Movie Review: William Holden as the Shirtless Stud at William Inge’s “Picnic”

When Joshua Logan’s film of William Inge’s play, “Picnic” was released in 1955, it was a simple thing to interpret  its theme as the effect a virile man has upon the sexually repressed women in small town America.  Today, however, it plays a little differently.  When William Holden’s Hal  strips off his sweaty, dirty shirt to work bare-chested under the sun, a kindly, elderly lady assures him that nobody will mind since he is a man, and of course, in the fifties, men were not thought of as having a bare-chested appeal.  That was strictly the province of female sexuality. Later,   when he breaks free of the tight jacket that cannot contain his beef, it echoes an earlier, female complaint that one cannot spend the whole day in a corset without some discomfort. The womanly nature of the over-developed man has been a popular theme of late, most pointedly in “The Wrestler,” the tragedy  of a  man trapped in a woman’s body, subject to all the woes of the aging process from which man is customarily spared. In “Picnic,” Susan Strasberg plays the underdeveloped Millie wilting in the shadow of Kim Novak’s beauty queen Madge. There is no  question about which one of them will win Hal’s affections.  When Inge wrote the play, he put much of himself into Millie’s character.  “Picnic” becomes, when seen from her  point of view, a sadly alienated paean to male beauty from the mid-twentieth century perspective of a closeted gay man. Inge subverts the social energy of the small-town picnic by making it the scene of subconscious erotic carnage. Logan, who later directed film versions of the musicals “South Pacific” and Camelot,”   echoes the violent climax of  the 1945 musical “Carousel” in which the romantic lead is murdered during an attempted robbery, in his use of the innocuous setting. The parallels between pornography and the Broadway musical are too complicated to address in this limited space, but it is interesting to note  that  “Picnic” is very much like a musical without musical numbers.  That is, a pornographic film without sex scenes. As Hal plays upon the uncorseted  fantasies of  the townswomen during this subtly orgiastic Labor Day picnic, Inge. in the guise of little Millie, looks on and weeps.

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