Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Columbia Classics DVD

Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Dolby Surround [CC], Spanish & Portuguese Digital Stereo, subtitles: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai , double side-single layer, 28 chapters, Production Notes, Photo Montage, Vintage Advertising, Talent Files, Theatrical Trailers, rated PG, 113 min., $24.95, street date 4/18/2000.

Studio Line

Academy Awards: Won for Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor-Arthur O'Connell, Best Score, 1956.

Directed by Joshua Logan. Starring William Holden, Kim Novak, Cliff Robertson, Rosalind Russell, Susan Strasberg.

It's Labor Day weekend, and fresh off a freight train is Hal Carter (William Holden), a happy-go-lucky drifter who's looking for a brand new start in life. A robust, handsome show-off, Hal has come to Kansas to seek gainful employment in his old fraternity brother Alan's family granary. But despite his high hopes and expectations, Hal's ambitious plans soon go away when his sexual magnetism attracts every woman in town, including 19-year-old Madge Owens (Kim Novak) -- the alluring young beauty queen who also happens to be Alan's girlfriend.

Picture/Sound/Extras (B-/B-/D)

Ever watch a movie and wonder if the film was based on a play? Umm... probably not, but if this does occur, here's an easy way to tell: If characters in the movie make statements such as, "Sure is a scorcher today! Oh, when will this hot weather end! We sure could use some rain!" then you're probably dealing with an adapted play. Okay, I can think of at least one exception; Do the Right Thing often used similar phrases, but I'm sure Spike Lee was attempting to convey that stage-based feeling with his film.

(Why do so many stage characters discuss the weather? I figure it's because plays have few other ways to convey this information. Movies can show heat, rain, snow, etc. more graphically, but it's not so easy on stage, especially when dealing with such a non-visual quality like high temperatures; other elements can be faked, but heat's a lot tougher to show.)

This is the kind of information that occurred to me while I watched Picnic, which indeed was based upon the Pulitzer Prize winning play by William Inge. I thought of such issues because the movie itself gave me little about which I cared. Picnic isn't a terrible film, but it's kind of a silly one that lacks much real substance.

also clearly comes from a stage play because we see lots of scenes in which characters get really upset and emoter heavily for no apparent reason. That's one part of plays I've never really understood. Oh, I know stage actors have to emote more broadly than screen performers just because the audience can't see them as clearly; they have to play to the cheap seats, as it were. Maybe that's the reason stage characters always get so worked up about things as well; since subtle emotions are lost on stage, they have to go for the broad feelings to register with the crowd.

Frankly, I don't much like stage plays, mainly because of their overly broad qualities, but one thing I care for even less is filmed plays. Too many of these do little to modulate the material for the big screen; they come across simply as photographed versions of the originals with few attempts to adapt the work.

I never saw a stage version of Picnic so I can't say how many similarities it shares with its Hollywood sibling. Clearly the locations have been opened up a great deal. Unlike something such as A Raisin In the Sun - which rarely leaves its one-room setting - Picnic offers a wide variety of locales, so at least it takes advantage of the cinematic medium in that way.

Unfortunately, that's the only way it does so. The remainder of the movie sounds and feels like a play. Characters in those projects always talk about the big things they're going to do someday, and all of the ways life has disappointed them; plays are filled with big old monologues about such issues, and so is the movie of Picnic.

It's all so much roil and toil without purpose, though. I really have little idea what the point of Picnic was. The characters are all pretty flat, with little insight into their beings other than as cardboard cutouts. As a romance, it lacks sizzle or spark, though maybe it's hotter than I think but I was just too annoyed at the fact everyone seems to think Kim Novak - who I always thought looked kind of odd - is so much more beautiful than the rather cute Susan Strasberg. I've never understood why Hollywood has so much trouble with this issue; it's so rare that a supposedly bland or unattractive character actually is.

That's not the only casting problem. It doesn't help that star William Holden is supposed to play a guy who's apparently in his mid-twenties when the actor was actually 37 at the time! Holden does a better job than I'd expect - he looked pretty buff in the role - but I still have a hard time accepting him as so young. (Speaking of Holden, take a gander at the cover photo of him and Novak - every time I glance at it I can't help but think how feminine he looks! There's something about his pose and the way his shirt drapes over his arms - it looks like he's wearing a strapless gown. Very odd!)

While I didn't find Picnic to be a complete dud, it seems clear that the movie hasn't aged well. It's a part of the Fifties that feels stuck in that era and doesn't translate well to modern times. Add to that an awkward "staged" feel to the whole project and you have a less-than-compelling movie.

(One possibly interesting aside: Picnic shares a lot of connections to Disney movies. In A Bug's Life, the play is mentioned as one that the ant colony performed. We also find a character named Mrs. Potts, who become a Disney matron in Beauty and the Beast. Also, Disney regular Verna Felton - known for her role as Cinderella's Fairy Godmother among many others - appears in the film (as Mrs. Potts, natch). By the way, Felton also performed the voice of Wilma's mother on The Flintstones. I think I might have heard Betty Lou Gerson - 101 Dalmatians' Cruella De Vil - in Picnic as well, but I was unable to substantiate this impression.)

Picnic appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen version was viewed for this article. While inconsistent, Picnic generally offers a satisfying image.

Sharpness usually looks pretty crisp and clean, though some shots appear slightly vague and hazy. I noticed some evidence of jagged edges and moiré effects, but not a lot. The print used for the transfer really looks remarkably good, with just a little bit of grain and occasional speckles to mar it; for a film this old, that's a pleasant surprise.

Colors seem very erratic. At times - such as the sunset scenes - they're absolutely lovely and sumptuous, but much of the time the hues seem pale and faded. They're not radically washed-out but are bad enough to be a distraction; milky fleshtones looked oddest to me. Black levels seem quite good, and shadow detail tends to be a little heavy but is acceptable. Picnic has its flaws but generally looks pretty nice.

The same goes for the film's Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack. The front soundfield offers some nice breadth; there's a decent attempt to spread audio across the three channels that's much better than we normally hear for movies this old. The surrounds offer only the faintest hint of reinforcement of music and effects; for all intents and purposes, they go unused, but at least they don't hinder the soundtrack.

Quality seems thin but acceptable for a film this old. Dialogue was clear and intelligible but seemed badly synchronized at times; for much of the movie, I felt that speech and image didn't match well. Both music and effects are clean and relatively engaging, but they also lack any low end or liveliness. While the soundtrack isn't exceptional, it's still quite solid for a 45-year-old movie.

Picnic includes a few pretty mediocre supplements. We get a "photo montage" that runs as a six and a half minute program; the camera zooms in and out on various publicity shots, production pictures and advertisements for the film. "Vintage Advertising" offers a whopping two posters from the film, while the "Talent Files" give us the usual poorly-executed Columbia-Tristar biographies for four of the actors and director Joshua Logan.

We discover trailers for Picnic plus some additional films. These include two Novak vehicles - Pal Joey and Bell, Book and Candle - plus two Holden movies - Alvarez Kelly and Born Yesterday. Finally, the package includes some brief but useful production notes in the DVD's booklet.

I didn't find Picnic to be a terrible film, but it's a dated, awkward and not very compelling one. The DVD offers fairly good picture and sound but features few supplements. Fans of the film will probably be pleased, but anyone else may want to skip this rather bland affair.

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