Available on Blu-ray Mon 18 Feb 2019.
Many great films have been adapted from stage plays down the years by creative filmmakers. The limited confines of a theatre can be replicated for a dramatic, claustrophobic effect such as in Sidney Lumet‘s 12 Angry Men, or Mike Nichols‘ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or it can be blown apart into a spectacular open world such as Milos Forman‘s Amadeus. William Inge‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning Picnic was ripe for this expansive approach. Brought to the screen by the director of its successful theatrical run Joshua Logan, it is a sadly dated an inert piece, despite exceptionally handsome cinematography.
Hal Carter (William Holden) is an ex-college football star now living a peripatetic existence of odd jobs and train hopping. He pitches up in his small Kansas home town looking to connect with an old roommate Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson). Carter also explodes into the lives of the women of the Owens family. He stirs the romantic curiosity of sisters Madge and Millie (Kim Novak and Susan Strasberg) and the distrust of mother Flo (Betty Field). Things come to a head during the town’s Labor Day picnic.
Picnic was well-received on its release, ruffling feathers with its perceived boldness. However, it has not aged well. It’s a stiff and awkward film that assumes that merely pasting a stage play onto celluloid will make a good cinematic experience. Some of this stilted nature comes from the poor transition from stage to screen. The theatricality of the dialogue rubs clumsily against both the melodrama of the story and the insistent operatics of the overbearing score.
The film also deals heavily in female archetypes, like the pretty-but-vapid Madge, bookish Millie, and a frankly embarrassing harridan turn from Rosalind Russell. Ironically, just as Madge’s value is based entirely on her beauty, Hal is similarly objectified as a lunkish slab of prime male beef. It’s equality of a sort, but benefits no-one. Holden is also woefully miscast. At 37, he’s way too old both as a former college mate of Benson and for his flirtations with the Owens girls. The inevitable romance with the older Madge is just about okay, but his interaction with the 17-year-old Strasberg is hideously creepy. Obviously, it’s not unknown for a young girl to develop a crush on an older man, but Hal’s responses have more than a hint of reciprocation.
For a film that deals in bombshell passions, Picnic is a curiously staid and conservative affair. There are reasons more radical directors of the time like Eliza Kazan and Nicholas Ray have endured. As a relic of a certain time, there’s also a lot to be said for hindsight. Works by directors who grew up during the ’50s feel far more evocative in their depiction, such as Rob Reiner‘s Stand By Me, or George Lucas‘ American Graffiti. There are some nice moments, particularly from the sparky Strasberg, and the pivotal dance between Holden and Novak finally hints at a charged atmosphere, but it’s nowhere near enough to enliven this stodgy museum piece.