Tag Archives: community

Labor Day, 1955: Raining on the Picnic, Not the Film

TrainDuet800documnt 48bit dust152Not a drop of rain falls. Even though the river rolling through the peaceful town is muddy, nothing deters the community from celebrating their beloved Labor Day picnic.

This idyllic community celebration is the primary setting of “Picnic,” the 1955 film starring William Holden and Kim Novak, the story of one day in the life of a rural gathering of middle-class folk in mid-America during the mid-twentieth century. The sunny day shines happiness on everyone during the all American holiday, from toddler to great-grandmother.

Enter the drifter, fresh off hitching the rails, and the day begins.

After sowing wild oats for years, the drifter, Hal (William Holden), one-time football player and big shot, says he’s ready to settle down, and this place is it – Small Town America, USA.

Looking for work, he befriends a family and boarders who live in their house. By noon, the entire household has headed down to the huge picnic at river’s edge.

What fun: the 3-Legged Walking Contest, the Pie Eating Contest, the Girl Carrying Contest. A Talent Show, too, not to mention music from Ernie Higgins and the Happiness Boys.

So what’s making young, pretty Madge (Kim Novak) so moody? She has the handsome drifter’s eye, that’s for sure. Better yet, the town’s richest, most eligible bachelor, is after her.

What about her sister, Millie (Susan Strasberg), who’s edginess is obvious with every move? She has a foolish tomboy look no one really pays attention to, but she’s going to college – not Madge.

Is Rosemary (Rosalind Russell), one of the house boarders, angry because she’s an aging, single, schoolteacher when in reality she’s got more life and spunk than twenty others her age?

And why has Hal started to turn after tasting the sweet allure of peaceful small town life?

After all, their Labor Day picnic has everything. The Trained Seal Game, a sort of ring toss contest where women toss rings at the stems of Tootsie Roll Pops protruding from mouths of men on bended knees with hands tied behind their back.

The Needle in a Haystack Contest: boys diving willy-nilly into a huge stack of dusty, dirty hay for nickels, dimes and quarters the older men have thrown in.

The Talent Show, complete with stifled teens singing corny standards and barbershop quartet numbers. Nearby, a cute baby grimaces. Or is it a scoff?

The Balloon Bursting Contest: Which contestant can blow up a balloon to pop first? The long, nerve-wracking tension is broken with a ka-boom, and another baby cries.

But, of course, there’s always the constant upbeat sound of Ernie Higgins and the Happiness Boys lingering in the background.

How could this picnic go so sour?

The entire town bowed to Madge’s beauty. But, from her seat on a rowboat sailing slowly upon the dark water, Madge seemed ashamed by the throng’s gushing, repulsed she’d just been crowned Labor Day Queen of Neewolah (Halloween spelled backward).

The big picnic dance seems transcendent. The handsome, muscular drifter danced so sexually, so comfortably with Madge. Was that what made Rosemary uneasy enough to break up the festivities all by herself?

Even Hal and Madge’s secret, moonlit rendezvous down by the river later is less than romantic, more a moment to exorcise personal fears, flaws and demons to each other. Her pose suggests yearning, yet she changes course, looks off, and says, “But we’ve got to get back to the picnic.”

“Do we?” Hal replies, as a train rambles slowly out of town behind them.

In their own separate ways, in this instant of time, Hal and Madge have realized something. And with it, the dare is on. The train, a vehicle for change, beckons each to go. By stepping up on it, riding the rails, is there life and hope beyond this town?

No, not if they if they’re looking for a better version of it, because there is no town like this. It doesn’t exist. If it did, it would surely be composed of hollow, blind followers.

“Picnic” author William Inge deliberately injects scenes into his story to beg scrutiny about this American utopia. Those boys in the haystack, America’s youth, diving blindly after money. Other youth, bottled up into singing safe and soulless music that won’t offend the elders in control. Men, like trained seals, begging for love as if some game. The gluttony of gorging on food – pie – the all American dessert. Libido should be scorned, pushed out of sight, out of mind. Everyone, everything is under control. When will the balloon finally burst?

Inge saw what many in America couldn’t, wouldn’t or didn’t back in 1955. It makes you wonder what we’re not seeing beneath our very noses today, exactly sixty years later.

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For more film articles I’ve written, click the following.

“The Graduate:” https://mikeandberg.com/2014/12/21/graduate-film-college-parents/
“To Kill A Mockingbird:” https://mikeandberg.com/2014/11/02/nostalgia-film-mockingbird/
“American Beauty:” https://mikeandberg.com/2014/09/09/role-models-american-beauty/
The 2015 Oscars (including “Hollywood Express,” my own documentary on Hollywood):
https://mikeandberg.com/2015/02/21/hollywood-oscars-identity/

 

 

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Remember This? The Idyllic World of “To Kill a Mockingbird”


Sometimes I get the urge to house hunt. I go to open house events and savor the dream of owning my own house one day. And sometimes I wonder just what it is I’m looking for, what I’m attracted to, what I’m not, and where my preferences come from.

One of my favorite movies from childhood is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Although a 1963 film, it’s set in Depression-era Alabama. As a young boy raised in Maryland during the sixties, for some reason, I sensed the days depicted in the film were “better” than the contemporary times I lived in. It was just my reaction to the film when I watched it.

Visiting various open houses last weekend here in Santa Fe, I walked away several times feeling empty. Where were the rose gardens in the front yards? Where were the people mingling in the street, walking to and fro? Where were the houses adorned with porches and stoops and sidewalks welcoming visitors to the front door?

Cue: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Oh my God, the image of my perfect house is exactly what I viewed in “Mockingbird.” Could I have held on to this image of hallowed house and home for so long?

Yes. That’s exactly the image I still yearn to see. After watching a DVD of the movie later that house-hunting day, I realized I wanted not just the houses, but the streets, the people, the neighborhood, the community – even cranky old Mrs. Dubose. Call me corny, but I still crave the Maycomb, Alabama, I saw in “Mockingbird” with its white, wooden houses and green grass lawns, and apparently have all my life.

Cue: the documentary on “To Kill a Mockingbird” enclosed inside the DVD case. No, the Maycomb in “Mockingbird” was not filmed in Maycomb. It was not even filmed in the South. In fact, it wasn’t a real town, but a movie set. Every house was constructed from scratch and the street built on a Hollywood back lot. What? My entire image of house and home is –  and was – built upon the foundation of a movie set, flats and scene designers handy work?

I viewed “Mockingbird” one more time. Yep – a suspicion come true. Upon closer inspection, beyond the beautiful hickory trees adorning Maycomb’s main street where Scout, Jem and Atticus lived was the beautiful Alabama Mountain Range (er, the San Gabriel Mountains just outside Hollywood). Boy, had I been duped. As a child, even an adult, I never thought to question whether Alabama had big mountains. Or I consciously didn’t want to.

And that’s the power of film, and specifically “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It took us to a quieter time in America. It also took us to a period where discrimination and ignorance were far more prevalent. In teaching his children to face prejudice in the eye, Atticus Finch tried to construct an uplifted community, not just one surrounded by the idyllic trappings of a world surrounded by white picket fences. For all these reasons, they made an irresistible world to me.

Cue: a sense of reality. I guess I can abandon the idea of house hunting in rural Alabama some day. And what have I been thinking here in Santa Fe: rose bushes, pitched roofs, green grass – in New Mexico?

I’ll just have to return to the movie and the Alabama of my mind for that house (and all the nostalgia that went with it).

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