Friday, March 2, 2012

PICNIC: Blu-ray (Columbia 1955) Twilight Time

As an ardent admirer of movies in general, but more to the point, those that have left their indelible marks on our collective consciousness, I frequently go to the show, hoping to find some director or star from today's vintage who will rekindle my love (dare I say, worship?) of that artistry. But the more I return to the archives from Hollywood's golden age the more I am reminded - painfully so - of the fact that the generation that gave us such iconic films and performances is, alas, truly dead and gone. Joshua Logan's Picnic (1955) is a prime example of this forgotten ghost flower in Hollywood film-making; a lush and stirring super production, so resplendent and nourishing to the mind and soul that it could only have been made at the height of the 1950s, itself a time of upheaval and change in and outside of America's film empire.
Based on William Inges' Pulitzer prize-winning play, Picnic peels away the heavy curtain on two uniquely American taboos. The first is the topic of sex itself, then a non plus in studio bound movies and strictly enforced by Hollywood's self-imposed code of censorship. But the second, and arguably even more revealing shocker, is the film's rather raw and troublesome portrait of mid-western Americana. Picnic takes place in Kansas. But the idealized bucolic charm and tender quaintness for small town folk and their picturesque domesticity is subverted in this film.
The town's spinster schoolmarm, Rosemary (Rosalind Russel) is a self-deprecating, sexually frustrated cougar, trolling for fresh meat even as she bitterly clings to the only man of her years, Howard Bevans (Arthur O'Connell) who has paid her modest attention. The eligible maids of the Owens' house - Marjorie (Kim Novak) and younger sister, Millie (Susan Strasberg) are conflicted, scheming virgins, presided over by an enterprising matriarch, Flo (Betty Fields) who can think of no higher aspiration than to pimp out her eldest to Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), the ineffectual, emotionally emasculated heir to a grain fortune. The Owens' aged neighbour, Helen Potts (Verna Felton) is a fragile romantic who relives her youthful days vicariously by watching Marjorie and Millie grow up.
Even our hero, Hal Carter (William Holden) is on the cusp of a real human tragedy: outwardly the epitome of manliness, affectionately ogled by all the pretty young things in their splashy one piece bathing suits, but inwardly, terrified of what the advancing years have in store for him once his own good looks have withered with age. Et al, these are not the contented simple folk chronically invoked in traditional films like Home In Indiana (1944), State Fair (1945) and (more contemporary to this film), in Oklahoma! (released the same year). In 1955, such a forthright opinion about America 'the beautiful' must have seemed counterculture to say the least. But viewed today, Picnic has an ominous ring of truthfulness about it, a sort of Hollywood debunking its own celluloid myths.
We first see Hal startled to life by a train conductor in the back of a dusty, empty railway car. He's filthy, shoeless and obviously without a penny to his name. As the title credits role, Hal disrobes to wash himself in the watershed of a manmade falls. Its rather telling that our first titillating glimpse of Bill Holden's natural muscularity is pitted against this decaying rural landscape. Like the place, the man finds himself entrenched in a state of steep decline. This is Hal Carter's last stand. He will have to use every braggadocios to reinvent himself for a group of strangers all too willing to accept him at face value.
From here, the Daniel Taradash screenplay moves into establishing the differences between Hal and the town's most eligible bachelor, Alan Benson. The two former college buddies reunite on Alan's front lawn as he is practising his golf swing. At a glance there's seemingly nothing wrong with Alan. He's rich and handsome and moneyed - all attributes of the ideal all American suitor that any mother would wish for their daughters. But wait. There's something unsettling beneath Alan's clean shaven good looks; an insecurity with the opposite sex perhaps, that, left unabated, might easily lean toward homosexual tendencies.
Certainly, Alan's chance reunion with Hal suggests as much. As they dish about their dear old alma mater Alan leaps onto Hal for a piggy-back ride - the two cautiously observed by Alan's father (Raymond Bailey). Hal is the son Mr. Benson has always wished for; rugged, outgoing and viral. By comparison, Alan's struggles to become the man his father wants heighten his inner insecurity; his own stature diminished even by Hal's mere memories of their boyhood school days. To please his father Alan has pursued an awkward relationship with Marjorie Owens - the town's most wholesome and obvious beauty.
Flo Owens has coaxed their romance from the wings, reminding Marjorie that her looks won't last forever. This superficial approach to marriage is compounded by Flo's own desperation to live well. Alan's family wealth is expected to bolster not only a new bride but also her own comforts. Yet, Marjorie remains unconvinced about this trade of sex for monetary conveniences. She's a dewy eyed dreamer to be sure, but one who secretly throbs for the full-bodied furor as opposed to that passionless repartee she relents to whenever she and Alan are alone together.
