What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this piece are those of Mrs. J-Dub and do not necessarily reflect those of J-Dub, Dubsism, or anybody else to whom you might want to send hate mail.
We came to this movie as a result of the first film Blog-A-Thon in which I participated. The subject of said Blog-A-Thon was William Holden. I’m quite familiar with a large part of Holden’s filmography; my contributions were Stalag 17 and Network. But “Picnic” proved to be a popular choice amongst my fellow Blog-A-Thoners.
Having never seen it, I grabbed it to my DVR when it popped on TCM not long ago. As the title suggests, Mrs. J-Dub was not a fan. The moment William Holden first appeared on the screen, my wife made a comment which pretty much set the tone for her experience of this film.
“Wait a minute…this guy is a bum who just hopped off a freight train, and yet he’s got perfect hair and a clean shave?” the total number of Mrs. J-Dub eye-rolls laid out by the end of this movie suggests she felt it had some heavy-duty “beleivability” problems, which led to her reasons why she gave it the proverbial “thumbs down.”
The question is…do you agree?
Reason #1) “William Holden’s Character Is A Dick”
Why She Says That: Holden blows into town, almost literally without a shirt on his back. You knew there was going to be a problem when every woman in town is ogling Holden while he is doing yard work bare-chested. You especially knew there was going to be a problem when one of those women was Kim Novak, who was obviously intended to be the prettiest girl in East Tree Stump, Nebraska…or whatever jerk-water burg this town supposes to represent.
Given that set-up, there invariably has to be a pre-existing “love interest.” Conveniently enough, that just so happens to be Holden’s old college buddy, played by Cliff Robertson. Even better, Robertson’s character also happens to be the son of this small town’s really rich guy…because every Hollywood small town has to have a really rich guy. More on that in a bit.
The problem here is Robertson plays the role of an actual old friend; he gives Holden a job, lends him some clothes, and even lets him borrow a car. How does Holden re-pay him? By stealing his girlfriend. Yeah, you can say that it’s apparent that Kim Novak doesn’t love the rich kid, but that’s still a serious “dick” move.
On top of that, even though this movie is made and set in the 1950’s, Holden plays a perfect “millenial” in the sense he doesn’t really want to work; he expects his old buddy to hook him up with an executive management job for which he is completely unqualified. Riding around in empty boxcars is not the “fast track” to being a CEO.
Reason #2) The “Type-Casting” of Raymond Bailey
Why She Says That: This is all about the phenomenon I like to call “Backward Type-Casting.” This happens when you see an actor who played a role in something which became part of this country’s cultural fabric, and even when you see them in something made before their face became associated with an iconic character, that’s all you can see. Even though this movie is made the better part of a decade before “The Beverly Hillbillies,” from the moment Raymond Bailey appears on screen, everybody says “Hey! That’s Mr. Drysdale!”
It makes sense, though. Bailey goes from the aforementioned and required “really rich small-town guy” in “Picnic” to a money-grubbing Beverly Hills banker.
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” has exactly the same problem, because nobody can look at Buddy Ebsen and not see “Jed Clampett.” But that’s for another time.
Reason #3) “Kim Novak’s Mother Is A Self-Serving Bitch”
Why She Says That: Not only does she not care that Kim Novak doesn’t love Cliff Robertson, she more or less tells Novak her duty is to marry Robertson’s money for the sole purpose of elevating Mom’s social status in East Tree Stump.
Then there’s the matter of the “dorky little sister” played by Susan Strasburg. Mom treats her like she has leprosy because she reads way too much Flannery O’Connor and committed the cardinal sin of not being a vapid, statuesque blond good for little other than being some rich guy’s screw toy.
The scene which drives this home is when Novak wishes she were as smart like her kid sister and had a future which involved going to college. “A girl gets to be 20, 21 and then she’s 40” Mom tells her, which was her way of saying “marry the rich kid while he still wants to get into your panties.”
