Picnic (1955)

In my first post, I lamented blogs being abandoned soon after being started.  I unfortunately temporarily fell victim to that phenomenon, because I didn’t know what to do next.  I wanted to start the blog, but felt overwhelmed.  I decided today (Labor Day) to try and get this thing going.  I thought I’d kick things off with the film I’m watching right now in honor of Labor Day–Picnic (1955).


(I’ve seen this film multiple times and never tire of it)

Picnic opens with star William Holden (Hal Carter) hitching a ride on a freight train headed through a small Kansas town.  He has an acquaintance (and former fraternity brother), Cliff Robertson (Alan Benson) who lives in this town.  Hal, who failed in his latest venture, Hollywood star, is hoping that Alan will set him up with a job at his wealthy father’s grain mill.  After disembarking from the train, Hal ends up meeting Verna Felton (Mrs. Potts), a kind elderly woman who not only dispenses kind advice to the young single mom next door, but she also is her mother’s (!) caretaker.  In exchange for breakfast, Hal offers to help her out with any work she needs done around her home.  Despite her protests (“It’s Labor Day.  Nobody works on Labor Day,” Mrs. Potts tells Hal), Hal insists on completing some yard work for her.  Mrs. Potts is hilarious because on at least two occasions (perhaps even three), she tries to get Hal to take his shirt off.  She succeeds in the first scene when she offers to wash his shirt while he does her yard work.

While Hal is working away in the yard, Susan Strasberg (Millie Owens), a soon to be high school senior, is sitting outside next door, reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.  She is a bookworm, a bit of a tomboy who very much resents being in the shadow of her 19 year-old sister, Kim Novak (Madge Owens).  Madge is considered one of the prettiest girls in town.  Betty Field (Flo Owens) portrays the single mother of the two girls.  It seems that Mr. Owens walked out on the family when Millie was a newborn, so Flo has been on her own for a long time.  Flo’s main goal for her daughters is that Millie will use her academic talents to attend college and Madge will use her beauty (it is alluded to that academics aren’t Madge’s specialty) to snag a rich husband, in this case, the intended target is Madge’s boyfriend, Alan.  Rosalind Russell portrays Rosemary, the local schoolteacher who also rents out a room in the Owens’ home.   She is also depressed because she’s unmarried and is hoping that her longtime beau, Arthur O’Connell (Howard Bevins), will marry her so she can lose the title of spinster.  All these characters end up at the annual Labor Day Picnic, which is where a bulk of the action takes place.

The main conflict in this film:

Flo wants Madge to be more committed to wealthy boyfriend Alan, who is really only interested in Madge because she looks good on his arm.  Madge, it seems isn’t really into Alan, she’s dating him because her mother wants her to.   There is some funny and icky (in the sense that it’s mother and daughter) dialogue between Flo and Madge about her relationship with Alan.

FLO: “If she (a pretty girl) loses her chance when she’s young, she might as well throw all her prettiness away.”
MADGE: “I’m only nineteen.”
FLO: “And next summer you’ll be 20, and then 21, and then 40!”
MADGE: “You don’t have to be morbid.”

Madge then later has to endure this awkward conversation with her mother, where her mother essentially tells her to put out in order to seal the deal with Alan and secure him as a husband:

FLO: “Madge, does Alan ever make love?”
MADGE: “Sometimes we park the car by the river.”
FLO: “Do you let him kiss you? After all, you’ve been going together all summer.”
MADGE: “Of course I let him!”
FLO: “Does…does he ever want to go beyond kissing?”
MADGE: “Oh mom!”
FLO: “Well I’m your mother for heaven’s sake…these things have to be talked about! Do you like it when he kisses you?”
MADGE: “Yes.”
FLO: “You don’t sound very enthusiastic.”
MADGE: “Well, what do you expect me to do? Pass out every time Alan puts his arms around me?”
FLO: “No. You don’t have to pass out. But there won’t be many more opportunities like the picnic tonight, and it seems to me you could at least–”
MADGE: “What?!”

