Sunday, July 20, 2014

PICNIC 1955

Good, old-fashioned, classic movie storytelling doesn’t get much better than the first 80-minutes of Picnic. Comprehensive yet concise; economical but at the same time expansive; Picnic seamlessly blends sensitive drama, delicate humor, and dreamy romanticism. All the while sustaining an entertainingly effortless narrative flow.

Picnic’s depiction of life in a small Kansas town in the midst of prepping for Labor Day festivities– its people, their routines and rituals, both mundane and apart– is evocatively rendered in that uniquely idealized, true/false reality Hollywood does so well. Full of finely-observed details of character and setting redolent of William Inge’s childhood spent in Independence, Indiana (where, like the character of Flo Owens, his mother ran a boarding house populated with spinster schoolteachers), Picnic is set in the then-contemporary 1950s, but has thenceforth become cloaked in a rosy nostalgia that looks back on a time when drifters hopped boxcars, marriage was the end all and be all for any single woman, and people wore ties, sportscoats, and full-skirted dresses to picnics.
William Holden as Hal Carter
Kim Novak as Madge Owens
Rosalind Russell as Rosemary Sydney
Betty Field as Flo Owens
Susan Strasberg as Millie Owens
Cliff Robertson as Alan Benson
The last day of summer serves as both the time-frame and primary metaphor of Picnic; William Inge’s wistfully contemplative look at the sometimes painful inevitability of growing up. Following the death of his alcoholic father, handsome but feckless Hal Carter (Holden) drifts into town in search of a job from college pal, Alan Benson (Robertson), whose father is a grain industrialist. The unnamed Kansas town (actually four Kansas towns in real life, Salina appearing on a sign early in the film) has a male-to-female-ratio appreciably lacking in testosterone, and thus is a virtual hotbed of sexual frustration and withered hopes.
Town beauty Madge Owens (Novak) is the vessel of everyone’s projected dreams in spite of the fact that, while not very bright, she’s smart enough to know (in 1955 yet) that being the object of the appreciative gaze is not the same as being appreciated.

Into this ripe-for-disruption environment comes Hal, whose rambunctious, superannuated frat-boy act – invariably played out sans shirt–understandably draws the attention of the local women folk. There’s favorable: the grandmotherly Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton); puppy-love: tomboy-in-transition, Millie Owens (Strasberg); distrustful: Flo Owens (Field), a mother alone raising two girls; conflicted: repressed schoolmarm Miss Sydney (Russell); and of course, love at first sight: Madge. Hal’s appearance in town has a different effect on each character, and as they all converge at the picnic, Labor Day becomes something of a day of reckoning, bringing out the best or worst in each individual. Truths are confronted, illusions shattered, facades dropped, and everyone is forced to grow up just a little bit. 
Verna Felton as Helen Potts
TV fans will recognize Felton from her guest stint as the maid from hell on I Love Lucy, or as the voice of Wilma's mother on The Flintstones
Picnic is one of those movies I first discovered on TV as a child (loaded with commercials and only in an awful pan-and-scan version) I fell in love with it from the start, and Picnic remains to this day one of my favorite comfort movies. I can watch it (the first third, anyway) anytime, anywhere. These days, without exception, if ever I happen to be channel-surfing cable TV and Picnic pops up, I always tell myself I’m only going to watch it for a couple of minutes, but before I know it…boom! an hour has passed. That I own a DVD copy of it matters not a whit…I just take such pleasure in the film's setting, characters, conflict, and dialog, I never tire of it.

