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"From the moment he hit town she knew it was just a matter of time."
Tag line for Picnic
William Holden worked against type to play the sex-charged drifter Hal whobrings new life to the women of a small, stifling town in Kansas in the1955 screen version of Picnic. Though some critics carped that the37-year-old actor was not young enough for the role -- or for the play'ssexual shenanigans -- he proved them wrong, establishing himself as a majorsex symbol with his performance and rising to the top of the year's annualbox-office polls.
Picnic had first set pulses racing in 1953 on Broadway, where it wona Pulitzer Prize for playwright William Inge and a Tony for director JoshuaLogan. Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn picked up the film rights and,hoping to make the film a critical hit as well as a popular one, askedLogan to undertake his first solo directing assignment. Logan had workedin Hollywood in the '30s as a dialogue director, then shared a directingcredit with Arthur Ripley on the 1938 thriller I Met My Love Again.Unhappy in Hollywood, he returned to Broadway, scoring a series of stagehits, including Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific and Mr.Roberts.
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. At the time, he was coming off a string ofhits including Sabrina (1954), with Audrey Hepburn, and The CountryGirl (1954), with Grace Kelly, and his going rate as a free-lance actor was$250,000 per picture. Nonetheless, he was happy to finish his contractwith such a prestigious project. He only balked at two things, the dancescene and the requirement that he strip to the waist for several scenes,complaining, "I'm too damned old and too conservative to do a striptease."But he was also too professional to let the production down, so he wentback to the gym so he would be in good shape for the role and even consentedto shaving his chest to conform to current standards of masculinebeauty.
Logan asked Arthur O'Connell to re-create his stage performance asshopkeeper Howard Bevans, which would launch him on a long career as one ofHollywood's top character actors. Susan Strasberg had just scored aBroadway hit in The Diary of Anne Frank, which led to her screendebut as a small-town tomboy in Picnic. Also earning his firstbig-screen credit was Cliff Robertson as the college buddy who loses hisfiance to Hal. The role's originator, Paul Newman, was unavailable as hewas just starting his rise to stardom at Warner Bros. For the flashysupporting role of Rosemary, the aging schoolteacher driven to a drunkenfrenzy by Hal's presence, Logan wanted to cast his friend Rosalind Russell,but was afraid she'd balk at taking the lesser role. When he called herand asked, "Would you like to do Pic...?" she said yes before he couldfinish the sentence.
Casting the female lead was much harder. Madge is a small-town beautyqueen with a heart, a role requiring an actress who could be both sexy andemotionally responsive. Janice Rule had played the role on stage, butthough Logan tested her repeatedly, they couldn't capture her beauty andsex appeal on film. He also tested the young Carroll Baker, but she wastoo childlike. Cohn wanted the studio's resident blonde bombshell, KimNovak, for the role, but though noted for her beauty, she was consideredsomewhat deficient in the acting department. Some stories state that heforced her on Logan. The director would later say that he tested herrepeatedly and finally decided she would be perfect, then had to sell herto producer Fred Kohlmar and writer Daniel Taradash. Reportedly, for oneof her last tests he instructed actor Aldo Ray, who was subbing for Holden,to "get some emotion from her any way you can, short of rape." Shefinally won over the entire production crew, though Logan then shocked Cohnby demanding that her trademark lavender blonde hair be darkened for therole.
Logan also insisted on two weeks of rehearsals at a cost of $20,000 a day.From the start, Novak felt insecure around the high-voltage cast, which ledto her becoming withdrawn and moody. Holden was insecure, too, worriedthat he would look too old next to her. When he tried to get her to loosenup, she shrugged him off. As a result, they barely spoke on the set.Logan's frustrations with her mounted throughout filming. At one point, hereportedly punched her in the stomach to get her to show some emotion onscreen. It must have worked, as many critics were surprised at hereffective dramatic performance.
Most of the picture was filmed on location around Hutchinson, Kansas, whichgave Logan the opportunity to show the Labor Day picnic on screen where ithad only been talked about on stage. In exchange for local color andhundreds of eager extras, however, he and the cast had to deal with harshsummer weather, including a tornado that interrupted one night scene. Healso wanted to show Hal's athletic prowess on screen. One night in thecompany hotel, he asked Holden if he could do any gymnastic tricks, notrealizing the actor was a trained gymnast. Holden handed his drink tosomebody, opened a window and dangled from the ledge -- ten stories abovethe ground. He refused to come in until the director, who was afraid ofheights, actually came to the window and watched him.
The one thing that panicked Holden was the thought of dancing on screen.When he had been forced to dance with Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, hewent on a three-day drunk as a way of handling the ordeal. Logan hadchoreographer Miriam Nelson take Holden to the local roadhouses, where hecould get drunk while dancing to the jukeboxes. The director thought he'dsolved the problem, but just as they started to film the dance on location,the set was hit with a hailstorm. They ended up having to shoot the sceneon a Hollywood soundstage. Once back there, Holden demanded stunt pay fordoing the dance. Cohn wrote him a check for $8,000, but the actor stillneeded a few belts in him to face the scene. When Logan finally got somefootage, it was a disaster to rival the hail storm and tornado. As hewould write in his memoirs, "They [Holden and Novak] bobbed about awkwardlylike grade-schoolers." Finally, cinematographer James Wong Howe solvedthe problem by having the lights and camera do the dancing. He placed thecamera on a dolly that allowed it to circle the stars while also swaying upand down. He also set up 50 small, brightly colored spotlights so that thesmallest movements changed the colors on the stars. The result was aclassic scene. Composer George Duning had combined his theme for the filmwith the '30s standard "Moonglow," and the movie made "Moonglow" a hit allover again. After the film came out, a friend wrote Logan that he'doverheard two elderly ladies in a diner listening to the song. One of themsaid, "Isn't that the theme from Picnic?" "I don't know," said theother, "but every time I hear it I want to get laid."
Picnic inspired similar feelings in fans around the country,becoming one of the year's top box-office attractions with $6.3 million inrentals. Released late in 1955, it helped make Holden the top box-officestar of 1956 and paved the way for even greater success. The day hefinished work on the film, Holden shared a drink with Logan and Cohn in thefilm mogul's office. As they sipped their Scotches, Holden informed Cohnthat he would never work for him again, complaining that his small fees atColumbia had averaged out to just $50 a week. Still, Cohn insisted ontoasting Holden's next picture there. A year later, Cohn came calling withanother film, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), that would make Holden amulti-millionaire and an international superstar.
Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Director: Joshua Logan
Screenplay: Daniel Taradash
Based on the Play by William Inge
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Art Direction: William Flannery
Music: George Duning
Cast: William Holden (Hal Carter), Kim Novak (Madge Owens), BettyField (Flo Owens), Susan Strasberg (Millie Owens), Cliff Robertson (AlanBenson), Arthur O'Connell (Howard Bevans), Verna Felton (Helen Potts), RetaShaw (Irma Kronkite), Nick Adams (Bomber), Rosalind Russell (Rosemary).
C-114m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller