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Picnic (1955) starring William Holden Blu Ray (Eureka!)

Romantic melodrama in the Midwest

This adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play of the same name features William Holden as Hal Carter. He is a rugged, handsome drifter who arrives in a small Kansas town to settle down and gain employment from a wealthy old pal named Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), who has inherited a successful grain storage business from his father. His chiselled figure and confident charm quickly attract the romantic yearnings of two sisters: the beautiful Madge (Kim Novak) and the adolescent, bookish tomboy Millie (Susan Strasberg), plus an older school teacher named Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) who rents a room in their house. However, Madge happens to be dating Alan, albeit partially at the behest of her mother Flo (Betty Field), who wants her to be hitched with someone who will provide her with a good life.

William Holden and Kim Novak in Picnic (1955)

After Alan and Hal spend some time getting reacquainted, the former persuades the latter to go with him to a local mass picnic event. However, they need dates to come along with them; while Alan already has Madge, he arranges for Millie to go with Hal. The proceedings initially appear to be going swimmingly. However, events quickly take a turn for the messy and melodramatic - in the grandest Old Hollywood fashion, of course.

Watch a trailer:

Oscar-winning back in the day but occasionally cringeworthy now

While Picnic may have received six Academy Award nominations and won two of them (for best Best Art Direction-Set Decoration in Colour and Best Film Editing), it hasn’t aged so well. It was considered pretty steamy for the time simply because we see William Holden’s bare chest and Kim Novak’s bare shoulder, both images that nowadays come safely within the boundaries of the BBFC’s lowest certificate (U for Universal: suitable for all). On the other hand, there is one aspect here which comes across as being particularly icky nowadays: William Holden playing a young man despite the fact that he was noticeably in his late 30s at the time of filming. This feels particularly jarring when you consider the fact that his character goes on a date with an adolescent school girl (played by Susan Strasberg, who was actually in her teens at this time).

Leaving these factors aside, the film is still very much of a mixed bag. While based on an award-winning stage play and directed by Joshua Logan (who also took on this role for the original Broadway production), the best scenes here are those which deviate from the board-treading confines and veer headlong into the divine realm of true cinema. The cinematography (courtesy of the Chinese-born James Wong Howe) is genuinely beautiful, making some fantastically painterly use of the Technicolor process and the 2.55:1 aspect ratio. The overall tone is one of burnt yellows and oranges which emphasise the sexually-charged late summer atmosphere. However, the finest section of the film comes during the passionately-charged evening dance of the central communal picnic which is illuminated by the glow of multicoloured lanterns. The “show, don’t tell” emphasis is at its strongest here in both physical performances and shot framing.

Picnic (1955)

It’s the talkier sections where the characters discuss their fraught relationships which tend to fall down. While they might have worked within the inherent intimacy of the stage play format, they come across as being overlong, overheated and overly melodramatic when seen on the wide screen. It’s easy to lose sympathy for these painfully angst-ridden characters when their big over-emotive scenes drag on through so much of the runtime. That said, Susan Strasberg is semi-amusing as the bratty, shrewd younger sibling.

Picnic is somewhat interesting as a time-capsule of the milieu of 1950s small-town America, where the lack of work opportunities for young women meant that the pressure for them to get married off at a young age was immense. Its style also prefigures the hazy warmth and gentle eroticism of some of Sofia Coppola’s films (such as The Virgin Suicides or The Beguiled) where one or more male characters enter the sexually-heated bubble of an all-female group. Don’t be surprised, however, if you feel yourself cringing at certain moments here.

Runtime: 115 mins

Dir: Joshua Logan

Script: Daniel Taradash, based on a play by William Inge

Starring: William Holden, Kim Novak, Betty Field, Rosalind Russell, Susan Strasberg, Cliff Robertson, Arthur O’Connell, Verna Felton

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

The amazing colour grading and 2.55:1 aspect ratio image are really something to behold here.

Extras

Kim Novak’s Hollywood Picnic

An interesting audio interview with the actress accompanied by stills and restored film footage. Kim Novak talks about her role in Picnic as well as her tenure as a Columbia Pictures contract player. One particularly memorable incident she recalls from the set is the time when she trimmed her set of three ginger wigs, forgetting her memorable on-screen introduction as where she leans out of the house window with her hair dangling. Needless to say, the film’s notoriously volatile director (Joshua Logan) was furious. William Holden (who felt that he was too old for the role) had to shave his chest and hire a physical trainer to whip him into suitable shape.

A trailer and collector’s booklet round out the extras here.

Overall:

Picnic is of some interest if you can get past the dated aspects and uncomfortable casting of William Holden. The print looks absolutely beautiful but the extras here are rather thin on the ground.

Movie: ☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆

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