That I expressly favor the first 80-minutes of this nearly two-hour film (those comprising the introduction of the main characters, establishment of the central plot, and the picnic scene in its entirety) speaks to director Joshua Logan’s breezy and sure-footed handling of these character-driven, slice-of-life early sequences. Winner of the 1953Tony Award for his direction of the original Broadway production, Logan shines brightest when Picnic is capturing vivid tableaux of small-town culture or compassionately conveying the defeated spirit born of withered dreams and repressed hope.
As fellow schoolteachers, character actresses Reta Shaw (Irma Kronkie) and Elizabeth Wilson (Christine Shoenwalder) recreate roles they originated on Broadway
Somewhat less persuasive is his handling of the film’s final third, which becomes a little too melodramatic and plot-driven for its own good. Here, as if under outside pressure to provide some “action” in an otherwise gentle romantic drama; Inge’s sensitive play feels as if it were temporarily hijacked by Douglas Sirk. And to little effect, I'm afraid, as the swift introduction of a gratuitous car chase and unconvincingly-staged two-against-one fistfight with armed lawmen merely succeed in being distracting.  Not helping matters further is the fact that, in lieu of a then-unthinkable sex scene between Holden and Novak, we have in its place, three (count ‘em, three) repetitious and very talky “tortured longing” scenes that never fail to leave me looking at my watch.
Discounting this sluggish detour, Picnic gets back on track with the final scene, where story threads are tied up and Rosalind Russell’s performance single-handedly alters my opinion of which is the film’s most satisfying love story. 
Recreating the role he originated on Broadway, Arthur O'Connell as Howard Bevans received the only acting category nomination of Picnic's  total of six (it won two: Art Direction and Editing). Many thought Rosalind Russell was a shoo-in for a nomination, if not a win, had she allowed herself to be submitted in the Supporting Actress category, which she refused. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Even as a kid I was hard-pressed to imagine a time when a film as tame as Picnic could ever be considered racy.  But of course, at that age I had no idea that Madge and Hal’s impassioned embraces alongside that barreling freight train was Censorship Code shorthand for sex, and, to be honest, only after it was brought to my attention in a college film class did it ever cross my mind that it was Inge’s intention to intimate (a little too subtly, if you ask me) that Rosemary and Howard had also had sexual relations that night. Who knew?  Anyway, from its male bodice ripper ad campaign to its convention-flouting themes of sexual frustration and libidinous urges, Picnic was pretty hot stuff in its day.
But Picnic’s reputation as a classic romantic movie doesn’t resonate with me very strongly (the sex feels born of despondency more than passion). Not as strongly as its sharp-eyed, often witty, depiction of small-town life and the incisive details William Inge (Splendor in the Grass, Come Back, Little Sheba) brings to his characters.
Failure to Live up to Expectations
Alan's resentment of Hal is rooted in feeling he is a disappointment to his father
Inability to Accept Reality
Flo copes with past failures by projecting all of her hopes for happiness on daughter, Madge 
Lack of Identity
Madge longs to find something to value about herself beyond her beauty 
PERFORMANCES
Picnic is a uniformly well-acted motion picture that, like a great many 50s films adapted from stage plays of the day (the works of Tennessee Williams come to mind), retains a certain staginess in dialog and acting style that locks it forever in particular time. That the overall appealing performances in Picnic seem also to be a tad old-fashioned plays favorably into the whole glimpse into the past, days-gone-by feel of the movie as a whole. 
Perhaps because the central romance feels as if it's based solely on physical attraction (for all his talking, Hal never asks Madge anything about herself), my strongest memories of Picnic have to do with Rosalind Russell’s superb performance as Rosemary, the old-maid schoolteacher. In a career of many high points, I think this is one of her best performances and she practically walks off with the entire film. Here, the actress's trademark sardonic wit and vitality is channeled into a character whose thin veneer of nonchalance and dimming vestiges of pride show the wear of too many lonely Labor Days bleeding into solitary school semesters. Russell gives the role everything she's got, and she is, in every scene, a force of nature daring you to look at anyone else. She’s funny, moving, sad, and even pitiful; but you wind up rooting for her and she’s a marvelously sympathetic, dimensional character. 