Alan invites Hal to the Labor Day picnic, an occasion for celebration that will unfortunately unravel everyone's respectability in a very public way. Alone with his old school buddy Alan cribs from Hal's expertise with the women, hoping that some of his animal magnetism will rub off. But at the town's watering hole all eyes are on Hal, who revels at showing off his physique in a perfect jackknife dive. To be closer to Marjorie, Hal has ingratiated himself to her younger sister Millie. This sparks a pubescent fantasy in Millie's mind. For once, she - not Marjorie - will have the most amiable heartthrob on her arm.
At the picnic Hal is also introduced to middle age school teacher, Rosemary and her mildly alcoholic, though nonetheless good natured beaux, Howard. Rosemary is taken with Hal, an infatuation that stirs deeply dishonorable intensions within her. These quickly transgress into an uncontainable lusty obsession. As Mille, Hal, Rosemary and Howard watch from the banks of the river, the town christens Marjorie their queen. In her stately robe, coddling a bouquet of red roses she sparks Hal's libidinous desire - the first genuine intention he's exhibited all day. This revelation sickens Millie (that, and the whiskey Hal and Howard have been sharing with she and Rosemary), but it also sends Rosemary into a jealous fit. She claws at Hal, tearing his shirt to covet the body she will never possess otherwise, intent on destroying what she desires most.
Hal is accused of getting Millie (who is underage) drunk, and furthermore charged with attempting to seduce his friend's fiancée. Given Hal's grifter status, his feeble attempts to finagle a place in Alan's family business, and furthermore, the undeniable mutual reciprocation of his own desire for Marjorie mirrored in her eyes, Alan is seduced to follow Rosemary's spiral into envy. Alan uses his family's clout to call out the local authorities for Hal's arrest after he and Marjorie flee the scene in Alan's automobile. Hal confronts his demons in Marjorie's presence, hoping that by exposing his failed lifestyle he will dissuade her from throwing away her future with Alan. Instead, she tenderly kisses him while laying plans for their future. She and Hal will elope to Tulsa where Marjorie is convinced Hal will find work as a bellhop in a hotel. Later that night, Hal makes his way to Howard's apartment and begs him for a place to spend the night. Sympathetic, Howard agrees. Faced with a distraught and somewhat repentant Rosemary, Howard very reluctantly agrees to marry her.
Hal and Marjorie are confronted by Flo behind the Owens' shed. Flo threatens to call the police on Hal, but Mrs. Potts - perhaps the one unbridled romantic in the lot - tenderly encourages the couple to play their hunch and see where it leads them. Resentfully, Millie confronts Marjorie in their bedroom, telling her to do something "bright" for once in her life by following Hal. Against her mother's tearful objections, Marjorie recognizes the futility in pursuing any relationship with Alan, packs her small suitcase and boards the bus for Tulsa.
In every sense, Picnic is a masterwork; its frank and often startling critiques of sex vs. love and sexuality vs. sensuality make for some heady times. Yet the film is even more frank in its assessment of sexual attraction - perceived (perhaps rightfully so) as a mere speck in the natural life cycle of man and woman. As such, Picnic takes a very adult and unvarnished view of its very adult and unvarnished subject matter - namely sex. While poems, songs and even other films from varying vintages speak about mating as though it were an act procured from the purest morality and highest romantic ideals, Picnic suggests the rawness, sweaty heat and undiluted immediacy of passion that can make men and women crazy to connect with one another on a very base and animalistic level.
Picnic comes to Blu-ray via Twilight Time; an online boutique distribution apparatus from Screen Archives that has licensed the film from its parent company, Sony, for this release. The results are sumptuous and gratifying to say the least. Here is a true 1080p hi-def transfer to dazzle the eye and ear equally. This disc easily puts to shame all of Sony's previously authored DVD incarnations. The image exhibits so much startling clarity in James Wong Howe's breathtaking cinematography that it's easy to forget the film is over 50 years old. The widescreen image positively glows with rich colors, superbly rendered contrast levels, accurate flesh tones and a modicum of natural looking film grain. Age related artifacts are gone for an image that is deliciously smooth. This is a reference quality effort.
The audio is also impressive. We get three lossless options. The newly mastered 5.1 mix, the original 2.0 and a very welcomed isolated music track that extols the virtues of George Duning's sinfully luscious dramatic score. Last year, I lamented the fact that Paramount and a few other studios were gradually losing interest in releasing their catalogue films to Blu-ray (sighting time consuming, costly restoration work and lackluster consumer response to their already issued catalogue titles on Blu-ray as the culprits for reneging on their once gallant promise to offer consumers movies from all vintages in pristine 1080p).
But I don't mind the major studios giving up on their catalogue titles on Blu-ray as long as the good people over at Twilight Time are given the opportunity to fill the void. Clearly, this disc has been mastered by people who not only care about the product they're selling but also about the movies they've so lovingly committed to preserve for future generations. Bottom line: this disc is a gem - the film too. Both belong on everyone's top shelf.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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