Kansas born playwright William Inge penned several notable plays about Middle America that became critical Broadway successes and cinematic box office draws during the 1950s and early 1960s. The oft remembered adaptation is Kazan‘s Splendor in the Grass (1961) with Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Based on his biography, one could mention Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) with Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth, or Bus Stop (1956) with Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray. For the subject of this post, I will be reviewing Picnic (1955) and relating themes of pressured youth and weaponry of sexual allure.
Suspending disbelief of William Holden‘s true middle age of 37, audiences met 25 year old Hal Carter riding the rails as a hobo stopping at Nickerson, Kansas. Hal’s objective is to secure a job using his college friendship with Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) who happens to be the son of a wealthy grain tycoon. Hal has the glory days of college sports to call upon with Benson’s industrious father to ennoble a sense of belonging based on masculine success. It is enough to open possibilities of working in Benson’s wheat plant, but lacking in propelling Hal into an office role over a day labor’s spot. Alan, no matter his topical generosity, will not cede too much of his inheritance and class cache to elevate Hal. Moreover, Alan stifles his range of goodwill when Hal mentions the unparalleled Madge, Alan’s Apollonian girlfriend, before Alan had introduced the two. The knowingness of Madge by Hal blindsides and unsettles Alan. Abstractly, Alan can wistfully imagine and covet Hal’s female rendezvous; however, “his” Madge must not be defiled or intercepted. Madge signifies a best-of-beauty which Alan knows his father’s admires the top candidate in any field. Madge is no longer a person, but a trophy to ingratiate acceptance from his father.
On the female front, the Owen’s boarding house has a lodger Miss Rosemary Sydney whose presence unleashes a profound fear in the matriarch Flo Owens. Flo must ensure that her gorgeous daughter Madge not lose her opportunity with the wealthy suitor. The unfounded belief Flo holds is that should Alan and Madge not marry, Madge will wither away as a desperate spinster like Rosemary. Alas, the unwed teacher Rosemary is not the only older female without a male example in Flo’s circle. With woeful bias, Flo neglects Madge’s other internal qualities to harp upon her beauty unabashedly adorning her in fine frocks. The mother and daughter conversation proceeds awkwardly as Flo investigates what Madge has physically shared with Alan. Despite Madge’s discomfort, Flo pushes her daughter to be open with doing more like a sad pimp. Madge carries for Flo the lost promise of her own life. While Flo’s second daughter Millie is associated with her husband’s abandonment time period, and as a consequence, bookish and college bound Millie is overlooked. Millie does feel the pang of not being as desirable as her sister, yet fails to realize this might save her from the same fate as most women in the town.
Alluded to near the start, when Hal and Madge inhabit the camera screen together, the sexual energy is electric and bursting. Madge holds Hal’s stare with equal curiosity and openness which is absent in her dealings with Alan with whom she attempts to escape his pawing hands. The adults may be dressing the stage for Madge to be crowned Miss Neewollah at the picnic cuing a proposal from Alan, but Madge’s heart is not following the melody.
Of particular note, the character of Miss Rosemary Sydney is a quiet tragedy even as she forces her latest beau Howard to substantiate her honor through marriage. Nostalgic and mentally miles away from her date Howard, Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) gazes upon the blazing sunset and poetically speaks to the sun’s attempt to ‘set the world on fire to keep the night from coming on.’ Rosemary is fighting against ageism with the few kernels of youthful vigor and dignity left. Howard fails to understand her meaning being content with a warm bodied companion on the bleacher seats. Rosemary brims with regret and hurt, and instead recounts boisterously tales of dalliances with younger beaus. Madge’s beauty and attention drives Rosemary to outrage and outlandish behavior with Hal at the picnic. Her acting is intense and filled with cornered rage that can feel out of place until the viewer considers the sorrow carried by these women, Flo, Rosemary, and the neighbor Miss Potts. The men bluster and fail leaving a wake of women to endure with scraps of pride until death.
Sexual power and attraction exuded by Hal overwhelms Flo’s mission and fabricated norms in the Kansas town. The joy of pleasure and connection is wretched away from the lovers just as Splendor in the Grass‘s (1961) Wilma (Natalie Wood) and Bud’s (Warren Beatty) romantic love is defeated by meddling adults. The young generation are not allowed to make mistakes and invariably repeat the same misadventures of their parents as a result. The misery coexists.
An important edit made to the film not found in the original play is that Madge does not chase Hal to a doomed end, but stays in town facing the taunts and insults of her male peers daily as she continues to work at the five and dime store. The director Joshua Logan insisted that William Inge modify the conclusion to reduce the depressive factor of the conclusion. Inge begrudgingly complied. As remembered by Rosalind Russel, about William Inge’s mother’s boarding house for several female teachers “in his [William Inge] own words: ‘I saw their attempts and, even as a child, I sensed every woman’s failure. I began to sense the sorrow and the emptiness in their lives, and it touched me.’ The women soldier onward even as they are made to feel irrelevant.