If Picnic falls short of being the great film it might have been, I'd attribute it to the sense I have that everybody is pushed a little too strongly against type. I agree with the common complaint that William Holden is too old for his role (not jarringly so, but his college days seem far, far behind him) and that his attempts at expressing Hal's coarse nature aren't all that convincing. And while he's every inch the likable charmer the role requires, Holden just looks forced when when trying to play dumb. The same can be said for the sad-eyed Novak, who has Madge's vulnerability down, but lacks (oddly enough) the kind of switchblade, protective vanity insecure pretty girls carry around with them like security blankets. She too, seems a bit too astute.
Susan Strasberg, while the right age for Millie, is far to angularly beautiful to be believable as either a tomboy or anybody's definition of "goonface." She seems out of her element in the earlier scenes, but seems to relax into both herself and the role as the film progresses. Cliff Robertson, on the other hand, is a perfect fit. I'm not much of a fan, but I like him a great deal in this movie.
"I had a job as a model once...like this. They had me posing in front of a class almost raw."
Hal shares one of the high points of his checkered past with the adoring Millie. For those too young to know just what 50s male physique modeling looked like, I offer this real-life sample to illustrate that Mr. Holden was right on the money. The nude model is Tabby Anderson (!) which is the ideal name for my cat...if I ever get one.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
When I was a child, every single household had an LP of the Picnic soundtrack, or, if not the score itself, most certainly one of the myriad easy-listening versions of “Moonglow/ Theme from Picnic” available on instrumental collections from the likes of Living Strings or Ferrante & Teicher. I cannot honestly recall when I first heard this popular medley (which I considered “old people’s music” at the time), but it’s as much a part of my childhood as the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club, and to this day I can’t hear Moonglow (a 1933 song, I was later surprised to discover) without seeing William Holden and Kim Novak dancing so photogenically under those paper lanterns.
In this great shot representative of the consistency in performances throughout Picnic, each character reacts differently to the sight of Madge as she's crowned "Queen of Neewollah" 
Perhaps calling their movements “dancing” is casting a rather wide net (neither star held any illusions about their dancing skills, Holden being so reluctant as to request extra pay and getting himself fairly drunk before filming), but after all these years I still get quite a kick out of that iconic sequence. Both actors radiate old-fashioned movie star luster, Novak’s steady, unbroken gaze is sexy as hell, and that elusive thing called chemistry is present in almost corporeal abundance.
Composer George Duning’s Oscar-nominated score – which, upon occasion, veers perilously close to Carol Burnett-spoof territory when significant dramatic events are histrionically emphasized by blasts of horns serving as the musical equivalent of exclamation points –is absolute perfection here. The smooth jazz arrangement of the pop standard, Moonglow, lushly underscored by the orchestral Picnic theme, creating a sense that our lovers-to-be are dancing to two songs: the tune played at the picnic, and the melody which they alone can hear.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
William Inge’s Picnic won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1953, but if your only familiarity with it is the film version – rather brilliantly adapted and opened-up for the screen by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) – seeing it on stage can be quite the sobering experience. Everything occurs on the back porches and adjoining backyards of Mrs. Potts and Mrs. Owens, and the picnic of the title occurs offstage. 
Happily for literal-minded me, the film version has a masterfully constructed, protracted picnic sequence that not only shines as a fine example of studio-era location shooting and serves as the film's narrative and thematic nucleus. The five-minute montage that kicks off the sequence is so good it could stand alone as a short film highlighting 50s Americana. James Wong Howe's CinemaScope cinematography basks everything in a honey-colored glow that contributes to making this amusing and appealing sequence one of the major reasons Picnic continues to stay one of my favorites.
Save for the obvious set for the Moonglow dancing dock used for weather reasons, the entirety of the picnic sequence was filmed in Halstead, Kansas, the swimming lake scenes in Sterling, Kansas. That's Nick Adams (Bomber) and What's My Line? stalwart,  Phyllis Newman (Jaunita Badger) in the bathing suits above.


