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Picnic - a Labor Day Tale


Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

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1 hr. 55 mins ---- Drama, Romance ---- 1955 ---- 7.1 stars

Director: Joshua Logan


William Holden - Hal Carter

Kim Novak - Madge Owens

Betty Field - Flo Owens

Susan Strasberg - Millie Owens

Cliff Robertson - Alan Benson

Arthur O’Connell - Howard Bevans

Rosalind Russell - Miss Rosemary Sydney

Verna Felton - Helen Potts

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

Hal and Millie's date - Having a Fun Time Together

William Holden and Susan Strasberg

William Holden and Susan Strasberg

Synopsis Part I

The opening scene is of a man, a vagrant, getting off a train in a small Kansas town. It’s Labor Day and the town is preparing for its big annual picnic. The man’s name is Hal (played by William Holden). He is hungry and looking to work for food. He comes to the back door of an older woman, Helen Potts (played by Verna Felton). She feeds him in exchange for yardwork. But as he’s working in the yard, bare-chested, he draws the attention of the teenage Owens girls next door. That family consists of a mother, Flo (played by Betty Field), and her daughters, Madge (played by Kim Novak) and Millie (played by Susan Strasberg). There is no father in the picture. The family has taken in a boarder, a middle aged spinster woman, a local school teacher named Miss Rosemary Sydney (played by Rosalind Russell).

Each woman in that household takes an interest in Hal. Millie, the younger sister, high school aged, is being pestered by a neighborhood boy and Hal goes over to chase him off. During the scene Hal and Madge meet and there is instant chemistry there.

In the next scene Hal goes to visit an old friend, a college buddy named Alan (played by Cliff Robertson). Alan lives in a large stately house, because he is from a well-connected, affluent family. After a cheerful reunion and a cordial meeting with Alan’s father, Alan takes Hal on a tour of the grain elevators that his family owns. While on the top of one of the grain elevators, Hal asks Alan for a job. Hal comes from a dysfunctional and impoverished background, but he has a nice executive position in mind for himself when he asks. Alan, however, offers him a starting position in the grain business. Hal is willing to accept the starting position, but during the conversation Hal relates that he has met a wonderful girl in town named Madge Owens and he wants to stick around a while to see what develops. This causes a problem however because Madge is Alan’s girlfriend! So the old friends are suddenly thrust into roles of being rivals, and conflict begins to brew, but nothing comes to a boil just yet.

It is day of the big Labor Day picnic in town and both Hal and Alan come to the Owens’ residence to escort the girls to it. A man named Howard (played by Arthur O’Connell) comes to take Miss Rosemary Sydney. Flo and Helen will follow along later. Alan will take Madge and Hal will go with Millie. Hal and Millie have a good time together.

The movie spends a lot of time showing scenes of the picnic. The whole town is there and it is a grand event. As the party of characters we have come to know are sitting together in a grove of trees we are given glimpses of Hal’s personality. He has some good qualities such as being a very polite and jovial fellow, but he has some undesirable qualities as well such as being a boor and a braggart. He begins to flirt with Madge which draws Alan’s attention and also Flo’s alarm.

Flo sees Alan as an advantageous suitor for her daughter, a way for the whole family to step up in society, a way to perhaps get Madge to avoid the hype of situation that Flo had gotten herself into when she was young. Flo sees Hal as a bad boy, pleasant on the eyes, but not secure or stable in the long run. Hal’s flirting prompts Alan to attempt to push forward his romance with Madge though he feels he isn’t ready yet.

The climax of the picnic was the elaborate celebration of the crowning of the “Queen of Neewollah”. It’s something akin to crowning a homecoming queen. The ceremony takes place at the end of the picnic after sundown where the queen is rowed in a boat on the lake under lantern lit bridge to a lantern lit dock. It’s a very elaborate, splendid ceremony. All eyes are on the queen as she is rowed to the dock. And this year’s queen is Madge!

Hal Flirting with Madge

William Holden and Kim Novak

William Holden and Kim Novak

Synopsis Part II

After the ceremony, come the fireworks, though in this case I’m speaking metaphorically. Hal is still enjoying a fun time with Millie and they try dancing on the dock. They are joined by the middle aged Howard and Rosemary. Also Howard has brought along a bottle of whiskey hidden in his coat pocket.

