When the screen adaptation of a 1950s Pulitzer Prize winning play was more or less plagiarised a decade later by a film which used the same cinematographer, it highlighted how similar visual syntax can convey almost completely different meanings. Mark Fraser explains.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
Aside from its nostalgic appeal as a piece of good old fashioned 1950s widescreen Hollywood adult entertainment, one of the things Joshua Logan’s Picnic (1955) will always be remembered for is its final God shot.
Whether the movie can lay claim to having the first major aerial pullback as its closing moment in American cinema may be a moot point. But there can be no doubt that, after its official US release in February 1956, it was one of the most stunning examples of its kind.
Filmed in CinemaScope by legendary Hollywood cameraman James Wong Howe, Picnic ends on an optimistic note when the beautiful Madge Owens (Kim Novak), the working class trophy belle of a rural Kansas community, throws caution to the wind by running off to join drifter Hal Carter (William Holden), who has just fled to Tulsa by rail following a run in with the town’s law.
After Madge quickly boards a bus to pursue her new beau, Logan – in what is an impressive visual coda – cuts to the God shot of the vehicle as it begins its road trip south before pulling back to include within the frame, from a considerable height and distance, the freight train on which Hal has bummed a ride.
While this triumphant visual flourish perfectly serves the narrative, it is also a welcome ending to a film which, for all intents and purposes, has become pretty dated, involving a story about unbridled sexual desire in which the sexiest things on offer are a muscled Holden wearing no shirt and (for its day at least) some provocative night time dancing on a small riverside dock.
If anything, the closing moment (which arguably should have run a little longer) is one of Picnic’s consolations for those who may feel that this so-called torrid love story – which is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play by William Inge and was adapted for the screen by Daniel Taradash – has become just a bit too tame by 2019’s ever-evolving standards.
This is not to say the movie drags too much; nor is it to infer it has passed its expiry date, despite the fact it obviously comes from a bygone era.
Rather, it is suggesting that – outside of the performances of the principal actors (who are worth looking at) – Howe’s cinematography is a key reason for the film’s sometimes brittle longevity.
Within his CinemaScope compositions, one sees the open Kansas wheat fields and the massive grain silos scattered across their landscape, as well as feel the summer evening ambience of a small town Labour Day holiday festival, during which a significant part of the unfolding melodrama takes place.
If anything Picnic’s closing vista, with its reaffirming sense of escape and renewal, helps consolidate one of the story’s key themes – that wealth does not necessarily equate to freedom and happiness.
The film starts with the arrival of Hal, a drifter cum hobo with an obvious chip on his shoulder, who has hitched a lift to town on an empty freight carriage to see if his old college buddy Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) can land him a job in his father’s (Raymond Bailey) wheat-related elevator business.
Before embarking on this task, though, he manages to convince local resident Helen Potts (Verna Felton) to let him do some garden chores for a little money. When she offers to wash his shirt, Hal obliges, revealing a smooth, tanned, muscular upper torso that sends most of the women he meets into heat.
Not immediately falling for this new man in town, though, are Madge’s younger sister Millie (Susan Strasberg), who later becomes attached to him during the course of the day, and her boarding house proprietor mother Flo (Betty Field), whose plan is to get her eldest daughter to marry the eligible (and cash-strapped) Alan.
Also in the mix is Rosemary Sidney (Rosalind Russell), an uptight spinster and local school teacher living with the Owens. After a few slugs of booze provided by her middle-aged suitor Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell), her façade of respectability collapses into a bitter heap when she starts making embarrassing moves on the handsome stranger who, by this stage of proceedings, has his eyes firmly set on Madge.
Not surprisingly, a heady mix of sexual tension, alcohol and resentment all leads to big problems for Hal who, in the space of less than 24 hours, has fallen in love with his best friend’s girl, discovered the only work the Bensons will offer him is shovelling grain, as well as run afoul of the local police. His friendship with Alan also comes unstuck when his erstwhile mate gives him the angry you-always-were-a-loser-at-college speech; their falling out later intensifying during a showdown at the Benson mansion. Needless to say, Hal’s day with these country folk ends up being no picnic.
Nevertheless, for the first time in his life, he emerges triumphant after winning Madge over. The fact he has absolutely nothing to offer her (except himself) doesn’t matter. For this couple the future is elsewhere and they seek it accordingly, disappearing into the movie’s closing shot as they flee the town and its array of rural denizens.
Interestingly, there are a number of thematic coincidences between Picnic and a similar Hollywood movie made over a decade later which also involves the camerawork of Howe.
The film is Sydney Pollack’s This Property is Condemned (1966), which is based on a 1946 two-person one act play by Tennessee Williams, and was converted into a full blown close-to-two-hour movie on the back of a significantly expanded script by Francis Coppola, Fred Coe and Edith Sommer.
Although Williams’ original stage version revolves around an exchange of extended dialogue between two youngsters to tell the story of a depression-era boarding house in small town Mississippi that operates like a brothel, the Pollack movie broadens its narrative by lifting a number of dramatic elements from Picnic.
In a plot development echoing that of the Logan film, This Property is Condemned has a handsome bachelor arriving in town by train (this time on official business) and becoming romantically involved with the oldest daughter of a boarding house proprietor.
Like Hal, Owen Legate (Robert Redford) comes across two sisters – the younger and precocious Willie Starr (Mary Badham), who is one of the play’s original characters, and the older Alva (Natalie Wood), with whom all of the men in the area are armoured with.
They live in the local boarding house run by their mother Hazel (Kate Reid), whose determination to unload her eldest sibling upon the rich Mr Johnson from Memphis (John Harding) with the hope he will eventually take care of all of them makes her look like a pimp.
This plan gets knocked on the head, though, when Owen – who is in town on behalf of the railroad company to sack most of the local workforce – and Alva hit it off. Despite some melodramatic hitches, she ends up following him separately to New Orleans with the hope they will start a new life together.
Looking from above
On top of these plot similarities (which strongly suggests Coppola, Coe and Summer studied Inge’s play very carefully before lifting bits from it), This Property is Condemned – as photographed by Howe – also includes an impressive aerial vista, this time of Alva’s train while it crosses the Mississippi River.
As in Picnic, this seems like a moment of pure optimism and renewed hope. Unlike the Logan movie, though, its underlying message is really about self-deception given all of this good feeling completely dissipates in the next act when Alva’s Deep South past eventually catches up with her, circumventing not only a proposed marriage, but pushing her towards an early death.
Thus, the omnipotent aerial point-of-view moment serves at least two purposes – it can reveal new and exciting horizons, or simply just show the bridge which links one lousy set of circumstances to another.
Howe’s God shots, it seems, work in mysterious ways.
Words by Mark Fraser
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Picnic was released Blu-ray in the UK via Eureka Entertainment featuring a 1080p presentation of the film with DTS-HD MA 5.1 or LPCM 2.0 audio options, optional English SDH subtitles, “Kim Novak’s Hollywood Picnic”, an archival interview with the actress conducted by screenwriter and journalist, Stephen Rebello, and a collector s booklet featuring a new essay on the film by Travis Crawford.