Tag Archives: Kim Novak

William Holden Blogathon–“Picnic” (1955)

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“I gotta get somewhere in this world. I just gotta.” -Hal Carter, Picnic.

And so sums up William Holden’s character in Picnic.  I’ve written about this film previously in this blog, but I thought that this time I would focus on William Holden and his character in the film.  Holden thought that he was miscast in this film and in many ways, he is right.  Hal is clearly supposed to be in his early to mid-twenties, as he’s a college classmate of Alan Benson’s (Cliff Robertson).  Holden himself was 37 and looked every bit of it.  From an age perspective, Holden is right.  He is too old.  However, from a personality standpoint, he is perfectly cast.

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Who cares how old he is supposed to be in this film? Hubba Hubba!

Holden made his screen debut in 1939’s Golden Boy, co-starring Barbara Stanwyck.  Holden was nervous and ill at ease and it was affecting his performance.  Columbia Studios bosses were unhappy with his performance and were on the verge of firing him.  Stanwyck, then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, employed her star power and demanded that Holden remain in the film.  She coached him and helped him get through the filming of Golden Boy.  While Holden’s “green-ness” shows in this film, he’s not terrible (that honor goes to Lee J. Cobb, then 27, who was inexplicably cast as 21 year old William Holden’s father.  Cobb is horrible and very annoying in this film).  While Holden got steady work, it would take eleven years to finally “make it” and be a big star.

In 1950, Holden won the leading role in Sunset Blvd.  As “down on his luck” screenwriter, Joe Gillis, Holden developed his signature brand of cynicism, world weariness, but an overall good guy.  He would play this character in most of his films from here on out.  One of the best applications of “The William Holden” persona is his portrayal of Hal Carter in Picnic. A film in which, like I mentioned earlier, Holden felt he was miscast.  Yes, age-wise, Holden is too old.  He knows it and the audience knows it.  But personality-wise, Holden is perfect as Hal Carter.

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In Picnic, Hal Carter is a drifter who winds up in Kansas in hopes to reacquaint with an old college friend, Alan Benson.  Hal is unemployed and has jumped from job to job and city to city since dropping out of college.  He is trying to get his life back together and hopes that Alan will give him some sort of job.  Alan’s family owns a large grain mill and Alan promises Hal a job scooping wheat.  This job is not exactly what Hal has in mind–he wanted to be an executive.  Hal ends up meeting and falling for Madge Owens (Kim Novak), a 19 year old woman who is known to be one of the prettiest “girls” in the area.  But, oops! Madge is already involved with Alan.  This will drive a wedge between Hal and Alan.

Hal is just trying to find a niche for himself in a community where he can thrive.  He is tired of the drifting lifestyle and just wants to fit in somewhere.   From Hal’s expository dialogue, we learn that he is responsible for his previous failures.  Alan, believing that Hal is sincere in getting his life together, invites him to the town’s annual Labor Day Picnic.  At first, everything’s going great and Hal is charming everyone.  After Alan senses that Hal may have his sights set on his girlfriend, Madge (and Madge has her sights set on Hal), Alan begins giving Hal the cold shoulder.

Madge is facing a similar situation to Hal.  She is known for being beautiful and that’s it.  Her mother and boyfriend think that Madge can skate by on her looks and nothing matters except for her to “be pretty.”  It is apparent that Madge’s mother, Florence, wants Madge to use her beauty to land a boyfriend with a high social standing, so that by proxy, the Owens women (Madge, sister Millie, and mother “Flo”) will have high social standings as well.  It is apparent that Alan is really only interested in Madge so that he can have a pretty trophy on his arm.  Nobody takes Madge seriously because it is assumed that someone so beautiful couldn’t have any problems, right? Hal on the other hand, has made so many previous mistakes in his life, that his sincere actions are dismissed by others, thinking that he’s just a ne’er do well bum.  Both Madge and Hal are trapped by other people’s perceptions and expectations (or lack thereof) of them.

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Madge (Kim Novak)

Holden incorporates a raw sensuality and a brashness into Hal that is in direct contrast to Novak’s Madge who exhibits an uneasy and inhibited sensuality.  Hal knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to speak up.  Madge on the other hand, is conflicted.  For her entire life, she’s had people telling her what to do.  Finally, she finds herself feeling something for a man whom is the complete opposite of anyone she’s ever known.  Her mother doesn’t approve.  Her boyfriend doesn’t approve (well obviously I guess), not because he loves her, but because she’d look good on his arm.  Rosemary (Rosalind Russell), a boarder at the Owens’ home, goes off on Hal–not because she doesn’t like him, but because she resented him falling for younger Madge and not her middle aged self.  Rosemary is having her own personal crisis.  She is worried that she’s getting old and that she’ll be a spinster her whole life.  The only characters in the film who like Hal are: Millie (Susan Strasberg), Howard (Arthur O’Connell) and elderly neighbor Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton).

A powerful moment in the film is when Hal returns to the Owens home the day after the picnic (and a day after his and Madge’s rendezvous at the river bank) and makes one last plea for Madge to run away with him.  He proclaims his love for her and she realizes that she feels the same for him–so does Hal.  He yells “you love me! you love me!” repeatedly to Madge as he departs for the train.  Their feelings for one another are so expertly depicted in the now classic “Moonglow” dance–one of the sexiest scenes in film.  No words. No nudity. Nothing explicit–yet Hal and Madge’s feelings for one another are so explicit during the dance.  The sexual tension had already been building in the scenes preceding the dance and it explodes during the first moments when Madge hijacks sister Millie’s (more innocent) dance with Hal.

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“Moonglow,” one of the sexiest dances in film and a pivotal moment for the two characters in the story.

Holden was uneasy with the idea of dancing on screen.  Holden demanded $8,000 “stunt pay” to do the dance scene.  He figured the studio would balk and replace him with a dance double.  Well, that backfired.  The studio ponied up the money and Holden was on the hook to perform the dance. The director tried having Holden and Novak, with a few drinks in them, practice dancing to music from jukeboxes in the local bars, but they were too awkward and the end result was not sexy.  When it came time to shoot, Holden was allowed to have a few drinks beforehand.  The camera work was set up in a way to allow the stars to do minimal movement.  The camera would move around Holden and Novak on a dolly.  A bunch of lights were also added to change colors as the stars moved around which added visual interest to the screen.  Whatever hang ups and issues there were and whatever workarounds the crew had to incorporate in order to complete this scene worked, because the end result is gorgeous.  With each swivel of the hip, the audience can watch Holden and Novak slowly fall for one another.  This is where the audience begins to root for Holden and Novak to end up together.

Holden was able to so effortlessly bring sexiness, charm, humor, but at the same time, common sense and cynicism to his parts, that it really made him feel like an everyday person.  He lacked pretension.  You don’t feel like he’s putting on any type of facade.  He’s a “what you see is what you get” type of person.  He isn’t a distinct persona like Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do a “William Holden impression.”  But that’s not to say he’s lacking in any personality.  It’s just that he’s so approachable and real.  He isn’t larger than life.  While I like Grant, Bogart and Cagney, I find Holden’s realism refreshing and enjoyable.  Whereas, someone like Marlon Brando (to me), always seems like he’s using a shtick (don’t get me wrong, he’s excellent in On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire), he’s a bit too intense.  Holden seems like a guy you could go out for a beer with and not feel intimidated or nervous that you wouldn’t have anything to say to him.  He (and his characters) is a real person.

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This looks like the cover of a trashy romance novel

To use the words of Madge to describe Hal, and in effect, describe an audience’s view of Holden himself:

“You don’t love someone because he’s perfect.”

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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).

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(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.

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(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.