As soon as I started watching Picnic, I knew that I was in for another one of these sweaty, desperate epics about how life in a small town is full of hypocrites, nosy old maids, and damp drifters who are drenched in the promise of something better than what the small town was offering up to its population of breathy starlets.
William Holden, who gave memorable performances in movies like Stalag 17 and Sunset Boulevard, looks completely out of place though as the drifter who is romancing the nineteen year old character played by Kim Novak.
Holden was 37 years old when he made this movie and he looks at least that old, if not older. Novak looks like young white trash in the film and her flat performance gives no hint that she would be capable of something like the dual roles she had in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Most of the movie is spent trying not to gag as Holden’s character attempts to act about fifteen years younger than he really was. The romance (such as it was) between him and Novak, comes off as creepy, not scandalous or intense.
Holden’s Hal Carter hops off a freight train on Labor Day in the small town of one of his college buddies. His pal is Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) and Alan’s father owns a bunch of grain elevators in town. Hal hopes to secure work with his buddy (preferably an office job with a secretary) and finally settle down.
He hooks up with kindly old Mrs. Potts and offers to clean her yard if she’ll give him some food. She says that it’s Labor Day and nobody is working, but she’ll feed him anyway. Hal insists on doing some yard work for her and this is the first time Hal loses his shirt.
This movie really stars William Holden’s middle-aged chest more than anything is. I would have to rate its performance as decent, being very tan, but it can’t hide the fact that it’s about ten years past its prime, so while it is a bit muscular and not fat by any means, it doesn’t seem as tight or cut as you would like for a role like this.
If you’ve ever lived in a small town, then you’d know what an uproar a shirtless William Holden would cause if he was spotted in some old bag’s backyard getting all sweaty. The neighbors stare and gasp at this towering slab of thirtysomething manhood and it doesn’t take long for Hal to waltz on over to where the youngest of the Owens girls is shooting some hoops.
He immediately hunks it up as her mother and her sister appear. The younger girl is Millie and her older sister is Madge (Novak). Their mother also rents a room to Rosalind Russell’s school teacher character, Rosemary, an old maid who is by far the most developed character in the movie.
Alan just so happens to be romancing Madge, so you can pretty much see that there’s going to be a problem when rich kid and beefy hobo start lusting after the same girl.
Over at Alan’s house, he and Hal happily reunite. We learn that Hal was a football player and that he could have been an All-American but he flunked out of school in his third year. He and Alan were in the same fraternity and that’s how they became buddies.
Alan tells him that he should come to the big Labor Day celebration (idiotically named Neewollah) the town is having that evening. With the promise of three-legged races, pie-eating contests, and the big election to see if Madge can make it over the top and finally get elected queen, Hal can’t very well refuse, can he?
Alan gives Hal a car to drive and they both show up to pick up there dates. Alan is going with Madge and Hal is going with Millie, further grossing out the audience.
Howard Bevans also shows up to take his date Rosemary, the schoolteacher. Rosemary and Howard see each other regularly, but their relationship doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular, at least until Rosemary gets wasted at Neewollah and starts dropping the “marry me or else” ultimatums.
Neewollah ends badly for all involved when a drunken Rosemary rips Hal’s shirt and tells him that he is old and needs to quit pretending not to be. She calls him on the fact that since he rolled into to town that he’s just been hunking around and expecting everyone to be all over him.
There’s a bunch of drama at the end when Madge is literally being pulled in two different directions by her mother and by Hal. Hal hops another train out of town and Madge has to make up her mind whether to follow him.
An overheated, overrated movie that is completely botched because William Holden is and looks so damn old. Cliff Robertson’s character is supposed to have been in college with Hal and he looks the right age and it doesn’t gross you out to have him pawing Madge, but Holden looks like one of Alan’s dad’s friends.
Novak doesn’t distinguish herself either in this movie, standing around posing and trying to affect these looks of lust for Holden.
Hal doesn’t come off as an iconoclastic rebel who represents the freedom of the individual and he isn’t the guy that can’t grow up or has been dealt a raw deal by life or can’t fit in or whatever. He’s just a loser who has nothing to offer except that he can still get horny for teenage girls.
A script that relied less on histrionics (and thirty-seven year old chests) and more on making Hal and Madge people instead of descriptions (passionate drifter, small town beauty) could have made this the commentary on small town life and the unbridled passion of youth that the film was apparently shooting for. Worth a rental though for Russell’s heartbreaking performance of the old maid who wakes up to the fact that her life is passing her by.
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