BONUS MATERIALS 
For the curious, here's a YouTube link to a 1986 made-for-cable-TV production of Picnic for Broadway on Showtime starring Gregory Harrison (he produced, which should answer any "WTF?!?" questions), Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Rue McClanahan. Although set in the 50s, it has 80s written all over it.

I didn’t grow up in a small town, and this typically Hollywood, all-white vision of Midwestern life is nothing I clutch to my bosom with misty-eyed nostalgia (although with HD and sharp eyes you might catch a fleeting glimpse of one or two black people in the picnic scenes). But on a human level, I tend to find irresistible any story which celebrates, with compassion and dignity, the small struggles and victories of people leading simple lives. Few writers conveyed this with as much heart and humor as William Inge.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

21 comments:

  1. I highly recommend checking out photos from the recent Broadway revival of Picnic. The cast included Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Grace and Mare Winningham. The role of Hal was played by Sebastian Stan but the true star of the show was his (often shirtless) torso. It delivered an award-worthy performance.

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    1. Ha! Thanks, Paul, but I'm afraid I beat you to it. In researching this post I read about the revival and checked out a clip on YouTube. I of course haven't seen the production, but in the brief scene I watched, Hal's muscular upper torso almost appears to be carrying on by itself, with a disembodied head and legs coming along for the ride.
      The body is so contemporary and anachronistically gym-sculpted (an issue I encountered when that other Inge play, "Come Back Little Sheba" was revived) that you can't imagine Hal as a drifter, or a college athlete for that matter. He looks like a personal trainer from the future ready to sell Madge a gym membership.

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  2. Hi Ken--
    Wouldn't Picnic make a great double feature with Peyton Place?

    Am I crazy, or was there a TV remake about a decade before with Gretchen Mol and Josh Brolin? I remember being very unimpressed.

    And it always blows my mind that only 5 years before, somebody at Paramount thought Betty Field would make an enchanting Daisy Buchanan!

    Roz Russell is indeed the humor and heart of this Picnic!

    Great job, as always!

    Rick

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    1. Hi Rico
      I hate to say this, but my film education has yet to include a viewing of "Peyton Place." Rather shocking given my taste for that sort of thing, I know but I've seen so many bits of it from TV broadcasts over the years, some part of my brain must think I HAVE seen it.
      And yes, you're right about that 2000 Josh Brolin TV adaptation of "Picnic." I read about it, but like you, most reviewers were very unimpressed.
      And thank you for bringing up that bit of casting lore about the somewhat dowdy Betty Field being considered for Daisy in The great Gatsby. It sounds like a Hollywood parody story lampooning the crass film industry's brassy idea of a delicate socialite.
      Very nice to hear from you and thanks very much for the compliment!

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  3. Great post, Ken and you're so right about the last third--but there's so much to recommend up until then. As a kid I was always drawn to Inge adaptations. I had no idea who he was at the time but I certainly latched on to Don Murray, Michael Parks, Warren Beatty, and Brandon De Wilde.

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    1. hi Max Thank you so much!
      Your listing of the handsome males featured in Inge films puts me of a mind to think the very attraction was there for me when watching the films adapted from the works of Inge and other gay writers like Capote and Williams. The men in so many of their works occupy objectified roles (usually reserved for females). They are often objects of the female (surrogate gay) gaze, and their appearance/beauty is placed at a premium higher than is usually afforded male roles in movies, which are so often based in action and heroics.
      I think you call attention to something I certainly responded to in these films when I was young - William Inge and Tennessee Williams movies almost always afforded plenty of male eye-candy.

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  4. I feel weird saying Picnic was a movie I watched with my parents, but there you are.

    I agree re: La Russell, but I found Susan Strasberg seriously grating. Holden was indeed too old, but I think Kim Novak's blank dreaminess was a nice touch for Madge.

    While you're right that "Moonglow" is so associated with this movie I also remember it being used equally well in, of all things, The Fabulous Baker Boys. So when I hear it, I have a strange schizophrenic reaction in my mind's eye.

    I have a friend who lives in Beverly Hills, and often goes to the TCM events. She ran into (literally) Miss Novak at a screening recently, and had her hands held and told how wonderful it was to see her. Even though they had never met. I thought of that after the brouhaha at the Oscars this year. I think Kim Novak is one of the great beauties of the screen, and deserved better than she got - in a lot of ways. If she's happy living her way now, more power to her. I think of my friend's story when I see her now.

    Thanks, as always, for a great thoughtful review, and for interacting with all of us in the comments. It's like discussing cinema with an old friend. You have impeccable taste, and I'm not just saying that because I share it ;-)

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    1. I saw Picnic with my parents too, but I honestly didn't "get" any of the sexy stuff until later. In fact, as a child, I don't know if I stuck with it after the picnic scenes were over. All that "mushy' stuff...
      And I can totally see what you mean about Strasberg. I think I only came to appreciate her performance when I got to be older. When I was near her character's age, nothing about it seemed very real...a little forced with the tomboy stuff...like Natalie Wood in "Daisy Clover."
      Thanks for sharing that Kim Novak story. I like her a great deal and i always think she was a tad too fragile for this business. I know she's had mental issues in the past, but she is a survivor and she managed to do it without becoming hard. I have a lot of respect for her.
      Lastly, I'm the one who be thanking all of you for the comments you share. I think when a person talks about a movie (about the experience, not the stats and trivia), whether they love or hate it, they're telling you something about themselves. I'm grateful so many of you feel comfortable doing so here. It really DOES feel like a community of friends sometimes. It was very nice of you to notice and comment on it.
      Thanks, Tanya!

