Raise your hand if you’ve heard or seen the following framework before, then after you’re done put your hand down if you’re under the age of eighty:
The plot behind 1955’s Picnic, directed by Joshua Logan (of Sayonara fame, for one) seems innocuous enough. A rough-and-tough outsider blows through town with nothin’ but ambition and a loose connection (the “why here?” question, answered). This man spreads goodwill through a simple reading of people and immediate need; one can assume that the man’s whirlwind entrance was not his first, perhaps iterated many times while looking to pass the time before society deems him old and/or crusty enough for pity. It’s a surface plot with some predictable landmarks to hit to keep interest alive. There’s always a pretty girl bursting to get out of this small-town livin’, said girl’s parents draw their morals from the lore of generations’ ghosts.
Then there’s an event that’s the centerpiece for plot drive. The drifter inevitably gets into a situation out of which he cannot easily slither – and on to the next town – and either everyone’s lives change for the better, or they’re ruined. Somehow this story introduces enough of an environment for there to be a resolution, for what in the non-film world, would most likely be at least days of confusion and anger, or a period of calm and organization.
I use this seemingly arbitrary age marker for a reason. In 1955, the year of Picnic‘s theatrical release, an eighty year old would be right around seventeen, which is old enough to presumably understand complex human emotion, but not too old to not understand how to get online. Give or take a few years.
Because to an eighty-year-old, this idea is relatively fresh on screen. Sure, the basic story is Oedipal-old (perhaps older), but visual representation would have been relatively new. And in wholesome-times-past, it may have been visually interesting to idolize or castigate the hopeless drifter. There would have been little to no comparative evidence against which to scale the person’s actions, and thus appropriate the on-screen reactions. This concept is fresh to the 1950’s teenager. That this movie is dull and hackneyed is more likely than not a function of my own jaded experience than it is a function of the film making or the work of the supremely talented leading cast of William Holden as Hal Carter and Kim Novak as Madge Owens.
It is equally difficult to remove my own experience from a shared experience as it is to attempt to inject my own experience (or lack) into a conversation about which I know nothing. So, commenting on the experience of watching Picnic from the viewpoint of a 1955 teenager is a ridiculous exercise in braggadocio. That said, a 50’s youth – a somewhat-rugged boy – would side with the drifter, Hal, a man with all dreams and no ambition, whose days of productivity were either far behind him or far in front; the more well-to-do might resonate with the aseptic Alan (Cliff Robertson), our drifter’s friend from college, fed from a silver spoon. We can further understand that these definitions of characters on screen are incredibly (by my 2015 standards) unnuanced. In fact, all the characters seem to be more caricature, more rough edit and silo, than complex person.The infighting seems petty, and it is, considering each person’s personality exists in binary. From where this choice stemmed is part epoch and part encoded in the work itself: the story just isn’t that interesting.
But from the perspective of a 1950’s teenager or older, the characters might do wonders in connecting with their seemingly unconnected lives. Leading lady Madge Owens is pretty and prepped for marriage and a life of disturbing boredom. This author is double unprepared in his own experience to comment on the housewife portrayed in earlier films, but it would seem that underneath gender and upbringing a woman would have every bit the same ambition as the man. Patriarchy roars its ugly head. As the “anti-Madge,” the bookish Millie Owens (Susan Strasberg) is the anti-Madge in a way, pushed towards acadaemia because her looks are no match for a husband. Her character is the ugly duckling incarnate, because when she removes the unflattering clothing, the audience realizes that she is quite pretty and bookish. This author is unsure whether this was meant to be a half-cooked ruse or a message of empowerment to women. If I had to guess, the answer was neither, and instead used solely as a way to highlight the importance of Madge’s looks to the plot. Picnic stirs in Auntie Mame star Rosalind Russell as Rosemary the old maid (…!) and her bumbling gentleman caller, Howard Bevans, a local business owner (…!) as plot devices and comic relief and we have a bizarro Swiss Family Robinson, rather than an introspective look at character interaction.
This review is mostly heavy-handed because, like Boyhood, I mostly enjoyed Picnic, but I only wish that I could switch off my own experience to watch movies from a less-refined era without the jaded amber glasses I wear during screenings. As of the writing of this review, I know very little about 1955 as a year for film, save that Marty garnered the coveted Best Picture nod, that William Holden was in another film this year that fell short, and Tennessee Williams wrote a play-turned-film (increasingly rare in 2015, as an aside) that is probably the heavy-handed that this movie left on the writers’ room floor.