Hal tries teaching Millie a dance he learned in LA, a slow dance with a distinct beat. Neither he nor Millie are able to get the rhythm right. Then Madge shows up at the top of a small stairway which leads down to the dock. She has the rhythm and as she descends the stairs she takes Hal’s breath away. Madge begins to dance with Hal, they dance romantically, and they become the whole world to each other. Millie goes off to sit by herself, dejected, but finds Howard’s whiskey bottle and begins to drink it. Rosemary, who has already had some of Howard’s whiskey, scolds Howard for not dancing like that with her. An alcohol induced rage wells up in her, a jealousy of sorts and a self-loathing. She grabs Hal and pulls him away from Madge and demands that he dance with her. Hal protests, but she is too forceful. Howard protests as well, but she completely disregards him. Hal and Rosemary are absolutely uncoordinated and out of sync with each other. Rosemary resists Hal’s effort to break free of her and in pulling away rips the sleeve of his shirt. Howard is finally able to corral Rosemary and says, “Let them alone; they’re young people”. These words really ignite Rosemary’s anger, but at that time moment Millie gets sick due to the whiskey consumption. Madge rushes to help her younger sister who claims that she wants to die. But Millie rebuffs her help pushing her back down the stairs saying, “I hate you!” Then in bitterness letting out emotions she has bottled up for years she says, “Madge is the pretty one; Madge is the pretty one!”

At that very moment Flo arrives and demands to know who gave liquor to Millie. Rosemary immediately points the finger at Hal and says, “He did it; it was all his fault”. This is absolutely untrue; he had nothing to do with it. Then Rosemary goes on a tirade belittling Hal who is dumbfounded, quietly absorbing every jab she speaks. Howard once again pulls Rosemary away as the spotlights from the ceremony are trained on them all. Howard yells at them to avert the lights. Alan comes along and when he asks Hal what happened Hal remains speechless leading Alan to conclude that Hal was the source of the disturbance.

In the meantime Millie has run off into the woods. Flo asks Alan to help find her. Hal runs off to Alan’s car; he needs a place to think and he needs to get away and to blow off steam. Suddenly Madge appears at the passenger door. Hal warns her that she doesn’t want to be around him just then, but she gets in, sits down and closes the door. He races off with her and comes to a spot down by the river. They stop and have a serious heart to heart talk. He tells her of his frustration in life and that he’s no good. But, she doesn’t care; she loves him.

Meanwhile back at the house Rosemary begs Howard to marry her; she’s so lonely and facing the awful emptiness of spinsterhood. Howard does not want to marry her, but is touched by her pleas. He fears that she is done for if he doesn’t agree to marry her in the morning.

Hal returns Alan’s car to Alan who has reported it stolen. The police are there and they reason that since the car has been returned no harm’s been done, but Alan is also sore at Hal for stealing his girl and he wants Hal arrested anyway. Hal rushes out the door, back into the car and the police give chase. He ends up back at the river where he is able to elude the police and swim across. Hal shows up at Howard’s apartment and asks to stay the night.

In the morning Howard shows up at the Owens’ house to elope with Rosemary. He tells Madge that Hal is in the back of the car. Hal gets out of the car and meets with Madge by a shed in the back yard by the train tracks. He proposes to her right there, but he has little time. The train is approaching and he has to hop on it and leave because the police are chasing him. Flo tries to hold Madge back from going off with him while Hal tries to convince her to go with him. Madge is torn. It’s a big decision to have to be made with so little time. As the train begins to roll by Hal tells her he will get a job in Tulsa and wait for her there as he runs and hops on the train.

Later Millie encourages Madge to go to him in Tulsa and Madge, over the strong objections of Flo boards a bus for Tulsa.

The End.

Hal and Madge Dancing on the Dock

William Holden dancing with Kim Novak

William Holden dancing with Kim Novak


This movie takes place in a small town in Kansas on Labor Day. But when Hal Carter shows up, jumping off a freight train, the world turns upside down for many of the people of that town. When he decides to hop off the train he is in the back yard of the Owens household which is comprised of a widow with two teenage daughters and a middle aged spinster who is renting a room from them. Hal looks very appealing to all of them and an unspoken rivalry develops. First, Hal stops at the next door neighbor, an older woman named Helen, for an opportunity to work and for a meal. The woman is very kindly and feeds him first. It is obvious that he hadn’t eaten very much lately – freight trains don’t have dining cars. The Owens girls take note of this shirtless man working in Helen’s yard and begin to take interest. Madge is older and Millie is younger. Millie is more reserved and bookish. She doesn’t seem to have a social life and remains quiet and studious. Madge is more outgoing and popular. Madge has a boyfriend, Alan Benson, son of the wealthiest man in town. Flo, the girls’ mother, has her eye on Alan, not for herself but as a match for Madge so that she could marry up – a rich man.

Although Millie appears to be content with her books deep inside she is not. She feels completely dominated in the social realm by her very popular sister. Her feelings long bottled up flow out when she in bitterness pushes Madge down some stairs saying she hates her and cries out, “Madge is the pretty on; Madge is the pretty one!” Millie is drunk when she says this so her inhibitions are gone yet it’s probably cathartic, but she feels awful and sick at the same time.

Hal is a man who can’t catch a break in life. He can be very polite and charming, but underneath that exterior is an anger–at–the–world chip on his shoulder and at this picnic the friends he made earlier in the day are quick to turn on him, and for things that are not his fault.

