Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Picnic" (1955)

Recently I chanced upon the 1955 movie "Picnic" on the TCM network. The movie is based on the William Inge play and stars William Holden, Kim Novak, Betty Field, Susan Strasberg, Cliff Robertson (his first movie), Rosalind Russell, and Arthur O'Connell. The hominess of the title intrigued me. The story concerns a handsome, useless drifter who upsets people and relationships in a small town during the big Labor Day festivities. Although I'd never seen the movie, I must've flipped past a TV production many years ago, because the scene where Rosalind Russell's character pitifully begs Arthur O'Connell's to marry her was familiar. William Holden, 37 in 1955, plays a man in his twenties, while the two young women (Novak and Strasberg) are more believably close to their characters' ages. Holden is handsome and "hot," and a fine actor, but I wonder if he was cast partly because of his star power.

I enjoyed the story and the various characters' interrelationships. One of my classmates says this movie was his mother's favorite. The film concludes with a theme that I can never find touching: the lonely young woman who falls for, and then runs away to locate the handsome but no good stranger who chanced into her life. I always think the heroine is being naive; even if the guy has a good heart, her love will not magically reform him. Mrs. Potts, the kindly old woman who holds the beginning and end of the film together, does realize that we all have to learn through difficult experience, whether in love or other aspects of life. In that respect, rather than in an imagined but unlikely happy-ever-after, the movie's conclusion is heartwarming.

I fell in love with the small town surroundings depicted in the movie. The railroad cars and tracks, with grain elevators in the background, is a happy sight to me, having grown up close to the Illinois Central tracks. So is the way the neighborhood yards are not so sharply separated as in the suburbs where I now live; yards have sheds and small barns that blend the village and the rural, just as back porches blend indoors and outdoors. Mrs. Potts has a 55-gallon metal drum in her backyard for burning trash, exactly as my parents had in our yard. You'd have to enjoy old signs to notice it, but Mr. Potts had the top portion of a yellow stop sign attached to her shed, perhaps to cover a hole in the wall, as my grandma used a metal Grapette Soda sign to patch the wall of her chicken house. Behind the houses is a little alley, not a street, just the parallel path that cars and trucks would make across grass-covered land. All these sights were familiar sights as I was growing up, not only in my hometown but in small communities which my parents and I visited on weekend trips, checking on relatives.

According to online movie data sources, "Picnic" was shot in five Kansas towns, Halstead, Hutchinson, Nickerson, Salina, and Sterling. William Holden's character arrives (in a box car) in the railroad yard in Salina and, although supposedly in the same town, soon breezes into a neighborhood in Nickerson. That's the magic of movies, as they say.

I've been happy in the places I've lived, but part of me will always miss the kind of rural/small town ambiance depicted in "Picnic." As the movie stresses, this kind of world isn't all that innocent. But "geographically" it's very comforting, always worth revisiting.

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