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    2. Oh, I forgot. I never saw "The Fabulous Baker Boys", but sometimes get a similar schizophrenic reaction with the song "Pass that Peace Pipe" from "Good News" ...whenever I watch that film I can only associate it with Fred, Ethel, and Ricky performing it on "I Love Lucy"

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  5. You’ve never seen Peyton Place!!!! Ken Anderson, you must correct this!!!! Just don’t watch Return to Peyton Place; save yourself in advance. Peyton Place (only the original) is just ugly and a movie where I think the issues of the day are timeless; they still translate. Enjoy.

    For the first time since I’ve started reading your posts, we disagree on a film despite your flawless review; this was an insightful read.

    No matter how many times I've tried to watch it, I’ve never been sucked in at all. Have you ever heard people rave about a movie and you walk away wondering what they were thinking? For me, this is one of those movies. I used to chalk it off to watching it in a bad mood or being distracted, etc. but after the fourth attempt I threw in the towel: I just can’t find the magic.

    To this day I think it's William Holden's fault. Perhaps he played his character so well that the 'ick factor' stuck and as a result the entire movie follows. I like a good bad boy, but he's just...ick. Add to this that I just couldn’t get into Kim’s character; she seemed feckless. I guess, that made them the perfect match. As a female I always see Madge as one of those women that will never be happy, always looking for that something better; the ‘if only’ women that I know through work and friendships.

    Rosalind Russell was fabulous! Why didn’t she allow herself to be nominated? She was the bright light in this film and I do enjoy her overall as an actress.

    Perhaps my distaste beyond the 'ick' is a woman coming of age in the 70’s in San Francisco with the message that there were no limits and watching women from the 50’s were there were nothing but limitations? But then Peyton Place and other classics would make me bristle and they don’t; other than the story lines.

    By the way, thank you for letting me know that I’m not the only one to channel surf and stop on a movie that I own and instead of pulling out the DVD, I watch it on TV, commercials and all.

    Ken, thank you for a good read.

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    1. Hi Cathy
      Yes, it sometimes surprises me the amount of well-known (well worn) films I have never seen. On the positive side, it's always great to find new favorites.
      I think you expressed what your problems with "Picnic" are very well. in fact, your objections to it are really well considered. Sometimes people don't like something and they're not sure why, but you're able to pinpoint areas where things fall part for you and that makes it an illuminating read.

      I especially like that you address how the film fails to speak to you on levels of its depiction of women, the 'ick' factor of Hal, and things you glean from Novak's character.
      I think when you can walk away from a movie you're not crazy about with an better understanding of the things within yourself that need to be addressed in a narrative, character, or point of view, it means the time wasn't wasted. You may never see the film again, but you walk away with a little insight.

      And as for Russell and the whole Oscar thing. I'm not altogether sure it was a choice of hers. My partner has a bio of hers and in reading it the author alludes that had Russell agreed to a more "supporting" billing in the credits (her name is as big as Holden's and Novak's on the poster and she gets "co-starring" status while the others get "with") the Academy would have seen her role as a supporting one. This particular writer makes the case that she was aced out of a supporting nod because she had star billing.
      Who knows? It's fairly unanimous that she gave the best performance in the film.
      Good to hear from you, Cathy!

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    2. Thank you Ken! It's nice to know that applying my filter/gut feel for a character isn't a bad thing. I've been faulted on more than one occasion for calling a movie "bad" for similar statements.

      For me it comes down to the delicate dance between the writer and director. If the character is written as a ne’er-do-well, then don’t add saccharin; let the character stand as written. Can a schmuck become a hero? If the writer and director takes us on the journey without Hollywood’s box-office pandering, then I’m all in; good to evil, evil to good…I don’t care.. just take me on the journey; I get headaches from slapping my forehead at the obvious changes to make the movie more “marketable.”

      Thank you again and I am looking forward to your next review!

