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Picnic (1955 film)

File:Original movie poster for the film Picnic.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joshua Logan
Produced by Fred Kohlmar
Screenplay by Daniel Taradash
Based on Picnic
1953 play 
by William Inge
Starring William Holden
Kim Novak
Betty Field
Rosalind Russell
Music by George Duning
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Edited by William A. Lyon
Charles Nelson
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • November 1955 (1955-11) (Previews)
  • February 16, 1956 (1956-02-16) (USA)
Running time
115 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $6,300,000 (US & Canada)[1][2]

Picnic is a 1955 American Technicolor romantic comedy-drama film in Cinemascope,[3][4] which was adapted for the screen by Daniel Taradash from William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning play.[5] Joshua Logan, director of the original Broadway stage production, also directed the film version, which stars William Holden and Kim Novak, with Rosalind Russell, Susan Strasberg and Cliff Robertson in a supporting roles. Picnic was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two.

The film dramatizes twenty-four hours in the life of a rural Kansas town set in mid-20th century United States. It is the story of the proverbial outsider who blows into town and subsequently manages to upturn complacency, shake convention, disrupt, rearrange lives and reset the fates of all those with whom he comes into contact.


Hal Carter (William Holden) is a former college football star, adrift and unemployed after army service and a failed Hollywood acting career. On Labor Day (September 5, 1955), he arrives by freight train in a Kansas town to visit his fraternity friend, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), the son of a wealthy grain elevator owner, Mr. Benson (Raymond Bailey). Working for his breakfast by doing chores in the backyard of kindly Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton), Hal stops paperboy Bomber (Nick Adams) from pestering neighbor Madge Owens (Kim Novak), who happens to be dating Alan. Her single-parent mother (Betty Field) is hoping Madge will marry Alan, which would thus raise both Madge and herself into the town's highest, respectable social circles. Alan wants to marry Madge, but his father thinks she is beneath him. Madge tells her mother she doesn't love Alan and is weary of being liked only because she is pretty.

Hal gets along wonderfully with almost everyone, and tries very hard to be accepted. Alan is very happy to see "same old Hal", whom he takes to the family's sprawling grain elevator operations. He promises Hal a steady job as a "wheat scooper" (though Hal has unrealistic expectations of becoming an executive, and is disappointed) and invites Hal to the town's Labor Day picnic. Hal is wary about going to the picnic, but Alan nudges him into it, saying Hal's "date" for the picnic will be Madge's bookish younger sister Millie (Susan Strasberg), who is quickly drawn to Hal's cheerful demeanor and charisma. Alan reassures Mrs. Owens that although Hal flunked out of college and lost his football scholarship because he did not study, there are no worries about him. The afternoon carries on very happily, until Hal carelessly starts talking about himself too much and Alan stops him with a cutting remark. As the sun goes down, everyone wanders off. Millie draws a sketch of Hal and tells him she secretly writes poetry. Hal's behavior towards her is friendly and utterly trustworthy, but his replies show he has no understanding of her world at all. Madge is named the town's annual Queen of Neewollah ("Halloween" spelled backwards), and Hal longingly gazes at her as she is brought down the river in a swan-shaped pedal-boat. They shyly say "Hi" to each other as she glides by.

Middle-aged schoolteacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell), who rents a room at the Owens house, has been brought to the picnic by store owner Howard Bevens (Arthur O'Connell). When the band plays dance music, Howard says he can't dance, so Rosemary dances with Millie. Hal and Howard then start dancing together, which nettles Rosemary. She grabs Howard, who then dances with her. Hal tries to show Millie a dance he learned in Los Angeles, but Millie can not quite get the beat. Madge stumbles upon them, seductively transforming the moves Hal is showing Millie, and sways toward him, thus initiating a dance with him in which they are both become increasingly mesmerized. Millie, having been cast aside and ignored by both Rosemary and Hal, sulks off and starts drinking from a whiskey flask hidden in Howard's jacket. Rosemary, drunk from the same whiskey, jealously breaks up the dance between Madge and Hal. Rosemary flings herself at Hal, saying he reminds her of a Roman gladiator. When Hal tries to ward off the schoolteacher, she rips his shirt then bitterly calls him a bum. Mrs. Owens and Alan show up and think Hal has caused a messy scandal, made all the worse when Millie breaks down, screaming, "Madge is the pretty one!" and becomes ill from the whiskey. Rosemary, still blinded by her anger, tells Mrs. Owens that Hal gave Millie the whiskey, while Howard's plea that he brought the whiskey seems to fall on deaf ears. By now a crowd is watching, and Hal flees into the darkness.

