The image of this DVD looked like the cover of a cheesy romance novel. There was Holden, his shirt ripped and all muscle and there was Novak, all beauty and innocence. The girl can’t help but find this man attractive and this guy just can’t keep his shirt on for an hour. Thus is the rough set up of Picnic.
William Holden plays Hal, a drifter who rides the rails into a small Kansas town looking for an old fraternity friend, Alan (Cliff Robertson). He just so happens to turn up on Labor Day morning, where that evening this town will hold a huge celebration picnic. He stumbles upon the yard of the Owen family. There’s mama Owen (Betty Field), eldest beauty Madge (Kim Novak), younger tomboy Millie (Susan Strasberg) and a schoolteacher who rents a room, Rosemary (Rosalind Russell). Madge is dating Alan, who’s wealthy and runs a mill with his father. But that morning when Madge sees Hal all sweaty and shirtless in the neighbor’s yard- well, you can guess.
Anyway, in the afternoon just before the picnic, everything seems to be perfectly in order: Alan’s going to get Hal a job, Madge might let Alan get past first base and mama’s proud of her girls. But when Rosemary’s boyfriend, Howard (Arthur O’Connell) starts passing around a bottle of whiskey, tensions rise, and reputations are ruined.
The dynamic between the sisters is intriguing and shocking, at least to a 21st century viewer. You see, Millie spends her time reading and not primping herself and therefore is considered the ugly one. She is ugly the same way Tina Fey is, as in not at all. But this is the 1950s where women were just to be looked at. If Millie likes to play basketball in blue jeans and read with glasses on, that is enough to dismiss her as a simply ugly girl. What a shame.
So, we’ve got sisters of brains and beauty, each secretly longing for what the other has. But only Millie can really voice this longing because it’s expected of her Every girl should long to be pretty, right? When Madge realizes she wants to be more than a beauty queen, well, I don’t think she has the intelligence to understand she wants instead. So when Hal notices her, and he’s not like the other guys, maybe that makes her feel like she’s not like the other pretty girls. I say Madge is just a dumb pretty girl in need of constant attention and validation.
But how much more attention could a girl want? When she’s crowned Queen at the Picnic, they literally put her in the swan boat, with a huge bunch of roses and a paper crown and float her down the river where everyone waits and tosses rose pedals. They even do a weird bow/chant thing that made me feel like they were worshiping this girl. Yet, she’s seeking more attention. She wants the bad boy. Those pecks or something made her feel different and now she sees that as a way to be different and special. “I’m so tired of just being told I’m pretty.”
What is the moral of this film? Don’t be afraid to be different? There’s more to life than being pretty? Real satisfaction comes from doing things on your own? I have no idea, but today I interpreted it as let your girls be “ugly” and smart so they can accomplish something in their lives without relying on their beauty like a crutch and then they will not run after trouble making guys in order to validate themselves. What girl watched this movie in 1955 and wanted to be just like Madge?
By the end of this film, I honestly wondered what the rate of unmarried women committing suicide in the 1950s was. In a world where intelligent women don’t have much merit and there were no boob jobs available, I wonder how many mothers really said this:
– “She’ll lose her chance when she’s young. She might as well throw all her prettiness away.”
— “I’m only 19.”
– “And next summer you’ll be 20, then 21. and then 40.”
— “You don’t have to be morbid.”