Wednesday 13 August 2008

Picnic (1955)

William Holden plays a drifter who arrives in a small Kansas town called Salinson on Labor Day and shakes the whole place up. Mostly this takes place at the annual picnic of the title at Riverside Park but it starts off in the morning as he finds some work at Mrs Potts's house. Next door are no less than four ladies (and no man of the house), none of whom can fail to notice the stud next door working in the yard with no shirt on. Given that this is the midwest, it's all down home and countrified and none of these ladies are quite sure how to react to someone like this. He's Hal Carter and he wants to be someone in this world but he never stays anywhere long enough to get there, presumably quitting whenever someone sees through his facade.

This dissatisfaction with who they are is the theme here. Working up in age order there's Minnie who wants to be a grownup but doesn't want to stop being a child. She's the bright one of the family, already working through the college reading list, but all she can see is that her sister is more beautiful than her and so she gets the attention. That sister, Madge, has the opposite problem. She's certainly beautiful but she wants to be known for something other than her looks. Flo, their mother, wants to be young again but obviously can't be so she's trying to do it all over again through Madge.

Finally, there's Rosemary, a school teacher who rents a room from them. She keeps talking about men who want to marry her, but somehow she never got married. She doesn't think she can really be happy so she spends her time insulting and causing trouble for those who just might be. The other key player is Alan Benson, who had roomed with Carter in college, and whose dad owns a large grain operation. That's why Carter is here, so he can scrounge a job, but it won't come as much of a surprise to find that Madge is Alan's girl.

Throwing Hal Carter, and a little whiskey, into the mix in such a lively festival atmosphere is asking for trouble and everyone, including him, gets a good firm glance at who they really are. It's not that they've been lying to each other, it's that they've been lying to themselves and maybe not quite saying everything they feel. By the time morning comes everyone's had a solid dose of honesty and their respective worlds are different ones from the night before. Nothing will be the same again for any of them.

The script is a good one but it's the actors who bring it to life and they do a very good job indeed. Holden is decent, playing his role with broad strokes. He overacts a lot of scenes but then he's playing a character who's acting as much as Holden is. He's also too old for the role, something that he knew full well. He's completely overshadowed, as he often seemed to be, this time by two actresses. There's Kim Novak, looking a lot younger and softer as Madge than she did only three years later in Vertigo, and there's Rosalind Russell stealing every scene she's in as Rosemary. Apparently she would have been Oscar nominated but she declined the honour because it would have marked her as a supporting actress.

The rest of them don't disappoint either: Susan Strasberg as Millie, Cliff Robertson as Alan Benson, Betty Field as Flo. Better than these though to my mind were Verna Felton as Mrs Potts and Arthur O'Connell as Howard, Rosalind's 'man'. Felton was a Disney regular, playing elephants and queens, and she has a delicious and memorable voice. She has a very quiet part here, but she plays it very well indeed. O'Connell plays Howard like he's been hit by a truck but it's completely fitting: Rosemary dominates him completely, except when it comes down to it and Howard takes over for the few moments it matters.

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