“Ain’t she sweet?” Kim Novak in Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955)

We sometimes forget that Kim Novak is one of those classic actresses still with us today. I’m not sure why that is, except maybe that she’s not so much in the public eye anymore. Et pourtant… She was pretty much an icon of her time, maybe not like Marilyn Monroe or Grace Kelly were. Still, she certainly marked the screen in the 50s by being part of pictures like Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), Bell, Book and Candles (Richard Quine, 1958), Pal Joey (George Sidney, 1957), The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955) and Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955). We’ll focus on the latter today. I revisited that film for The Kim Novak Blogathon hosted by Ari from The Classic Movie Muse in honour of Kim’s 89th birthday which she celebrated last February 13! I THINK this is Ari’s first blogathon, although I’m really not sure (sorry if I’m talking nonsense). Regardless, I wish her a lot of success with it!

Re-visiting Picnic reminded me that this film has its moments and qualities, although not perfect. But we’ll come back to that later. I also forgot how cute my Golden Boy William Holden was in it. By the way, I know I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably repeat it in future articles, but I completed Holden’s filmography last April!

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Based on the play Picnic by William Inge, the film was directed by Joshua Logan and released on December 7, 1955. The story takes place during one day, more precisely on Labor Day. William Holden plays Hal Carter, a former college student (who could attend college thanks to a football scholarship) who arrives in a small town in Kansas. Because he travels on a freight train and doesn’t seem to have much in his possession, we can guess life hasn’t been kind to him. One of his college fraternity friends, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), the son of a man who made his fortune in the grain elevators business, lives in that city. Hal hopes he can help him get a job. Before looking for Alan, the penniless Hal knocks at the door of a Mrs Potts (Verna Felton) and offers her to do some chores. That sounds nonsense to the middle-aged lady as it is Labor Day, but she offers him a meal and cleans his dirty shirt. Grateful, he still insists on helping her (she agrees, but only if he eats before). While doing some chores in the backyard, Hal makes the acquaintance of Mrs Potts’s neighbours. Flo Owens (Betty Field) occupies the place along with her two daughters, Millie (Susan Strasberg) and Marjorie “Madge” (Kim Novak). Coincidentally, Madge also happens to be Alan’s girlfriend. A school teacher, Rosemary Sidney (Rosalind Russell), rents a house at the Owens’s. Hal eventually surprises his college friend, Alan, who promises to help him find a job, although maybe not as prestigious as Hal hoped. But it’s a start.

Alan invites Hal to join him and the Owens to a Labour Day picnic in a big park. Rosemary accompanies them with her suitor, store owner Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell), and Mrs Potts. The picnic is a festive one, and it looks like Hal has never had so much fun in a long time. However, when Hal and Madge begin to flirt a bit too much for Alan’s taste, things gradually start to fall into pieces.

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I did not immediately like Kim Novak from the instant I saw her in films. Vertigo was the first one I saw. Although it became a favourite after more than one viewing, it has never really been one of my favourite performances by Kim. But, I’m beginning to appreciate her more. My opinion of her (her acting) changed for the best with The Man with the Golden Arm AND Picnic. Anyway, I’m always willing to give second chances to actors. Her charisma in Logan’s film is just incredible. It would be a bit superficial to say that she’s stunning in it. She is, but it goes beyond physical beauty. There is a sort of magnetism around her, and she shows impressive confidence. Talking of magnetism, one can understand why she eventually portrayed Madeleine in Vertigo. It’s a character that precisely needs that quality. Her smooth, almost melodic voice also seems to come directly from a dream. Her gaze seems to read the characters’ souls and, without really trying, she doesn’t need to make much effort to hypnotise us. For wanting people to admire her for more than physical beauty, Madge reminds me of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940) and High Society (Charles Walters, 1956). The only thing that lacks some credibility is that Madge is supposed to be 19. She looks older (in the good sense of the term). Actually, I checked, and Kim Novak was 22, so she was not THAT older than her character, and I know that, at the time, people tended to look older than they were. So, I guess it works. 

The real magic of that film resides in the chemistry between Kim Novak and William Holden. It builds itself gradually, but it’s there as soon as their characters meet in Mrs Potts’s backyard. From then on, it’s not hard to guess things won’t just remain cordial between those two. At the picnic, Madge is crowner the town’s Queen of Neewollah (Halloween backward). During an awkward boat parade where people praise her like a goddess and sing “Ain’t She Sweet” (I’ve had that song stuck in my head since I last watched the film) that chemistry reaches a turning point. You can see the latter isn’t super comfortable with that whole ceremony and knows that honour only rewards her beauty. As she passes by Hal, who’s watching her with the rest of the crowd, they discreetly salute each other. It’s a brief but sweet moment where, for an instant, Madge has found an ally among the spectators and someone who acts as a familiar presence for her not to feel completely alone. Hal himself, coming from another place, having had a life full of peripeties unlike most of the inhabitants of that little town, is an alien in that place. And so is Madge, as she seems destined to follow a different path and eventually find more purpose in life than simply being the beauty queen in a town with an unknown name. Well, I don’t think the name is ever known. If yes, there’s no focus on it whatsoever.

