I always enjoy a 1950’s socially aware film, usually from the likes of Nicholas Ray, the high contrast colour schemes, the “shocking” behaviour of the characters who are breaking the mould of what society expects of them, being more relevant to then day.
Set just over a day in a rural Kansas town over Liberty Day we see a group of people from all different backgrounds celebrate the national holiday Picnic (1955) could just have been a drab film that sees the all American family have a good time, doesn’t make much for a film, you could just go to a park when the sun is out and see that happening. Instead an old college friend Hal Carter (William Holden) of resident in town, hoping to get a job and go up in the world. He encounters more than he hoped for. Meeting a girl who is in the prime of her life, being courted by the most eligible bachelor in town Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) who he Carter went to college with. Always wooing her, there’s something between him and Marjorie ‘Madge’ Owens (Kim Novak) yet something is missing, that spark that makes things just happen between them.
A female dominated film, most of them living in a house with rooms to rent, becoming a home for “old maids” one of which is set in her ways but ready for a change if the right man comes along, which could be Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell) for school teacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell). It’s an ensemble piece, even if Holden received top billing, he doesn’t hog the screen as others may have. Instead there is a chance for all to grow as people, understanding the path they must make in life over the space of a national holiday. Two men fighting over a woman who wants to be seen as more than just an object of desire. Her younger sister Millie Owens (Susan Strasberg) who is always competing with her, the pressure to be more feminine, as though her intelligence could hold her back.
It seems those who are in the grip of overwhelming change those on the sidelines see things different, such as the girls mother Flo Owens (Betty Field) who can only see her financial future, not her oldest future, the here and now, how she feels, not just what maybe best. Whilst older neighbour Helen Potts (Verna Felton) who was first to meet the handsome college graduate and stranger in town, sees a man who has lacked in her life, and can see the difference he makes the Madge’s life. It seems society is starting to loosen up to who parents approve of for the children to be with, that background and stability is not for everyone, that you shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover” and go more with gut feeling instead.
The colours are not cranked up, instead the telling of the plot over the course of the day is the radical film-making, that see all these people’s lives cross over a normal holiday, that is so engrained in the nation’s culture, that people can fall in love with others partners, that you can get drunk and say more than you mean. It happens so why not depict it.
- Movie Review: Picnic (1955) (prettycleverfilms.com)
- Auntie Mame (1958) (campycritic.com)
- Sultry Susan Strasberg (famousdames.wordpress.com)