than pretty yet her mother Flo only encourages her to snare herself Alan the rich son of local business man Mr. Benson. And you can throw in the mix Rosemary who is edging ever closer to being an old maid, desperate not to be and ready to jump at the chance to change that.
All of this and mores comes together over a period of just 24 hours as Hal arrives in Neewalloh looking for Alan and ending up falling for Madge who also falls for him. And these simmering feelings come to the surface at a Labour Day picnic where it all kicks off thanks to some secret drinking and deep lying emotions of several characters pour out.
But the trouble is that "Picnic" for all which is good about it there is just as much wrong especially William Holden trying to act like a twenty something. He may deliver the rage of a man who is frustrated by achieving nothing but then watching him trying to dance, act youthful and irresponsible ends up forced. It also doesn't help matters that there is zero chemistry between him and Novak who plays Madge. And Madge is also a problem as whilst she bemoans the fact that she is tired of people only referring to her as beautiful she does nothing about it, just keeps on bemoaning the fact. I could go on because whilst you may enjoy Rosalind Russell's performance as Rosemary it feels like overacting to me with far too many over dramatic arm gestures.
What this all boils down to is that "Picnic" has a good storyline and watching it now makes for a fascinating look at how cinema delivered storylines built around sexual tension when they were heavily censored. But from wrong casting to contradictory characters and some serious over dramatics it doesn't quite work and what could have been a truly brilliant movie ends up average but still entertaining.