BUT, we couldn’t talk about that chemistry without mentioning THE scene of the film, THE MOST ICONIC one. A moment that makes you stop everything that might be distracting to watch the screen and not do anything else. I am, of course, talking about the unforgettable dance scene. After the parade, people at the picnic go back to their occupations. Madge disappears to find the lady who lent her the cape for the show. Meanwhile, Hal, Millie, Howard and Rosemary are on the dancefloor, just having a bit of fun. Howard makes everybody drink, including Millie (another reason why the conclusion of this party isn’t a good one). And then, they dance, Howard with Hal and Millie with Rosemary. They’re fooling around and not taking themselves seriously. Then, the music changes to “Moonglow“, a jazzy and sexy tune. Hal tries to show Millie how to clap her hands on the rhythm. She’s not very good but, at that moment, Madge arrives at the top of the stairs leading to the dancefloor and starts clapping her hands perfectly. She continues clapping and goes down the stairs with a lot of confidence without quitting her eyes from Hal. The latter has now eyes only for her, and they start dancing together. They seem to have forgotten that they aren’t alone but feel just as if they were. Millie, Howard and Rosemary don’t matter anymore. That scene makes us hold our breath as if we didn’t want to disturb them. However, the sad backstory is that Holden initially didn’t want to do it because he felt he wasn’t a good dancer. He was eventually allowed to do it under the influence of alcohol. Knowing that the actor suffered from alcoholism, it’s too bad they didn’t think of a more creative and healthy way of doing things. But then, that’s Hollywood for you. Anyway, regardless of that, the scene is a magical one, and you have to try to forget a little how they achieved it while watching.

The rest of the actors are good too, especially Susan Strasberg, who plays one of the most interesting supporting roles. She contrasts her sister by being a tomboy and intellectual and remains very endearing. Her character allows girls and women who like her to have a character with whom to identify. Strasberg was the daughter of Actors Studio’s drama coach Lee Strasberg. Picnic was only her second film, and she showed a lot of promise but didn’t seem to be in well-known pictures after that. Cliff Robertson was pretty much at the beginning of his career with that film. He still had a very boy next door quality to his acting and didn’t yet have his low and mysterious voice, but it was just a question of time before he’ll get to more complex parts. Indeed, the following year, Robertson starred in Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956). He and Holden worked again together 13 years after in the underrated war film The Devil’s Brigade (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1968). Arthur O’Connell, who plays Howard, received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor but lost it to Jack Lemmon for Mister Roberts (John Ford, 1955). Not surprising. O’Connell was good but, in my opinion, not the most memorable thing about Picnic either.

Verna Felton, who plays Mrs Potts, is a highly appreciated presence because she provides comic relief to the ambience that can sometimes be heavy. She isn’t always over-dramatic like some of the characters. It’s always good to have more down-to-earth characters in melodramas. I liked her chemistry with Betty Fields, who plays Flo Owens. That woman always seems tense and nervous, but you feel it is because she lived a hard life, having to raise her two daughters alone after the father abandoned them. The actress very well delivers this whole feeling of insecurity. Finally, Rosalind Russell also shows an interesting contrast with some of the more dynamic and comic roles she played in earlier films like The Women (George Cukor, 1939) and His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940).

In my opinion, among the most deserving honours that the film received, it’s his Oscar for Best Art Direction-Color. How visual directors William FlanneryJo Mielziner and Robert Priestley visually organised and composed that picture makes it an experience probably worthy of the big screen. I’m especially thinking of the scene during the picnic. As everybody sits in the parks amongst the trees, the whole setting looks like a painting. More precisely, it reminds me of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Plus, Kim Novak’s pink dress designed by Jean Louis contrasts the rest of the composition. It could also remind you of those various paintings I found with quick internet research. When we say that visual arts inspire films, it’s not a myth.

Picnic is a bit too dramatic and imperfect because too much is going on in such a short time. However, one of the aspects I liked the most about it was that sense of community that is often omnipresent in little towns like that. I especially think of the scene at the beginning when Millie sits on a bench outsides. Drops of water fall on her book and, as she looks up, she sees her sister drying her hair. Therefore begins a conversation. Flo is here too. Soon, Rosemary joins them as her bedroom window gives on that intimate corner outside. At that moment, they are just four women leaving a very friendly moment, and their peace hasn’t been disturbed yet by the arrival of Hal. There’s also a sense of fun and community during the picnic when people play games. Adults are just having fun like little children and refuse to take themselves seriously (especially Hal). Finally, the picnic itself (when people are sitting and eating) reminded me of last spring when we were gathering in parks with friends and enjoying food and drinks. It was the only way we could see each other since nothing was open (no need to explain why). I spent my birthday that way, and it was one of my favourites even tho we weren’t having cocktails in a bar. There’s that big park not too far from where I live that is perfect for that, and there are some spots with trees where you can hope to have a bit of shadow.

Melodramas always have their flaws, as I said, but, at least, they often remain faithful to themselves. There was something about those melodramas made in the 50s that just kept us glued to the screen, although they weren’t flawed and almost guilty pleasures. Picnic perfectly respects the patterns of a little quiet American town where not much is happening but that is soon disturbed by something from the outside. It can also follow the reveal of an internal secret revealed to the big day under dramatic circumstances (think Twin Peaks). Of course, now the film feels a bit dated, and what might have scandalised people at the time (a torn shirt and a sexy dance) feel pretty much “innocent” now. It was a product of its time and not the kind of film we still see nowadays. But that’s why we can look at it with a certain nostalgia and maybe have a more objective point of view regarding it.

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Picnic is far from being my favourite film. Still, I liked it and thought there were interesting elements to discuss. Therefore, it was a perfect choice for an article. And, I don’t think I’ll say it enough, but just for the dance scene, it’s worth your attention. I won’t tell you only to watch the dance scene because you must understand what leads to it and what follows next. The only thing that puzzles me is those people having overdramatic reactions. But then, that’s maybe what creates an awkward sense of care and warm feeling around it. You look at this film like something with many imperfections but for what you can’t help having hopes.

A big thanks to Ari for hosting that blogathon in honour of the iconic Kim Novak! I invite you to read the other entries here.

See you!

Kim and Bill on the set of the film