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    3. Ken, by the way, "Peyton Place" also features an "All-American" picnic, as seen through the eyes of Hope Lange's little brother if that will help get you on board any quicker! ;-) "Peyton Place" is a film for me that I cannot turn away from if it is on. My GOD there is so much going on with the myriad of characters (and, good as it is, the book is even better!), yet it is leisurely and gorgeous to look at at the same time.

      I also want to applaud you for finding a figure strap pose to match William Holden's. Brilliant!!

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    4. Hi Poseidon
      You know, in a weird way, that picnic scene you describe DOES pique my interest! I don't know why, but I think I've built up a Lana Turner resistance over the years. Not sure how it started or what film did it, but I find myself (somewhat unconsciously) avoiding so much of her later work. Stuff I might even like. I've never read it (yet) but every time I hear about the book, Peyton Place, my mind goes to that lyric in ":Hello Twelve..." in "A Chorus Line." I should check it out.
      And thanks for noting that physique pose match-up. That little bit Holden does has always made me smile, so I was happy when I dug up this real-life counterpart. The research required wasn't difficult.
      Thanks, Poseidon! You and Cathy may bring about a visit to Peyton Place for me yet!

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  6. Hi Ken,

    Terrific review of a film I have to say I've never been very taken with. It's been years since I've watched it so maybe a re-watch is in order.

    Bill Holden is a bit old for his role true but he's one of my favorites so I'm willing to overlook the age thing and at this point he was still a stud so Kim's attraction is understandable. It also helps that Cliff Robertson is slightly older too so Holden's maturity isn't as big an issue.

    Kim was a beautiful girl no matter what but sometimes I think the ultra blonde hair distracted from that. Her wig in this softens her and makes the movie stand apart from the rest of her films since she looks so distinctly different.

    I want to stick up a bit for Betty Field while acknowledging she was wrong for Daisy in Gatsby. She was a top Broadway star, perhaps because of the stridency of her voice not an ideal fit for film but she was considered a prestige performer and I've seen several good performances she's given. It was probably because of her stage cred she was selected when Gatsby was filmed. Back then Broadway stardom carried a certain elan that Hollywood stardom didn't if the performer had shown that they could move between the two. Not that there were that many who could, Fredrich March, Melvyn Douglas, Field and a few others. Still I think she did better in film when she moved into character parts like the one in this film.

    Rosalind Russell is surely the strongest performer and performance in the picture and probably could have won had she allowed herself to be placed in supporting but I think I can understand why she wouldn't. The Oscars weren't like they are now where lead performers allow their greed to permit themselves to take an actual supporting players place in a grab for a prize. You have to consider the time period, Roz up to that point was an above the title star and if she had submitted her work as supporting, especially if she won, she would have been pegged as having moved into that category and could have more or less kissed leads goodbye. It might have even made her casting in Auntie Mame difficult. So she hung tough and finished out of the money but with her stature intact and where she stayed for the remainder of her career.

    I had to laugh when I read your remark about stopping to watch Picnic if you run across it even though you own the film. Just before I started reading your review I happened upon Hitchcock's Lifeboat. Did I have other things to do? Yep. Have I seen the movie more times than I can count? Yes. Do I own a copy? I do. Did I stop and watch the rest of the movie? You bet! It's a weakness all true cinema lovers share I guess.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Thanks for reading and for the kind comments.
      From what I've encountered over the years "Picnic" is very much a film whose reputation is built on people who have strong emotional reactions to it. Few ever discuss it as a major work, most seem to feel that it's somewhat flawed but a fine effort. But over in the other camp are those who think of "Picnic" as THE most romantic film ever and respond to it viscerally, not being remotely objective.
      Nostalgia plays a big part in my feelings for it, that's for sure.

      And that's very nice of you to make a pitch for Betty Field. I like her as an actress a great deal, but while I think her voice is a lot of things, "moneyed" isn't one of them. I always see her as she was in "Butterfield 8."
      And you make some good points with the whole Rosalind Russell/nomination thing. She had a healthy ego, so it's not out of character to refuse a supporting nod, but I can see the possibility of other concerns entering into it.
      And you're the second to remark that you will watch on broadcast TV a film you can watch anytime due to owning it. An amazing phenomenon, but as you say, likely an affliction of true cinema lovers. Thanks, Joel!