Madge follows Hal to Alan's car and gets in with him. He angrily tells her to go home. However, she won't budge, so he drives off with her to town. By the river he tells her he was sent to reform school as a boy for stealing a motorcycle and that his whole life is a failure. Madge kisses Hal, which astonishes him. They promise to meet after she gets off work at six the next evening. Hal drives back to Alan's house to return the car, but Alan has called the police and wants Hal arrested. After trying to talk things out, Hal flees the house in Alan's car with the police following close behind. Leaving the car back by the river, Hal goes into the water, gets away from them and shows up at Howard's apartment, asking to spend the night there. Howard is very understanding and now has his own worries: a highly distraught, desperate and remorseful Rosemary has begged him to marry her. Back at the Owens house, Madge and Millie cry themselves to sleep in their shared room.

The next morning, Howard comes to the Owens house, intending to tell Rosemary he wants to wait, but at the sight of him she becomes overjoyed, thinking he has come to take her away. Flustered in front of the whole household and other schoolteachers, Howard wordlessly goes along with this. As he passes Madge on the stairs, he tells her Hal is hiding in the backseat of his car. Hal is able to slip away before the other women gleefully paint and attach streamers and tin cans to Howard's car, throwing rice and asking him where he'll take Rosemary for their honeymoon. As Howard and Rosemary happily drive off to the Ozarks, Hal and Madge meet by a shed behind the house. He asks her to meet him in Tulsa, where he can get a room and a job at a hotel as a bellhop and elevator operator. Mrs. Owens finds them by the shed and threatens to call the police. Hal runs to catch a passing freight train, crying out to Madge, "You love me! You love me!"

Upstairs in their room, Millie tells Madge to "do something bright" for once in her life and go to Hal. Madge packs a small suitcase and, despite her mother's tears (but also nudged on by Mrs. Potts), boards a bus for Tulsa.[6]

Main cast


At the time the film was cast, William Holden was 37 years old, too old according to some to play the role; regardless, Holden was "happy to finish his Columbia Pictures contract with such a prestigious project", even though the contract paid him $30,000 instead of the $250,000 he was earning free lance.[5] Picnic was one of Novak's earliest film roles, and this movie made her a star. In the film Holden keeps his hair combed in an untidy fringe over his forehead and has the sleeves of his shirt rolled up throughout the film. He shaved his chest for the shirtless shots and was reportedly nervous about his dancing for the "Moonglow" scene. Logan took him to Kansas roadhouses where he practiced steps in front of jukeboxes with choreographer Miriam Nelson. Heavy thunderstorms with tornado warnings repeatedly interrupted shooting of the scene on location, and it was completed on a backlot in Burbank, where Holden (according to some sources[specify]) was "dead drunk" to calm his nerves.

Millie, the independently minded girl who memorizes Shakespeare sonnets and rebels against her older sister, was an early role for Susan Strasberg, the daughter of prominent 'Method' drama teacher Lee Strasberg. Elizabeth Wilson had a bit part as one of the smirking schoolteachers (12 years later she played a major supporting role in Mike Nichols' The Graduate as Benjamin Braddock's attractive, slightly high-strung mom). Verna Felton, a longtime radio and TV character actor who was well known to audiences in the 1950s, had a strong supporting role as neighbor Helen Potts. 'Bomber' the paperboy was played by Nick Adams, who dated Natalie Wood and was a friend of both James Dean and Elvis Presley. Mr. Benson played by Raymond Bailey (without his toupee), later known on television as Beverly Hillbillies banker Milburn Drysdale. Reta Shaw, Elizabeth Wilson, and Arthur O'Connell recreated their roles from the original Broadway production.[7]

James Wong Howe's widescreen photography for the film was considered trendsetting at the time. The Cinemascope format was highlighted in the film's final aerial shot when it pulls back to frame a sprawling horizon showing both a freight train and a Continental Trailways bus separately bearing the two leading characters.


