Before Victorian times, the picnic (“pique”- “nique”/French) was an elaborate entertainment of the wealthy. Picnics probably began as early as the seventeenth century, when hunting became an interest of the leisure class and the hunt was followed by a huge communal meal served alfresco to the hunting party.
Citizen Kane leads a cavalcade of motorcars along the sweeping Florida beach to his Everglades picnic in a classic RKO matte shot sequence. In their tent at the picnic, Kane slaps his wife’s face—and isn’t sorry about it. The audience sees this confrontation but the picnic guests do not and the beach picnic continues uninterrupted off-screen. Obviously, in the movies secrets gain traction when revealed—even better, when exposed—on-screen to trigger social reaction and interaction among the characters.
Victorian picnics crossed class boundaries and picnics of the middle class became increasingly unpretentious. Thus cold fried chicken, beer, and secrets exposed in the great outdoors became hallmarks of Hollywood picnic fare. In 1955 our paradoxical national holiday to honor work while bidding melancholy farewell to summer vacation—Labor Day—proved to be the movie picnic’s bittersweet lightning rod.
In America’s most sexually frustrated small town—because let’s face it Toto, we are in movie Kansas—local beauty queen Madge (Kim Novak) is drawn to handsome drifter Hal (William Holden) at the annual Labor Day Picnic. When the longings of Hal and Madge are made public, they trigger an avalanche of the frustrations of everybody else in town around them. Holiday rituals set dreams and Hal on a collision course. Hal has one hell of a Labor Day…the old lady next door lusts for him doing his yard work for pay; the old-maid school teacher demands Hal be her Roman centurion and rips his shirt open; the underage “egg-head sister” gets herself drunk to capture Hal’s attention; like Flo, the thin-lipped mother, did before them, Madge entertains big-city thoughts about sex: think sex, think Hal…and smoldering Madge and Hal dance in what is probably the screen’s most famous choreography other side of Astaire and Rogers. Holden drank heavily to loosen himself up to perform this dance and 37-years-old when cast as Hal, he shaved his chest to appear younger. Evidently, it was worth the manscaping.
That dance. The 30s pop song “Moonglow” blends with the Picnic title song in the screen’s most famous musical remix. Novak comes down those stairs, “setting the rhythm.” Everybody else in town in those shots is as suddenly outside those shots—the world is only Madge and Hal. The two stars dance so suggestively, going everywhere yet barely moving, that they blow the plot clear out of the lantern-bordered fresh water lake.
The play won the Pulitzer. Inge’s Broadway ending was an exchange between Madge’s mother and the old neighbor about people eventually having to grow up (and inevitably grow old). Small town wisdom. Ending the screenplay differently provoked disagreement on set about a darker or Hollywood “happy ending.” And Picnic—the movie—comes up with a technical sequence that blows the 1955 movie out of the water—again…and once and for all.
As in the play, Hal jumps a freight train out of town while Madge abandons her family and takes off to follow him on a bus the following day. Director of Photography James Wong Howe’s assistant, Haskell Wexler, shot the film’s closing camera sequence himself. Wexler’s ending has mistakenly sometimes been labeled the first helicopter shot in the movies. But there can be no mistake that Wexler’s shot from the helicopter makes a brilliant movie ending.
From Hal’s arrival, Picnic is all about the urge to escape from the numbing, empty future. When Madge and Hal get out of town, they become part of the1950s On-The-Road American landscape. Will they be happy? Let’s see…an irresponsible middle-aged bum and a dim-witted, naïve shop-girl in Tulsa, Oklahoma: not likely. But when Wexler’s long shots expand the movie beyond their stifling small-town reality in Kansas, his overwhelming cinematography elevates the 1950s stage play plot into an American-movie allegory. The movie pulsates again: there is a future. Wexler’s expansive vista shots of the bus racing to catch that speeding train out into the American frontier boldly escape the stagnation of the small town. Consequently, Wexler’s ending invites the audience to entertain this escape as a possibility for Madge and Hal, as well. If Madge and Hal managed to escape once for a dance together, maybe…just maybe…they can do it…escape again…for a life together.