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    2. I like Betty Field a great deal too but her casting is surprising in Gatsby since her biggest screen success to that point were the brazen Mae in Of Mice and Men and the cheap and venal Kay in Blues in the Night. Neither cries out aristocratic society girl.

      My guess would be that they went with her even though she wasn't a proper fit because by '49 who did Paramount have that fit Daisy's description.

      Had it been five years earlier Joan Fontaine, with her patrician bearing and plumy speech or Veronica Lake, with her more common but still disciplined speech and ethereal beauty fit the bill but Joan had a baby that year and wasn't working and Veronica had fallen from favor. Gail Russell had the requisite delicate other worldliness but was well into her sad downward spiral and had effectively drunk her way out of her Paramount contract the year before. Betty Hutton? Hardly. Marie Wilson? I don't think so. Perhaps Joan Caulfield might have worked, she had a more down to earth quality than Daisy did in the book but she had a gracious studied way of speaking and moving which would have been more in line with the character than Betty Field's very Noo Yawk speech but the picture was an A level production and she was rarely cast in anything but B's. I've always thought Alexis Smith was more the kind of woman Fitzgerald had in mind and certainly closer to Daisy's proper age than the 36 year old Betty but she was a Metro girl so was probably never considered.

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    3. Yes, there's something too grounded and sane about Fields for Daisy, but I can easily see Alexis Smith!

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    4. Amazing with how many times they've made the thing that the film makers have never managed to cast Daisy properly. Always good actresses but wrong for the role. Mia Farrow was visually so right but so terribly wrong in execution. But Betty Field and Carey Mulligan, excellent actresses both were even farther off the mark. There was a silent version, now lost, with Lois Wilson as Daisy that was supposedly the closest to the book but of course will never know. I'm sure it's difficult to cast a character that represents a symbolic ideal more than an actual person but you would think they would hit the jackpot at least once or get close. Maybe it's just bad casting directors or the constraints of time and availability.

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  7. Hi Ken - what a perfectly appropriate film as the end of summer approaches...and what a goodie. Inge wrote this smack-dab in the middle of the Puritan 1950s, and he perfectly captures the repressed sexuality that is going to blow its lid any moment now...perfectly exemplified by Roz Russell's compulsion to let loose, and Verna Felton (Ha! I love that you remember mean Mrs. Porter from I Love Lucy!) who can't take her eyes off Hal and encourages him to take his shirt off! This is a film/play that is about sex, sex, sex...and who's gettin' it and who isn't...I think it's quite daring for its era. And Novak's sexy moonlight dance with Holden is positively erotic, even by today's standards.

    Holden carries off the role of Hal because he's a fine actor and a handsome hunk of man, but I saw in person the raw power of a YOUNG stud playing this role when we did a stage production back in the 1990s...we produced Picnic as a Theater For Schools production and brought high school kids in from all over the area to experience live theater for free. A young Marc Kudisch (he was Conrad Birdie in the 1997 version of Bye Bye Birdie) was Hal...and the moment he came onstage carrying an aluminum trash can over his shoulder, sweaty and stripped to the waist, the girls (and some of the boys) went into a hormonal frenzied pandemonium. Inge's suggestive dialogue had primed them for the beefcake's grand entrance. I felt I was at an Elvis or Justin Bieber concert--and we all said later maybe this was NOT the right play for high school kids. But then again, I still have young people come up to me and say, "You brought me to THAT PLAY." When played by the right cast, this is a timeless piece, not old-fashioned at all.

    Ken thanks again for this delicious treat - your blog is always as tasty as Mrs. Potts's cherry pie.

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    1. Hi Chris
      You're so right about "Picnic" being so reflective of 50s repression. And I think in noting it, you call attention to why this film has remained a part of my life for so long. It was if I was watching one film as an unaware kid, then it morphed into something darker (and sadder) when I grew older.

      I've never seen "Picnic" performed onstage, and I'm afraid that Showtime version from the 80s has probably cured me of the desire, but I love the description you gave and I can well imagine teens getting a big kick out of it.
      I'm glad to hear this film is one you enjoy and have a long experience of. You seem to really understand it and I agree, it may be set in the 50s, but its attitudes aren't old at all. Thanks very much, Chris!

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