Hal Carter (William Holden) is a drifter in need of a job and somewhere to settle down, so he has been riding this freight train thanks to the kindness of the driver to this town in Kansas known for its dedication to grain production. Why here? Because he knows the son of the owner of the biggest producer around, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), and hopes that thanks to them having shared college together he will be given a cushy position there, or if all else fails, a post shovelling the grain. He is mighty dusty, so washes in the nearby river and sets off across the suburbs, stopping at a house where he asks the owner if she could help him out and give him cash for odd jobs...
But it's Labor Day, and nobody works on Labor Day, at least that's what the little old lady (Verna Felton) tells him, but she does take pity on Hal and feeds him up with cherry pie for breakfast. That's the thing about him, it doesn't matter what age they are, women find this strapping chap irresistible, which is all right for him, but in this adaptation of William Inge's award-winning hit play, the females better watch out, as they have so much to lose. That includes their youth, their looks and their reputations, not necessarily in that order, as one wrong decision at a crucial point in their lives can mean the end to any hope of happiness, something the older characters know too well.
Rosalind Russell chewed the scenery as a dreadful old maid schoolteacher, a dire warning to women of what would happen should they be left on the shelf: she is frequently overbearing, comes across as bitter and desperate (what a combination!), and clings onto her sole male friend Howard (Arthur O'Connell) as if he were a life raft and she had fallen overboard in a storm. All she really wants is to be married, since a woman without that ring on her finger is an abject failure; now, Inge was too sensitive a playwright to endorse that place in society for all women, but the producer-director Joshua Logan sure wasn't, and for that reason Picnic does look like something from another era.
Well, it would, it was made in 1955, but if a twenty-first century film told its female audience that their best hope in life was to get married and forget anything else making them happy, it would not be tolerated with much kindness. Yet the leading lady here, Kim Novak, essayed beauty queen Madge Owens, luminously photographed by James Wong Howe, who lives with various ages of women in her house, from mother Betty Field who intones awful consequences will be afoot if Madge doesn't settle down with Alan, to younger sister Millie (Susan Strasberg), a self-styled intellectual (she is reading The Ballad of the Sad Café!) who is destined to be miserable since men don't like smart women, so she will have to content herself penning volumes of difficult poetry, basically pleasing herself as she will never please a man, and vice versa.
Into this oestrogen-rich environment struts Hal, and Holden was correct in thinking he was too old for the role, no matter how much he flaunted his shaved chest in shirtless scenes. Back when this was released, Picnic was regarded as pretty racy stuff, mostly thanks to its atmosphere rich in suppressed sexual tension and a dance two thirds of the way through between Hal and Madge where their attraction seems to be about to send them heading behind the nearest barn on this heady night of celebration that has seen her floated down the river on a swan (!) as a barely-understood, pagan-style tribute to her ripe virginity. It could have been distasteful, and indeed would probably be a lot more fun if it had been, but this was serious business so all the characters were suffering in their own ways, and himbo Hal has waded into this as a catalyst for all sorts of feelings to bubble up to the surface. It was clear Logan saw the words "Pulitzer Prize" attached to the source material and snapped it up as a prestige picture without understanding its power: famously he imposed a happy ending on it, but at least the cast appeared to get where Inge was coming from, and behaved accordingly. Is it accurate in its concerns? You hope not, but suspect they do linger. Music by George Duning.
[Eureka's Blu-ray has an interview with Novak (audio only) and the trailer as extras. It does look very nice.]