The extensive use of Kansas locations highlighted the naturalistic, small-town drama. The Labor Day picnic scenes were shot and edited like a documentary film.[6] Picnic was shot mostly around Hutchinson, Kansas.[5] Other locations include the following:[citation needed]

  • Halstead, Kansas's Riverside Park is where all the Labor Day picnic scenes were filmed. The park and many landmarks still existed at the time of the movie's 50th anniversary..The merry-go-round and cable suspension footbridge, which spans the Little Arkansas River, are still located there.
  • Nickerson is the location of the two adjacent houses where Madge (Kim Novak) and her family live, with Mrs. Potts next door; also where Hal (William Holden) "jumps a freight" to go to Tulsa and where Madge boards a bus in the last scene.
  • Salina, where Hal jumps off a train in the opening scene and meets Alan (Cliff Robertson) at Alan's father's large house. This also is where Madge kisses Hal by the Saline River and where he escapes from the police by running under a waterfall.
  • Sterling, where the pre-picnic swim in the lake was filmed.


The film's release was accompanied by a Time magazine cover story.[8]

The film was restored in the mid-1990s,[9] which brought many art-house bookings.[10] Stephen Holden, in a 1996 review of the restored film, began by noting:[9]

"Today it probably wouldn't be worth more than a PG-13 rating (if even that), but in 1955, the "Moon glow" and "torn shirt" sequences from the movie Picnic were about as steamy as Hollywood could get in evoking explosive sex."

According to Holden, "Rosalind Russell is vividly scary as an older schoolteacher who foolishly lunges after Hal. Betty Field is just right as Madge's wistful, once-beautiful mother, who years earlier ran away with a man like Hal, and Susan Strasberg does well in the role of Madge's shrill, tomboyish younger sister. George Duning's wistful, Copland-influenced score captures the mood of heated yearning that not only engulfed the movie, but also defined the country's romantic ethos in the mid-50's."[9]


Picnic won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (William Flannery, Jo Mielziner, Robert Priestley) and Best Film Editing and was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (O'Connell, who reprised his stage role), Best Director, Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (George Duning) and Best Picture.[11] The film won the prestigious Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association.

In 2002 Picnic was ranked #59 in AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions.


"Theme From Picnic" was a hit song which reached number one on the 1956 Billboard charts and was number 14 overall that year. Composed by George Duning and Steve Allen (although Allen's lyrics were not used in the film), the song is featured in the famous dance scene between Holden and Novak, wherein Columbia's musical director Morris Stoloff blended "Theme From Picnic" with the 1930s standard "Moonglow". The two songs were often paired in later recordings by other artists. The soundtrack album reached #23 on the Billboard charts.[12]

Subliminal marketing hoax

In 1957, marketing researcher James Vicary said he had included subliminal messages such as eat popcorn and drink Coca-Cola in public screenings of Picnic for six weeks, claiming sales of Coca-Cola and popcorn increased 18.1% and 57.8% respectively. However, Vicary later admitted there had never been any such messages and his announcement was itself a marketing trick.[13]


Picnic was remade for television twice, first in 1986, directed by Marshall W. Mason and starring Gregory Harrison, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Learned, Rue McClanahan and Dick Van Patten. The second remake was in 2000, starring Josh Brolin, Gretchen Mol, Bonnie Bedelia, Jay O. Sanders and Mary Steenburgen. The screenplay adaptation by Shelley Evans was directed by Ivan Passer.


  1. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956', Variety Weekly, January 2, 1957
  2. ^ "All Time Domestic Champs", Variety, 6 January 1960 p 34
  3. ^ Variety film review; December 7, 1955, p.8
  4. ^ Harrison's Reports film review; December 10, 1955, p.198
  5. ^ a b c Miller, Frank. "Picnic". Articles. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2014-02-15. 
  6. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (October 25, 1996). "Picnic". Retrieved 2014-02-15. Director Joshua Logan, among the worst filmmakers of his time, spends so much footage on the picnic, you'd think this was a documentary: There are crying babies, laughing babies, frowning babies, three-legged races, pie-eating competitions, balloon drops, concerts and boy-girl contests. 
  7. ^ Picnic (play)
  8. ^ "William Holden". Time. February 27, 1956. Retrieved 2014-02-15. 
  9. ^ a b c Holden, Stephen (July 26, 1996). "Critic's Choice / Film: Erotic Fantasies, 50's Style". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-15. 
  10. ^ "Picnic". 2007. Archived from the original on 2007-12-12. Retrieved 2014-02-15. The DVD greatly benefits from a mid-'90s film restoration project that saw Picnic back on the big screen in art houses across the country. 
  11. ^ "NY Times: Picnic". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-22. 
  12. ^ <span />''The Billboard Book of Number Two Singles''. Watson-Guptill, 2000. Retrieved 2014-02-15. 
  13. ^ "Urban Legends Reference Pages: Business (Subliminal Advertising)". The Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 2006-08-11. 

External links

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