dir. Joshua Logan
1955 / Columbia Pictures / 115′
written by Daniel Taradash
from the play by William Inge
cinematography by James Wong Howe
music by George Duning
starring William Holden, Kim Novak, Susan Strasberg, Betty Field, Cliff Robertson, Arthur O’Connell and Rosalind Russell
Picnic is reviewed here from a screener provided by Twilight Time, and is available on Blu-ray exclusively through ScreenArchives.com
A star-studded big-studio production with oodles of old-Hollywood appeal, Joshua Logan’s Picnic, from Columbia Pictures in 1955, is a terrific film that still holds up more than a half century on. Adapted with some alteration from the award-winning play of the same name, which Logan had also directed on Broadway, Picnic expands well beyond its theatrical origins, resisting any temptation to be just a play-on-screen and becoming an indelible cinematic experience in its own right. Superb Technicolor production design and ace CinemaScope photography from veteran James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success) infuse William Inge’s (by way of screenwriter Daniel Taradash) small-town drama with an unexpectedly epic quality. Logan took his production on location in Kansas to secure the necessary middle-American atmosphere, and his effort pays off wonderfully – there’s a distinct believability to Picnic‘s fictional heartland community, despite all the big-name talent occupied there.
Taking place over the course of a single 24-hour period and dominated by the Labor Day event alluded to in the title, Picnic concerns itself with the passions and jealousies that boil up from under an anonymous small-town veneer when a rugged drifter arrives with the morning freight. Hal Carter (Holden) is that rugged drifter, a boisterous but good-natured bum who conceals a lifetime worth of insecurity beneath an extroverted All-American facade. With nothing to his name but the clothes on his back and a pair of his father’s oversize boots, Hal takes to doing odd-jobs for room and board and soon becomes acquainted with the Owens family, a single mother and daughters Millie (Strasberg) and Madge (Novak) – the latter of whom is attached to the son of the local grain tycoon and Hal’s former fraternity brother, Alan (Robertson).
Hal finds himself invited along for the holiday’s festivities as Millie’s date, and his hearty personality proves well-suited to a day of pie-eating contests, three-legged races and amateur talent shows. Alan, excited to see the return of an old friend, even offers Hal a job shoveling grain in one of his father’s plants. For a moment Hal clings to the hope of starting over, but as the sun sets passions rise and a night of dancing devolves into an explosive public exposé of frustrated desires, anger and jealousy…
Though originated by the underrated Ralph Meeker (Kiss Me Deadly, Paths of Glory) on Broadway, in retrospect it’s difficult to imagine that any actor other than Holden could have played the part of Hal Carter on the big screen. Years of heavy drinking had already taken a toll on Holden (Sunset Boulevard, The Wild Bunch) by the mid-50s, and by the time Picnic rolled around his golden boy image had given way to a more ragged, tortured handsomeness. His appearance alone speaks volumes for the character – an aging college football star steadily slipping past his prime – with his athletic build and potent sex appeal balanced by a human vulnerability that’s very much the actor’s own. It’s a mix that might have worked for the material even if Holden hadn’t had the acting chops to back it up, but it’s good fortune that he did. As his shirtless torso is ogled by Picnic‘s female players (a boundless mix of middle-aged spinster schoolteachers, divorcees, and younger women just entering their sexual prime) Hal’s unease is palpable – whatever his boisterous personality and compensatory bragging might imply he’s clearly not comfortable being the center of attention.
Neither, for that matter, is Madge, the pretty girl in town and Hal’s feminine equivalent. Taking over for the Broadway production’s Janice Rule is the ever capable Kim Novak (Vertigo, Strangers When We Meet), who slips effortlessly into the role of a woman who’s fed up with just being “the pretty one”, but distressed at not having the talent to be much else. Though she lords her physical superiority over her younger sister Millie, a brilliant young Susan Strasberg (Psych Out, Rollercoaster), Madge is actually deeply jealous of her intelligence – and the four year college scholarship that comes with it. It’s an opportunity that a beauty queen working the counter at the five-and-dime could never hope for. Meanwhile Millie is similarly resentful of being forever cast as “the smart one”, a designation that’s inspired a rebellious tomboy streak that’s only further removed her from the attentions of the men she, at age seventeen, has begun to take a keen physical interest in.
And thus we arrive at the crux of the picture. To quote from Julie Kirgo’s liner notes, “Sex […] seems to be at the root of Picnic‘s every discontent,” and indeed, from the moment Hal’s kindly old landlady insists that he remove his shirt (so that she can wash it, of course!) right through to the end Picnic and its players have sex on the brain. Perhaps I’m just not watching the right big Hollywood movies, but the discussion on the topic heard here struck me as being remarkably frank for a major release in 1955, particularly when Madge’s mother suggests that she should grin and bear an unsatisfying sex life for the sake of achieving greater social status, stopping just short of demanding that her daughter give in to Alan’s desires at that night’s picnic. Other instances are far less disturbing, as when Millie calls her big sis’ a “slut” or tries to sneak a peak at Hal in the raw – “Hey, kid. You better get away from this wall or you’re liable to get educated!” It’s this up-front approach to the sexuality of its characters that, in part, helps keep Picnic from feeling so old-hat. Some things never change.
