Wednesday, March 20, 2002

PICNIC (1955); Or, My 50's Problem

I wonder why I find it relatively easy to accept 30's and 40's movie conventions, but I have such a hard time opening myself up to 50's movies? Inge and Williams and Faulkner all wrote material that exposed the repressed longings of everyday (or regional or small-town) Americans, and I guess that was considered new and shocking back then. For me, these movies don't hold up well now. The psychological depths feel rather shallow, the novelties of the widescreen and full color techniques are no longer novel. And the acting seems so overheated, so melodramatic; perhaps it was the screen discovering Method acting, or something like that. But many 50's films just grate on my last nerve. This is one of those.

William Holden is a drifter who arrives in a small Kansas town, just in time for the big doings at the Labor Day picnic. He comes seeking a job from his successful fraternity brother, Cliff Robertson, and he gets tangled up with Robertson's reluctant fiancee, Kim Novack. Things remain at a simmer until that night when Rosalind Russel, playing a spinster schoolteacher (small towns were apparently full of those back then), gets tipsy and sets off a chain reaction of exploding passions. This all may have felt daring back then, suggesting that not all heartland families were like Andy Hardy's, but it's hopelessly dated now.

I liked both Holden and Novak; Russell was over the top, but it seems like an impossible role to start with--the repressed schoolteacher is played mostly for laughs, but suddenly in the middle of the movie, she becomes the catalyst for all the roiling passions to boil over, and the scene where she tears Holden's shirt is just silly (mostly because of the ridiculously dramatic music that accents it). My biggest problem was with the ages of the characters. Novak is supposed to be 19--she was really 22 and looked about 25. Holden and Cliff Robertson are supposed to be roughly the same age, a few years out of college, but Holden (in his mid-30's) looked much older than Robertson. I will say that Holden was in damn good shape, which is a good thing given that he spends half of his screen time shirtless. This overblown soap opera reminded me at times of THE MUSIC MAN without irony, humor, or music--the disreputable Holden (Harold Hill) drifts into town, stirs up trouble (with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Picnic) and gets caught up with the confused girl (Marion the repressed librarian). Still, I found this worth watching mostly for Novak.

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