A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
“What good is it only being pretty?” a 19-year-old girl asks her mother in “Picnic.” “I get tired of only being looked at.” To which her mother can only reply, “What a question!” In Kansas of 1955, being a pretty girl was pretty much a lifestyle in itself, and when Marge (Kim Novak) is crowned Queen of Neewollah (that's Halloween spelled backward), all she can do is clutch the bouquet of roses and promise not to get too conceited.
It's hard to believe that “Picnic” was considered hot stuff in 1955. Clunky and awkward, with inane dialogue, it's a movie to show how attitudes have changed. It's easy to see why '50s audiences responded--William Holden and Kim Novak look great and generate a certain dutiful chemistry--but hard to see how, in a time when the sexual boldness of movies like “A Streetcar Named Desire” was well-known, people could sit through this with a straight face.
The movie, now restored in a handsome new wide-screen print, takes place on a long Labor Day and the night and morning which follow. It begins as Hal Carter (Holden) hops off a freight train and goes looking for his old college roommate Alan (Cliff Robertson). Hal was a football hero, but now he's a bum and needs a job. Alan takes him up atop one of his family's grain elevators, and Hal explains what he has in mind: “A nice little office where I can have a sweet little secretary and talk over the telephone about enterprises and things.” He's promised the job. Meanwhile, he's fallen into the orbit of the Owens family, who run a boarding house. There's mom (Betty Field), the beautiful Madge and her kid sister Millie (Susan Strasberg), who sneaks puffs on cigarettes and is college- bound and has read the same page of her Flannery O'Connor novel so often, it's creased and dog-eared (if we notice things like that, why can't the prop department?).
Mrs. Owens is pushing her daughter's romance with Alan, the rich kid from the right side of town. But then Madge lays eyes on Hal, who first appears to the Owens women while burning trash for kindly ole Mrs. Potts next door. Holden, who spends much of the film stripped to the waist and much of the rest with his shirt torn, stands behind the trash can so that the flames wrinkle the air in front of him, and looks like a Chippendale boy on yard duty.