Given its proclivities I suppose it’s no surprise to that Picnic‘s most memorable moments are also it’s most sexually charged. Hal and Madge’s impromptu riverside courtship dance still sizzles, illuminated by the soft glow of Chinese lanterns and set to a sublime marriage of George Duning’s wistfully romantic theme and a sumptuous arrangement of the ’30s standby “Moonglow” – it’s one of cinema’s indelible romantic moments. What follows is less than enchanting but no less enthralling, as the passions of boozed-up middle-aged high school teacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russel, His Girl Friday) get the better of her and tensions erupt in an ugly public confrontation. Hal finds himself in the literal spotlight, every bit as vulnerable as when he first arrived, but his frenzied flight to somewhere, anywhere, instead lands him by the river with Madge at his side…
Picnic was a popular and critical success upon release, garnering six nominations and two wins (for best color art-and-set design and best film editing) at the 1956 Academy Awards, and it’s easy to see why. Loaded with rich performances (including one from the delightful Arthur O’Connell, of Anatomy of a Murder fame) and beautifully produced besides, this is powerful stuff that hooks you in a way that only classic Hollywood can. Highly recommended!
released January 17, 2012 by Twilight Time
disc: dual layer BD-50
video: 1080p | 2.55:1
audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1 / 2.0 English
subtitles: English SDH
supplements: theatrical trailer, isolated score track
retail price: $34.95
available exclusively through ScreenArchives.com
I found myself unexpectedly wowed by Picnic as presented on Blu-ray from Twilight Time, here working once again from an ace restoration by Sony Pictures’ archive team. Indeed, wowed may actually be an understatement. I don’t bring up words like “perfect” or “reference quality” very often in my reviews, but here they certainly apply. Yes, Picnic‘s Blu-ray debut is that good.
Picnic has undergone extensive restoration over the past two decades and the end result is a film that looks practically new, as though it had aged not a day in the 57 years since it was made. Presented in all its vintage Technicolor glory at the intended extra-wide CinemaScope ratio of 2.55:1 and bolstered by a rock-solid encode spread comfortably over a dual layer BD-50, this easily ranks as one of the most satisfying Blu-ray experiences I’ve had to date. Detail (healthy as it is) doesn’t impress so much as the overall texture of the thing, and the image is lush, positively alive with that elusive filmic allure. A fine grain is evident throughout, and all the character of James Wong Howe’s color ‘Scope photography is deliciously preserved. The aesthetic at work here is so strong that you can practically feel it, and it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a film from disc at all.
In terms of drab, technical assessment Picnic is still a tremendous affair. The feature and accompanying audio occupy the better part of a dual layer BD-50, with the AVC video encode trucking along at a high average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps. Picnic is not just free of distracting digital artifacts, but of digital artifacts all together, and the image holds up under the closest of scrutiny. Physical defects have been seen to as well – Sony’s restoration team must have worked overtime picking out all those decades of grit. Even the infrequent opticals (fades, credits) appear virtually pristine, noticeable only by a shift in film density and the degraded source resolution and coarser grain that comes along with it. Projected in a theatrical setting I doubt there’d be anything to give this edition of Picnic away other than just how good it looks, and you can’t ask for much better than that.
Screenshots were taken as full 1920×1080 resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 95% using the ImageMagick command line tool.
Originally released in 4-track stereo, Picnic arrives on Blu-ray with a new DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix that’s as restrained as it is effective. Though punctuated with some louder effects – like the opening bellow of a train horn – this is a mostly sedate affair, and the new surround mix admirably supports the original intentions. As with Twilight Time’s earlier Mysterious Island it’s really the score, backed with some occasional LFE punch, that benefits the most here. Duning’s work sounds terrific throughout, and its more dynamic moments have real impact. Twilight Time have also included a robust DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo option, and the feature is complemented by a set of optional English SDH subtitles.
Supplements are limited, as expected, but Picnic is hardly a barren affair. Fans of the film’s tremendous score will find plenty to love by way of an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 music track that appears to encompass pretty much everything, including the various Labor Day picnic “Talent Show” vocals. Otherwise the disc offers only the original theatrical trailer, presented in lovely 1080p AVC with DTS-HD MA 1.0 audio. Those who have found Twilight Time’s previous Blu-rays lacking in functionality will be pleased to find that Picnic comes with both a pop-up menu and a set of 12 non-generic chapter stops (as opposed to the ten minute breaks seen in past efforts). The disc’s packaging even becomes a selling point courtesy of Julie Kirgo, the indispensable print-voice of Twilight Time, who contributes another fine set of liner notes on the production.
There’s very little else to say here. Picnic is a terrific film, one of the best I’ve seen in a while, and its Blu-ray edition from Twilight Time is, for all intents and purposes, flawless. Needless to say, we recommend.