January 24, 2012

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The intrepid Twilight Time label continues their line of limited edition Blu-Ray releases with an absolutely gorgeous version of Picnic, Columbia’s romantic smash of 1955-1956. Sold exclusively through on-line retailer Screen Archives, it presents James Wong Howe’s Technicolor cinematography in eye-titillating detail. Based on William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning play from 1953, Picnic is a garishly entertaining melodrama that sets earthy he-man William Holden after prim beauty queen Kim Novak, upending a small Kansas town in the process.

The play,  directed by Joshua Logan, ran for 477 performances, and gave Paul Newman his first big break in a co-starring role alongside Ralph Meeker and Janice Rule. After a bidding frenzy, Columbia Pictures purchased the rights in September, 1953 for around $350,000. Logan, coming off of directing and co-writing the Broadway juggernauts South Pacific (1949) and Fanny (1954), was tapped to direct the movie adaptation, despite his limited screen experience, having only co-directed (with Arthur Ripley) the 1938 Joan Bennett-Henry Fonda drama I Met My Love Again. The screenplay by Daniel Taradash met immediate disapproval by the Production Code Administration, which sought to eliminate any hint that Holden and Novak have pre-marital sex, although the finished film leaves little doubt as to their amorous adventures.

Holden plays Hal, an ex-college football star turned hobo, riding the rails into Kansas to find his rich frat brother Alan (Cliff Robertson). Walking with a tipsy swagger as if he was leaking testosterone, he stumbles past phallic imagery (grain elevators and swinging chutes) into the Owens household, where he immediately enraptures the teenage bookworm Millie (a delightfully snot-nosed Susan Strasberg) and their repressed schoolmarm neighbor Rosemary (a hysterically campy Rosalind Russell). The eldest Owens daughter, Madge (Kim Novak), is expected to marry into Alan’s wealth, but is innately attracted to Hal’s raw, destructive physicality. At the end of a Labor Day picnic, these unspoken attractions burst forth in a torrent of passion and recrimination.

Logan was never comfortable in casting Paul Newman as the lead roustabout Hal, telling him, according to Newman biographer Marian Edelman Borden, that he “did not carry any sexual threat at all”. So the part went to Holden, who at 37 seems miscast as a callow young brute, although his perpetually exposed torso was still toned enough to believably seduce an entire household (was this a template for Pasolini’s Teorema?). Newman’s old stage role of Alan was given to the appropriately starchy Robertson.

Picnic was the beginning of Kim Novak’s major star push from Columbia head Harry Cohn, who depended on James Wong Howe to make her look irresistible. After bowing as a blonde, Cohn wanted to make her a redhead as the discontented Madge, and asked Wong to make some screen-tests of various shades. Picnic, in CinemaScope and Technicolor, is worthwhile viewing for the shifting highlights of this hair alone. Depending on the lighting, it can look Titian red, and then a kind of dark golden blonde, halfway between cinnamon and honey. In one loaded shot, Novak collapses in a new dress, a sobbing puff of blue tulle. This composition, of auburn hair, blue dress, and gray-green eyes, contains the entire chromatic shift of the film, from calm blues and grays to intense, libidinous reds and back again.  This maniacal attention to color detail is part of what attracted the French New Wave to the film. After seeing Picnic, Rivette enthused rather confusingly that Joshua Logan was “Elia Kazan multiplied by Robert Aldrich” (perhaps meaning that Logan merges the realism of Kazan (Picnic was shot on location in Kansas) with moments of pure style (the Aldrich of Kiss Me Deadly)). Truffaut said of Logan, “He is a pure director, a man we know will not be walked on.”

This hypnotic aspect of Novak’s hair is one small example of the film’s mastery of color design. Together with Logan and the production design team led by Jo Mielziner (who deservedly won an Oscar), the film abounds in soft pastels, of a cream and wedgwood blue that adorns the Owens home and the suits of their male admirers. This palette continues through the centerpiece picnic sequence of the film, a bizarre bit pitched between Renoir pastoral, pure Americana corn and small-town Lynchian freak-out, which Jonas Mekas described as “a gaudy display of boobus Americanus.”  Screaming babies, seemingly cast for their old-man sourpusses, are inter-cut with an orgy of fairground games of increasing absurdity. Sack races and pie-eating give way to zombie-like warblers and a  girl-carrying competition. The crowds behind these manic episodes overflow with grays and light-blues, with Novak wearing a cream-colored dress and Russell a light-blue jacket.

The blues get darker in the dusk of day’s end, which is then pricked by irruptions of red. Russell removes the jacket, revealing a blouse of blood-red flowers. These match the bouquet of roses Novak cradles after she wins a beauty contest, sailing downriver in a Queen’s red robe. As these colors set off Novak’s hair, so it initiates a purging of passions, with Russell doing screaming harridan routine, Strasberg puking in a corner, and Novak, ready to embrace her sexuality, enacting a sensuous slow-dance to “Moonglow”, a pantomime of what Logan can’t show on-screen. After this lightfooted pas de deux, which expresses inner states through action, the film starts unloading leaden slabs of exposition, love expressed in words instead of glances.

Reading the images tells a more interesting story. Muted colors return the day after the picnic, with Novak making her climactic decision in a gray-blue jacket, the image of sobriety. The bus she steps onto, however, is streaked with red – pointing towards an uninhibited, uncertain future.

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