Director: Joshua Logan | Producer: Fred Kohlmar | Screenplay: Daniel Taradash | Cinematographer: James Wong Howe | Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1955 | Running Time: 113 or 115 min.
Principal Cast: William Holden, Kim Novak, Betty Field, Arthur O’Connell, Rosalind Russell
In 1953, Picnic was a critically successful play on Broadway, where it won a Pulitzer Prize for playwright William Inge and a Tony for director Joshua Logan. Both Paramount and 20th Century-Fox studios expressed interest in turning the play into a film, but concerns were raised about putting the play’s frank sexual content on screen. Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn purchased the play in September 1953 for between $300,000 and $400,000. After submitting a script to the PCA (Production Code Administration) in November 1954, the studio was cautioned to cut all suggestion that characters Hal and Madge had improper relations after the picnic. The finished film keeps whether Madge and Hal had slept together somewhat ambiguous.
Hoping to re-capture the play’s critical and popular success, Cohn asked the play’s director Joshua Logan, who had worked in Hollywood in the ’30s as a dialogue director, to undertake his first solo directing assignment. Logan brought some radical cast changes to the production, asking only original cast members Arthur O’Connell, Reta Shaw, and Elizabeth Wilson to recreate their characters in the film. One of the casting changes was for the flashy supporting role of Rosemary. Logan wanted to cast his friend Rosalind Russell,but was afraid she’d balk at taking the lesser role, however when he called her and asked, “Would you like to do Pic …?” she said yes before he could finish the sentence.
For the lead role of Madge, Janice Rule who had originated the role on stage, was screen tested repeatedly, but apparently her beauty and sex appeal couldn’t be captured on film. Columbia head Cohn wanted the studio’s resident blonde bombshell, Kim Novak, for the role, but though noted for her beauty, she was considered somewhat deficient in the acting department. Some stories state that she was forced on Logan but the director would later say that after a number of tests, he decided she would be perfect.
When veteran actor William Holden was cast as the sex-charged drifter Hal Carter, some critics felt that the then 37-year-old actor was not young enough for the role (or for the characters sexual shenanigans). He would prove them wrong, and his performance would establish him as a major sex symbol.
Holden was at the end of his Columbia contract when he signed to play Hal. He only owed the studio one more film and had to settle for a paltry$30,000 fee under his contract (his going rate as a free-lance actor was$250,000 per picture). Nonetheless, he was happy to finish his contract with such a prestigious project. Holden did have an issue at the requirement that he strip to the waist for several scenes, complaining, “I’m too damned old and too conservative to do a striptease.”
The other issue for Holden was having to dance during the film’s “Moonglow” scene. After being forced to dance with Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, he went on a three-day drunk to handle the ordeal. This time Holden demanded stunt pay and Columbia wrote him a check for $8,000. To help ease him into the idea, Logan had choreographer Miriam Nelson take Holden to the local roadhouses, where he could get drunk while dancing to the jukeboxes. It didn’t appear to help for when Logan, as he later wrote, finally got some footage, “They [Holden and Novak] bobbed about awkwardly like grade-schoolers.” The problem was eventually solved by cinematographer James Wong Howe having the lights and camera do the dancing. The camera was placed on a dolly that allowed it to circle the stars while also swaying up and down and 50 small, brightly colored spotlights were set-up so that the smallest movements changed the colors on the stars. The resulting scene would go on to become an iconographic film moment.
Harkening back to the world of theater, Logan insisted on two weeks of rehearsals (costing of $20,000 a day) and to maintain authenticity filmed in several Kansas towns, stating “It’s gotta look like Kansas and it will if I have to kill every last one of ya!,” From the start, Novak felt insecure around the high-voltage cast, causing her to be withdrawn and moody. Holden, too, was insecure, worried that he would look too old next to the 22 year-old actress. As a result, they barely spoke on the set. Logan’s frustrations with her mounted throughout filming and at one point, in order to get her to show some emotion onscreen, he reportedly punched her in the stomach.
Filming was interrupted almost daily by hailstorms and “wailing” tornado warnings and the cast and crew were “half-consumed” by “carnivorous” bugs. Several of the actors suffered injuries, for example, Holden suffered a leg gash on a railroad signal light, Novak was stung on the hip by a bee, and Rosalind Russell was “bruised from earlobe to toenail during a wild gambol across a suspension bridge.” A local 70-year-old “spinster” saw her film debut canceled when she broke both legs and several ribs during a fall down an embankment.
Picnic was one of the year’s top box-office attractions earning an estimated $6.3 million. The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Arthur O’Connell), Best Direction and Best Music and the award for Best Art Direction and Best Editing. It would make stars out of Kim Novak and William Holden and is still sometimes cited as a richly detailed snapshot of life in the American Midwest during the 1950s.
William Holden had to shave his chest as it was considered too risque for those times.
Kim Novak appeared in the film as a redhead, a departure from her signature platinum blonde style.
The role of Hal Carter’s room-mate on Broadway had been played by Paul Newman in his Broadway debut; the film part was given to Cliff Robertson as Newman was just starting his rise to stardom at Warner Bros.
The climactic picnic scenes had to be shot on a soundstage due to rainstorms.
Columbia Pictures wanted to promote Rosalind Russell for an Academy Award nomination, but the actress refused to be placed in the “best supporting” category. Many felt she would have won had she cooperated.
In 1957, a marketing investigator, James Vicary, announced that for six weeks he had included subliminal messages in showings of the movie “Picnic.” The messages supposedly said: “Eat Popcorn, Drink Coca-Cola.” According to Vicary, the sales of this products increased from 18 to 57%. Even though his experiment led him to fame, Vicary never gave details of how he realized the experiment; and admitted in a later interview that everything was just a marketing trick.
The last shot is often thought to be the first use of a helicopter shot in a feature movie. It was filmed by Haskell Wexler, James Wong Howe’s assistant. Despite its legend, this was NOT the first movie to feature a helicopter shot. They Live by Night (1949) was an early, if not the very first, film to use it.
For Further Reading:
Variety film review; December 7, 1955, page 8.