At the picnic, Flo sees that Hal is crushing on Madge and Madge is reciprocating.  Madge and Hal’s attraction to one another is obvious when they dance to “Moonglow” at the picnic.  Flo is worried that Madge’s attraction to Hal will get in the way of Madge’s relationship with Alan which would move her family up on the social ladder.  Flo is also concerned about Hal’s influence on Millie.


(One of the most romantic scenes in film)

Some of the minor conflicts:

2. Millie resents Madge getting all the attention because of her beauty.  On the flip-side, Madge resents that Millie gets attention for being so smart and winning a full ride scholarship to college.

3. Rosemary is jealous that Hal is only paying attention to the younger Madge and not interested in her.

4. Alan is upset with Hal because his former fraternity buddy is obviously hot for his girlfriend.  Alan wants Madge because she would look good on his arm (i.e. “A trophy wife”).  Alan’s father doesn’t approve of Madge because her social standing is much lower then theirs.

All of these conflicts come to head at the annual Labor Day Picnic.

I love this film.  I am a sucker for the overwrought melodramas anyway and Picnic does not fail to deliver.  This film has everything: shirtless William Holden, romantic dancing, a sexy “did they? or didn’t they?” love scene, a drunken breakdown, over-the-top dramatic scenes and much more–everything you’d want in a melodramatic film. It also offers one of the corniest, albeit creepiest, pick up lines in film history:

ALAN (to MADGE): “I want to see if you look real in the moonlight.”

(Alan is obviously hinting to Madge that he wants to seal the deal too).

If you like any of the stars and/or melodramatic films, I highly recommend Picnic.

6 thoughts on “Picnic (1955)

  1. Jan Parker

    I love “Picnic” too. My favourite scene is the dance you mentioned, between Hal and Madge. It’s so apparent that they’re attracted to one another, and the way this is demonstrated, in the “Moonglow” dance, is so sweet and timeless: dancing together ! Thank you for the interesting write-up of this classic movie – always a great choice for Labour Day weekend.


    1. Thanks for your comment! I apologize for the delay in responding. I’m still new to the world of blogging. My favorite scene is the “Moonglow” dance as well. I love the song as well. My favorite character in the film might be Millie, she reminds me a lot of myself. I especially like the scene where she’s (secretly) smoking on the porch and her mother comes out: “Have you been smoking?” Millie expertly changes the subject by greeting Mrs. Potts, “Hi Mrs. Potts!”


  2. Great overview of Picnic. Your plot development uncovered for me an angle I had not previously considered (kudos to you for the illumination). Flo’s stressed attitude coming from conflicts and not just Flo’s personality. Not only is she losing two daughters to maturity (and not necessarily one daughter ensuring financial security in the mix) but the flighty behavior of her boarder, Rosemary, appears to be troubling too. No wonder Flo seems desperate. It’s well worth watching again to see the dynamics of Flo and Madge and how this all figures in. I tended to dismiss Flo’s reactions, thanks for layers in her character to notice.


    1. I’m glad that I could provide another viewpoint! I think the Flo dynamic is more complicated than it appears on the surface. I don’t think she’s merely upset because her daughter has fallen in love with a drifter– I think she’s struggling with all the sudden changes in her home life. I’m sure that life with her two daughters and the loyal Mrs. Potts next door has been simple and peaceful. All of a sudden, she realizes that those years are over– one daughter has graduated from high school and is looking to move on with her future, the other daughter is embarking on her last year in school before she too will be leaving. You just know that Millie is going to attend an out of state college–she is ready for big things and Kansas isn’t going to provide that for her. Even Rosemary, her boarder, wants to move on. Not only is Flo losing out on that income, but she’s basically facing the possibility of living alone in that home, she is being left behind. It also appears that she’s dedicated her whole life to her daughters and perhaps has forgotten to make sure she has a life to return to when she doesn’t need to parent anymore.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah. When I saw Picnic for the first time, I thought “mother?!” I figure that Mrs. Potts has got to be in at least her 70s. But, people tended to look older back then too, so who knows, maybe she was only in her 60s!

      Her mother had to be in at least her late-80s/early 90s. In the film, it implied that Mrs. Potts’ mother was very elderly and was basically an invalid.


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