The tension of the movie comes to a climax at the end of the picnic when each of the women’s feelings for Hal or for who he is and what he represents comes to a head. For Flo - Hal represents ruination. Hal reminds her of her husband who was a no account rascal. Hal not only brings back those memories, but threatens her upwardly mobile designs for her daughter, Madge. Flo has nothing but contempt for Hal.

For Millie - Hal is the handsome and fun older man who opens up her life to the wonders of being social. He takes Millie as his date to the picnic and their chemistry is good. He’s attentive to her and not focused on Madge (at least not at first). They are truly having a good time. But that good time ends in the middle of the picnic when Hal flirts a little with Madge much to everyone’s concern. Nevertheless their fun time continues up until the dock scene where two things happen. Millie discovers Howard’s whiskey bottle and Madge comes along as a skilled and beguiling dancer, effectively stealing Hal away from Millie. Millie’s resentment of that plus her own low self-esteem draws her to drink more and more out of that bottle resulting in her feeling sick. The whole scene results in her running off.

For Madge - Hal is the ticket out of town and out of her perceived meaningless existence. It is her way to get away from an impending arranged marriage. She’s in a love at first sight circumstance with a wild and mysterious stranger who quite possibly reminds her of her father, much to her mother’s chagrin.

To Alan - Hal is his onetime college friend who never made anything out of his life, who has come out of nowhere and in one day has stolen his girl!

To Rosemary, who had also had some of Howard’s whiskey - Hal was condemned because he was, to her way of thinking too young for her which, in other words meant, she really saw herself as being too old. As a middle aged spinster she really showed regret for how her life turned out. She resented the fact that she was attracted to Hal and that he was drawn to the younger Madge. She exploded on that dock and tried to steal Hal away from Madge by physically pulling him away from Madge and forcing him to dance with her. Their dance incidentally was blatantly uncoordinated, which was itself metaphoric of her feelings. As Hal tries to escape Rosemary’s clutches and pulls away she rips the sleeve off of his shirt. Howard tried in vain to pull her away from Hal, pleading that, “he’s dancing with Madge” and the kicker, “leave them alone; they’re young people”.

When Howard says these words it is the catalyst and all the other bad things in this scene begin to take place and all starts to unravel. It is now that Millie feels sick. It is now that Millie tells Madge that she hates her. It is now that Millie laments that, “Madge is the pretty one; Madge is the pretty one!” It is then that Rosemary lambasts Hal as being a loser thereby crushing his spirit. Then, to make matters worse, Rosemary in her anger (which let me repeat I see as being at her own circumstance) falsely accusing Hal of giving whiskey to Millie – which he most certainly did not do. She is so angry at life and takes it out on Hal that he is left speechless. But it doesn’t end there; she browbeats Howard into agreeing to marry her the next day! So much does she fear the loneliness of her spinsterhood that she wants to jump into a marriage, potentially a loveless one.

This rash choice mirrors Madge’s choice, maybe even encourages her choice, to throw everything away and run after Hal to Tulsa. Madge doesn’t want to be in an arranged marriage and she doesn’t want to end up where Rosemary is either.

Madge’s decision to follow after Hal even gives hope to Millie who is very happy for Madge as she boards the bus to meet up with Hal in Tulsa.

Even Alan, when he has the police chase after Hal says inexplicably that he hopes, “he (Hal) gets away.”

Hal has indeed changed the lives of many in that town on that day and not the least of the lives changed was his own. In the aftermath of the explosive dock scene there are two other reaction scenes that develop. The one is the porch scene where Rosemary pitifully pleas for Howard to marry her implying the threat of her committing suicide should he refuse. The other is the riverbank scene where Madge tells Hal that she’s tired of being told she’s pretty. This is, by the way complementary to her sister’s issue. In this scene Hal talks about the dark side of his upbringing and his failures one after another. He gets real which is something he’s never done before.

It is in this scene that their romance is really born. Hal becomes more to her than just an interesting drifter.

Rosemary Lambasting Hal

Rosalind Russell and William Holden

Rosalind Russell and William Holden


The celebration, Neewollah, is actually a real festival in the town of Independence Kansas and as explained in the movie it is “Halloween” spelled backwards.

The following are from IMDB:

William Holden didn't want to do the dance sequence with Kim Novak, fearing it would make him look foolish. He told co-star Cliff Robertson, "I just don't know how to dance." Hoping to persuade the studio to cut the dance scene, Holden insisted on being paid an $8,000 "stuntman premium." To his surprise, the studio paid up and Holden was forced to do the dance scene, although he was allowed to do it under the influence of alcohol. In that scene, he is actually intoxicated, and it still remains one of only four movies that he ever danced in (the others being Sabrina (1954), Dear Ruth (1947) and Sunset Blvd. (1950)), and one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.

Movie Trailer

The Dock Scene - Key Scene of the Movie

Final Scene Madge Decides to go to Hal in Tulsa