This brings us to another problem. How is that “Mom” looks like a sandbag with a face, and yet she has two improbably gorgeous daughters?
Reason #4) “Cliff Robertson’s Character Is A Pussy”
Why She Says That: Other than Mrs. J-Dub’s proclamation that Susan Strasburg was “way too cute to play the nerdy sister,” this might the statement I agree with most. When Holden steals Novak away from him, Robertson runs back home to “Daddy” and tells the police Holden “stole” the car which was lent to him. As long as this movie plays to bad 1950’s stereotypes, why can’t Robertson show some balls, ball up his fists and re-arrange Holden’s pretty-boy good looks into something that resembles one of those Chinese puzzles?
If he’s not “man enough” to do it himself, he’s loaded. He could easily slip a couple of Franklins to some beefy farm-boys to have them give Holden the ax-handle massage he deserves and chuck his ass off a railroad bridge.
Reason #5) “This Movie Contradicts itself.”
Why She Says That: It’s painfully obvious that “Picnic” is trying to make some pointed social commentary about rural America in the 1950’s; that women were irrelevant unless they were young, good-looking, and not very smart. I’ve already mentioned the first contradiction here; Susan Strasburg is far too good-looking for anybody to believe she’s completely undesirable simply because she’s smart.
Worse yet is while Kim Novak’s character bemoans “only being good enough to be looked at,” she falls for Holden who does nothing but ogle her. At no point in this movie does anybody believe for a minute that Holden is going to change his ways, marry Novak, and raise a family. Holden is going to lose interest in her about thirty seconds after he zips up his fly. You can tell that because every time he talks about her, it’s all about him…his dreams, his past, and his desires. The words “you” or “us” hardly cross his lips, and yet the viewer is supposed to buy the idea this is the greatest romance since “Romeo and Juliet.” Maybe that isn’t such a bad comparison, because this also has a fucked-up ending. More on that in a minute.
But where this movie really gets wrapped around it’s own axle is while it fumbles its way to being a commentary on the objectification of women, nobody figures out it does exactly the same thing to men. William Holden beef-cakes his way through this film, much of it in various states of undress, all while being eye-raped by the town’s women folk.
In other words, Holden’s character gets treated just like Novak’s; like her, he’s physically attractive, put on display, and not very smart. Instead of hopping the next freight train out of town, he really should follow “Mom’s” advice and use his attractiveness to marry upwardly…like by marrying the “dorky” little sister who probably ends up going to Harvard and ending up as a brain surgeon or Nobel Prize-winning research scientist.
Reason #6) “The Ending Is Complete Bullshit”
Why She Says That: The film ends with Holden having to get out of town, so he hops on another empty boxcar. Moments later, Novak defiantly follows him on the bus; the closing scene fades with the bus rolling across the prairie, presumably to wherever Holden went. While it leaves what happens next to the imagination of the viewer, you can tell the idea is you’re supposed to believe this becomes a “happily ever after” story; Novak marries the true love of her life, Holden changes his ways and soon they have a happy home filled with children and the smell of fresh-baked apple pie.
Total and complete bullshit. Novak may have really been in love, but how would she really know. The only other man she had in her life was Cliff Robertson’s character, who was such a milk-toast he couldn’t hoist a hard one if he was chain-gunning Viagra.
Like I already mentioned, it’s not hard to figure out Holden is probably telling Novak he loves her simply as part of getting laid. If that’s true, then a more fitting end for this film would show a post-screwing Novak and Holden in a dingy little apartment somewhere. Holden puts on his clothes and tells her he’s going out to pick up some cigarettes, but he actually hops on another freighter going to God only knows where, never to be seen again. Meanwhile, abandoned and desperate, Novak skulks back to East Tree Stump, except now she’s “damaged goods” because she’s a) knocked up b) has a raging case of “The Clap” or c) all of the above.
Then, you can make the closing line being Mom telling Novak “didn’t I tell you to marry the goddamn rich kid?”
That would have been far more believable.