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I was watching the film Picnic (1955) the other day which stars William Holden, Kim Novak, Rosalind Russell, Arthur O’Connell, Cliff Robertson and others. It’s one of my favorites. For those who haven’t seen it, a restored, high-definition version is available and sometimes makes the rounds on Turner Classic Movies. The story, for those unfamiliar with it, takes place in a rural community smack dab in the middle of what we now call flyover country. It was shot in various locations in Kansas, and centers around the arrival of, Hal Carter, played by William Holden, a star college school football player who comes in search of his college roommate looking for a chance to start again after a series of missteps and trouble with the law after college in the wider world beyond.
Holden’s Hal Carter, is a restless spirit, frustrated and angry at times, lost, but occasionally exhibiting a self-deprecating sense of humor, recognizing his own shortcomings. He has the idea that he can become successful if he’s just given a chance, but also has the naïve notion that perhaps he can also do so by skipping a few steps. Before looking up his old friend, Alan Benson, played by Cliff Robertson, the wealthy son of the wealthiest agribusiness owner in the town, Hal has a chance encounter with Benson’s girlfriend, Madge Owens, played by Kim Novak, and is immediately smitten. The contentious love triangle and other sub-themes (or B stories) fill out the plot of the film. One of the other storylines involves an old maid schoolteacher, played by Rosalind Russell, in arguably the best role of her career. Her desperation for marriage shifts into high gear and becomes hysterical and then delusional (helped a bit by several snorts of rye whiskey) from Howard Bevans, played by Arthur O’Connell who is fearful of losing the independence of his prolonged bachelorhood.
The many messages about life, love, and the restless American spirit that Inge’s play explores, and the amazing performances by the actors, are worth exploring further. But what struck me on this most recent viewing of the film is the lengthy sequence, montage really, around the festivities of the rural community’s Labor Day picnic, using hundreds of locals from Halstead, Kansas who are engaged in a series of races, sing-alongs, talent contests, pie-eating contests, complemented with crying babies and tired folks fanning themselves in the hot sun while watching a musical group on stage. The picnic sequence, for the most part, documents an actual picnic with only the narrative of the film framing it on either end. It’s a chronicle that gives us a glimpse of the community’s personalities and dynamics in an America perhaps quickly receding from our public consciousness and seen now from the perspective of Americans today in communities still reeling or still contending with COVID lockdowns, irrational mask mandates, hysteria, confrontation, public friction, riots, shaming by elected leaders (mayors and governors), accusations, and purported victimization by imagined oppressors. For those of us who experienced something akin to what the picnic scene in the film depicts, it beckons to us. For those too young or too sheltered to have witnessed something akin to what is shown, how much poorer are their lives and how much emptier their future?