Note: this is my contribution to the White Elephant Blog-A-Thon, hosted at Lucid Screening.

When I first got my movie assignment for this Blog-A-Thon and googled the title, it got me all giddy. See, the cover (left) makes it look like a dime novel. And, well, I have a weakness for stories in which all the women are beautiful and forever in peril, in which all the men are strong and perpetually shirtless, and where the main protagonists feel uncontrollably attracted to one another. If they actually cost only a dime, my bookcase would be filled with them.

Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955) is, it turns out, just a little more complicated than that. Problem is, I'm not quite sure whether this makes it a worse or a better movie.

I don't usually include plot descriptions in my reviews, partly out of laziness, but also because it usually feels redundant, but as this movie is not exactly well-known, here goes: Hal Carter (William Holden), rugged and strong but kind of a bum, arrives by freight train in one of those stereotypical sleepy little towns in Texas, looking for an old pal from college and, hopefully, a job. Within ten minutes, he loses his shirt and is lusted after by quite a few ladies, including his college friend's girlfriend, Madge (Kim Novak). They all go to a Picnic. Trouble ensues.

To start with the good: this seems like a predictable story, but while the film is cliche-ridden in some ways, I never really was sure what was going to happen next. This is partly because there are many characters, and they're each allowed nice character scenes that have nothing to do with the new stranger in town. On the less positive side, it's also because you don't really feel the attraction between Novak and Holden until a dancing scene halfway through the movie that might have been very exciting then, but seems positively tame now. And was it ever really so sensual? "A Streetcar Named Desire" came out four years before this film, and it had no problems to portray lust for a hunky man a lot more explicitly.

Part of this can be blamed on Novak: while Hitchcock was able to use her blankness to great effect in Vertigo, she's little more than beautiful here. Her character complains about being called pretty all the time, but truth is, there is little more to her character than prettiness combined with some vague sense of dissatisfaction. The other part of the problem is Holden, about whom, come to think of it, the same could be said. Don't get me wrong, I like him a lot as an actor, and he certainly looks good without his shirt on, but he also looks too worn for the part. The character is written as a golden boy on the verge of decline, but Holden was too clearly on the way down already.

All-in-all, I can't say I really liked this movie, but I'm glad I saw it, mostly for one reason: I was fascinated by Rosalind Russell as Rosemary.

In the first scene she's in, she describes herself as "an old-maid schoolteacher" and brags about not needing a man, and I was delighted to find such an independent strong female figure. I should have known better. Having a women being actually proud and *gasp* happy by themselves was obviously too subversive then. Hell, I'm not even sure it's any less subversive now. So obviously, she doesn't just jump bed with him and leave him, no, she gets drunk, then desperately latches onto Holden's character for a dance (he is of course repulsed: what she's about 40, and he only looks 35! What is she thinking?) conveniently ripping his shirt in the process, and by the end of the night she is down on her knees begging a guy she despises to marry her.

Complicating things, Rosalind Russell was a great actress even when allowed to go over the top like she does here, and you can't help feeling for her when she cries desperately, fiercely, that all she wants is to have a good time. But the manic happiness on her character's face as she leaves in a "just married" car at the end of the movie left a sour taste in my mouth, not so much because it shows the director's backwards fifties mentality, but because it reminded me of how little we seem to have evolved past that.

I'm not saying I'm happily single all the time. I'm not saying singlehood is the ultimate state of being. I'm not even saying -some- women should not aspire to marry and have lots and lots of babies (and god, are there lots and lots of babies, and shots of them, at the titular Picnic). And I know it's unreasonable of me to expect a more emancipated view from a movie with a cover like this. I'll even grant that yes, the movie does offer some hope in the form of Madge's sister, an "intellectual" (you can tell because she reads books and sneaks cigarettes) who claims to never want to fall in love. But especially when movies like this seem to offer a glimpse of hope only to cruelly dash it afterwards, it brings out my feminist streak.

Is Picnic worth watching? If you're a fifties nostalgic, definitely. Russell's powerhouse performance is impressive. There are some truly insightful character moments I loved: for instance, Madge's sister feels like she'll never be the pretty one anyway, so she hides behind glasses and a hat in the beginning. Ultimately, though, there is little more than that to recommend it.

Other White Elephants:

- Edward Copeland on Bio-Dome
- Tuwa revisits one of my favorite guilty pleasures: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
- Flickhead looks at Teen Witch
and many more can be found here. The movie I recommended doesn't seem to have a review yet...hopefully it will surface along the way.

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