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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 who brings new life to the women of a small, stifling town in Kansas in the 1955 screen version of Picnic. Though some critics carped that the 37-year-old actor was not young enough for the role -- or for the play's sexual shenanigans -- he proved them wrong, establishing himself as a major sex symbol with his performance and rising to the top of the year's annual box-office polls.
Picnic had first set pulses racing in 1953 on Broadway, where it won a Pulitzer Prize for playwright William Inge and a Tony for director Joshua Logan. 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, asked Logan to undertake his first solo directing assignment. Logan had worked in Hollywood in the '30s as a dialogue director, then shared a directing credit with Arthur Ripley on the 1938 thriller I Met My Love Again. Unhappy in Hollywood, he returned to Broadway, scoring a series of stage hits, 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 of hits including Sabrina (1954), with Audrey Hepburn, and The Country Girl (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 contract with such a prestigious project. He only balked at two things, the dance scene 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 went back to the gym so he would be in good shape for the role and even consented to shaving his chest to conform to current standards of masculine beauty.
Logan asked Arthur O'Connell to re-create his stage performance as shopkeeper Howard Bevans, which would launch him on a long career as one of Hollywood's top character actors. Susan Strasberg had just scored a Broadway hit in The Diary of Anne Frank, which led to her screen debut as a small-town tomboy in Picnic. Also earning his first big-screen credit was Cliff Robertson as the college buddy who loses his fiance to Hal. The role's originator, Paul Newman, was unavailable as he was just starting his rise to stardom at Warner Bros. For the flashy supporting role of Rosemary, the aging schoolteacher driven to a drunken frenzy 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 her and asked, "Would you like to do Pic...?" she said yes before he could finish the sentence.
Casting the female lead was much harder. Madge is a small-town beauty queen with a heart, a role requiring an actress who could be both sexy and emotionally responsive. Janice Rule had played the role on stage, but though Logan tested her repeatedly, they couldn't capture her beauty and sex appeal on film. He also tested the young Carroll Baker, but she was too childlike. Cohn wanted the studio's resident blonde bombshell, Kim Novak, for the role, but though noted for her beauty, she was considered somewhat deficient in the acting department. Some stories state that he forced her on Logan. The director would later say that he tested her repeatedly and finally decided she would be perfect, then had to sell her to producer Fred Kohlmar and writer Daniel Taradash. Reportedly, for one of 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." She finally won over the entire production crew, though Logan then shocked Cohn by demanding that her trademark lavender blonde hair be darkened for the role.
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 led to her becoming withdrawn and moody. Holden was insecure, too, worried that he would look too old next to her. When he tried to get her to loosen up, she shrugged him off. As a result, they barely spoke on the set. Logan's frustrations with her mounted throughout filming. At one point, he reportedly punched her in the stomach to get her to show some emotion on screen. It must have worked, as many critics were surprised at her effective dramatic performance.
Most of the picture was filmed on location around Hutchinson, Kansas, which gave Logan the opportunity to show the Labor Day picnic on screen where it had only been talked about on stage. In exchange for local color and hundreds of eager extras, however, he and the cast had to deal with harsh summer weather, including a tornado that interrupted one night scene. He also wanted to show Hal's athletic prowess on screen. One night in the company hotel, he asked Holden if he could do any gymnastic tricks, not realizing the actor was a trained gymnast. Holden handed his drink to somebody, opened a window and dangled from the ledge -- ten stories above the ground. He refused to come in until the director, who was afraid of heights, 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, he went on a three-day drunk as a way of handling the ordeal. Logan had choreographer Miriam Nelson take Holden to the local roadhouses, where he could get drunk while dancing to the jukeboxes. The director thought he'd solved 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 scene on a Hollywood soundstage. Once back there, Holden demanded stunt pay for doing the dance. Cohn wrote him a check for $8,000, but the actor still needed a few belts in him to face the scene. When Logan finally got some footage, it was a disaster to rival the hail storm and tornado. As he would write in his memoirs, "They [Holden and Novak] bobbed about awkwardly like grade-schoolers." Finally, cinematographer James Wong Howe solved the problem by having the lights and camera do the dancing. He placed the camera on a dolly that allowed it to circle the stars while also swaying up and down. He also set up 50 small, brightly colored spotlights so that the smallest movements changed the colors on the stars. The result was a classic scene. Composer George Duning had combined his theme for the film with the '30s standard "Moonglow," and the movie made "Moonglow" a hit all over again. After the film came out, a friend wrote Logan that he'd overheard two elderly ladies in a diner listening to the song. One of them said, "Isn't that the theme from Picnic?" "I don't know," said the other, "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 in rentals. Released late in 1955, it helped make Holden the top box-office star of 1956 and paved the way for even greater success. The day he finished work on the film, Holden shared a drink with Logan and Cohn in the film mogul's office. As they sipped their Scotches, Holden informed Cohn that he would never work for him again, complaining that his small fees at Columbia had averaged out to just $50 a week. Still, Cohn insisted on toasting Holden's next picture there. A year later, Cohn came calling with another film, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), that would make Holden a multi-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), Betty Field (Flo Owens), Susan Strasberg (Millie Owens), Cliff Robertson (Alan Benson), Arthur O'Connell (Howard Bevans), Verna Felton (Helen Potts), Reta Shaw (Irma Kronkite), Nick Adams (Bomber), Rosalind Russell (Rosemary).
C-114m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller