The joys of watching ‘Picnic’ for the umpteenth time

We all have that movie that gets us every time.

The one we can’t stop watching no matter how many times we’ve seen it.

The one we own on DVD or have in a streaming queue, but don’t think twice about watching it when it pops up on TV.

It’s so irresistible that we don’t even know how many times we’ve watched it. Ten times? Twenty? No, we’ll have to go with “umpteen” times. And the best part is that during every one of those umpteen times, we still laugh or cry or fall in love all over again. It’s something to be celebrated and that’s what we’re doing with the aptly titled “The Umpteenth Blogathon” hosted by Theresa Brown of “CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch.”

Like many of you, I have a few films that fit into this category. I melt at the music and romance of “Laura” and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.” I revel in the ghostly poetry of “The Uninvited.” Even with my fear of spiders, I’m there for “Tarantula.” I watch each of those films every chance I get and yes, I own copies of them, too.

But there is one film above all that has the biggest pull on me – one with a train horn that might as well be a dog whistle since I come, sit and stay for another viewing of “Picnic.”

OK, that’s not why I keep watching “Picnic” of course – that would be for the sheer beauty of William Holden and Kim Novak (and to watch that romantic dance again and again). But I still remember that sound from the first time I saw the film as a kid.

The train at the opening of “Picnic” brings a handsome stranger and the promise of adventure.

It was time for the Sunday afternoon TV movie, a weekly ritual I watched whether I knew the “old” movie it was showing or not. I didn’t know anything about “Picnic,” but it had my attention as soon as the iconic Columbia Pictures logo appeared with the unexpected sound of the train whistle.

It signaled that we were going on a journey and as a kid living in a city neighborhood, trains brought romanticized thoughts of travel to faraway places. Then William Holden jumped out of a freight car and, despite his dirty face and bare feet, I was a goner.

By the end of “Picnic,” I had fallen in love with the film’s romance and nostalgia. (As well as Holden and Novak.) I yearned for that bygone era of 1955 Kansas that I had never experienced with its porch swings, picket fences and a community picnic where people wore their Sunday best. It was a place where there was a “prettiest girl in town” (that would be Madge, played by Novak) and the arrival of a handsome stranger was news.

And I learned that a dance could be truly life changing.

The romantic dance between Hal (William Holden) and Madge (Kim Novak) is an iconic moment in film history.

Shot in Technicolor and Cinemascope, it’s gorgeous to look at. And the score by George Duning – especially the main “Picnic” theme – is swoon worthy. (I’m hearing it in my head right now and I’m sighing.)

What I didn’t understand at the time – but have appreciated in the umpteen viewings since – is that the slice of heaven in small-town Kansas was filled with as much longing, broken hearts and disappointment as anywhere else. With each viewing, I am drawn deeper into the characters, who all live lives of quiet desperation.

Drifter Hal Carter (Holden) rides into town on that freight train to find a job through his old college buddy Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), whose dad owns grain elevators.

Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton) realizes Hal (William Holden) is hungry and feeds him cherry pie for breakfast in “Picnic.”

But in a scant 24 hours on Labor Day, the boisterous but vulnerable Hal upends the lives of seven townsfolk as well as his own. There’s the sweet Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton), who feeds the hungry Hal pie for breakfast in exchange for doing some chores. Her neighbors are Mrs. Owens (Betty Field) and her daughters Madge (Kim Novak) and Millie (Susan Strasberg), plus their boarder, schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney (Rosaline Russell). Also around are Rosemary’s unappreciated beau Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell), and Alan, who “visits” with Madge.

As Hal meets each of them, their reactions are distinct. He’s welcomed with open arms by dear Mrs. Potts but with hostility by the cautious Mrs. Owens who sees him as the same type of man as the husband who abandoned her. Both Madge and Millie (with her schoolgirl crush), fall for him. Rosemary, who tries valiantly to hide her loneliness, sees him as everything she will never have and will lash out. Alan, who understands that Hal’s swagger comes from his rough upbringing, still loses patience especially as he watches Madge fall for him. (“Same old Hal,” he angrily says at one point.)

Alan (Cliff Robertson), left, introduces Hal (William Holden) to schoolteacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) right before Labor Day festivities in “Picnic.”

By that afternoon at the big Labor Day picnic, emotions erupt, decisions are made and lives are forever changed.

As the years go by, I’ve found a deeper respect for “Picnic” beyond the romance and nostalgia. While I love Hal and Madge and their newfound love, I feel for everyone in the film (even the crying baby who keeps popping up during the picnic scenes).

The characters are all more than they appear on the surface. As the layers are peeled away, our feelings evolve for them even when they’re at their worst. Credit the writing in William Inge’s original Pulitzer Prize-winning play and the screenplay by Daniel Taradash, as well as the outstanding performances by all. (O’Connell, the only actor to have also appeared in the play, was nominated for an Oscar.)

Hal (William Holden) affectionately hugs Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton) after she tells him she’s going to the picnic. Alan (Cliff Robertson) and Millie (Susan Strasberg) look on in “Picnic.”

With each viewing, I get more emotional about Mrs. Potts. I wish she had a different life than just caring for others, including her invalid mother, and never thinking of her own happiness. My heart tugs in the scene where they are preparing for the picnic and she tells each person that she’s “going too.” Going to the picnic is the highlight of her year. Her friends are her true family and that’s never more apparent than when she tells Mrs. Owens that watching her girls grow up helped her “get through.”

[To learn more about Verna Felton, read my story for the “What a Character” blogathon.]

I feel the desperation of Mrs. Owens who wants Madge to marry Alan so she never wants for anything, and I can understand her misguided fear of Hal. Poor Rosemary may jokingly refer to herself as an “old maid schoolteacher,” but it’s as if she’s saying it before anyone else can.

Madge (Kim Novak), left, and her mother (Betty Field) disagree over love and life in “Picnic,” but they do love each other.

Sisters Madge and Millie, separated in age by a few years, want to be more like each other. Madge is tired of just being pretty, while Millie wants to be seen for more than her smarts. “All I hear is poor Millie,” Madge says. Millie’s repeated cry of “Madge is the pretty one” will change in emotional tone as the movie progresses.

The men also have their own challenges. Though Alan comes from a well-to-do family and seems to have it all, he feels he can never please his father. Hal’s braggadocio is used to hide his pain which we see when he opens up to Madge. “I gotta get somewhere in this world. I just gotta.”

But enough with the sadness! “Picnic” is complex, but there is happiness and humor as well and that’s why I watch so often.

* I love to experience that immediate, but quiet spark between Hal and Madge and their stolen glances throughout the movie.

* The film’s modesty makes me chuckle in the scene where the actors are shown only from the knees down as they change bathing suits, but also bothers me when an embarrassed Hal covers his bare chest while working outdoors after a disapproving look from Mrs. Owens.

*Howard’s pride in his one-room apartment above his store – complete with his 21-inch television – is endearing. He’s a good man and a calming presence. O’Connell deserved his Oscar nomination for the role.

The gorgeous pink dress that Kim Novak wears for the picnic scenes in “Picnic.”

* I can’t take my eyes off that pink dress that Madge wears to the picnic, much to her mother’s chagrin. It’s lovely and innocent, yet sexy, too. (Couldn’t I look like that just once?)

*Finally, but always at the top of the list for watching “Picnic,” is that iconic dance scene. The one where “Moonglow” morphs into the “Picnic” theme as Hal and Madge – in that pink dress – dance under the moonlight. (OK, everyone at the same time: “big sigh.”) It’s just a few blissful moments, cut short by bitterness, but it never loses its beauty.

Neither does “Picnic.”

The train whistle opening the film now acts as a signal for everything that is to come and I can never get enough of any of it: Beautiful Kim Novak and handsome William Holden; their blossoming romance; a dance of a lifetime; the nostalgia for a time and place I’ll never know; the hope for a better life, and all the wonderfully complicated people in this small Kansas town.

Yes, I’m ready to watch “Picnic” again for the umpteenth time.

To read more

Follow this link to see what other movies people keep watching for the umpteenth time in the “Umpteenth Blogathon.”

6 thoughts on “The joys of watching ‘Picnic’ for the umpteenth time”

  1. What a lovely post. You truly capture everything about why we movie lovers can watch a particular move over and over again. Something more than just the surface story always speaks to us, and we kind of write our own feelings over it. Oh, and that dance – well, that would bring anyone back more than umpteen times!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for saying such nice things. I’m happy that I was able to articulate my feelings in a way that a reader could touch a reader. Please share a movie you’ve also watched for the umpteenth time! Toni

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been thinking lately that it has been too long since I last watched Picnic. Your clear-eyed insights into the characters and their stories have definitely convinced me not to let more time pass before revisiting.

    Note: My parents’ “song” was Moonglow/Theme from Picnic.

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  3. I love this movie. However, my wife does not…so much so that her epic rant about it led to a tongue-in-cheek series on my blog called “Classic Movies My Wife Hates.”

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  4. I’m with you, Toni. I love every second of Picnic and every word of your post which so beautifully outlines the many emotional facets of this movie.

    “I love to experience that immediate, but quiet spark between Hal and Madge and their stolen glances throughout the movie.”

    YES! I could never understand why Flo was disappointed when Madge came down the stairs in her pink dress…too simple, maybe, and not fitting for a “queen”? I thought it was perfect, and apparently, so did Jean Louis 😉

    Also, I’d like to invite you to a blogathon I’m hosting in honor of Kim Novak’s 89th Birthday. Would love to have you join us! Here’s the link if you’re interested:

    https://theclassicmoviemuse.wordpress.com/2022/01/04/announcing-the-kim-novak-blogathon-an-89th-birthday-celebration/

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