Tag Archives: town

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? “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and Enlightenment

Darkness Edge of Town pics 002I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day

 

It had been a long-awaited album. His last, Born to Run, was four years ago. I sensed pressure was on for a great follow-up to that great album. 

The first thing I experienced when the album came out in June, 1978, was the record jacket, both sides revealing a somber, skinny Bruce Springsteen (the pre-Born in the USA pumped up Bruce), standing alone in a cheap hotel room. The album name, Darkness on the Edge of Town, included  song titles like “Factory,” “Badlands,” and “Adam Raised a Cain.”

Bleak. I wanted Born to Run back before I even played one song of Darkness.

Of course, I was a very young man then, and probably the last to know just how naive.

I gave the album many listens. With each, I was taken to places like “Candy’s Room,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Promised Land.” The entire collection of soulful, searching songs was speaking to me about greed, inequity, disappointment, desperation, identity, satisfaction, love and hope; in other words, what real life is made of, not Top 40 life, and certainly not my own.

I was confused by the chaos all these human issues brought to me at once. Nonetheless, I appreciated how Springsteen ached to tell stories, as if busting out in Darkness, trying to bust apart the chains of man’s pain, warning “in comfort danger dwells; only on the dangerous cliff edge does one’s true self reside.” But I wasn’t sure if that’s what he was really saying.

There was an emptiness in my life such that Springsteen’s edge was as close to any edge I could stand upon. I was living in Gaithersburg, Maryland, then, not the edge of urban life, life, or anything – only the fringes of suburbia. Somehow, Springsteen’s words eventually penetrated the edge of my consciousness:

– The dogs on main street howl, ‘cause they understand / If I could take one moment into my hands  / Mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man / And I believe in a promised land.

– I take her to the floor, looking for a moment when the world seems right / And I tear into the guts, of something in the night.

– ‘Cause in the darkness, there’ll be hidden worlds that shine / When I hold Candy close she makes the hidden worlds mine.

– Some guys just give up living / And start dying little by little, piece by piece / Some guys come home from work and wash up / And go racin’ in the street.

– End of the day, factory whistle cries / Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes / And you better believe, boy, somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight / It’s the working, the working, just the working life.

– Some folks are born into the good life / Other folks get it anyway, anyhow / I lost my money and I lost my wife /  Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now / Tonight I’ll be on that hill ‘cause I can’t stop / I’ll be on that hill with everything I got / Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost / I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found  / In the darkness on the edge of town.

In time, I sensed a testiness of my own. Discontent with machine shop work, empty experiences, boredom, unfulfilled dreams. So, I began to write songs; eschewed folk guitar and formed a rock band; became a freelance artist; worked as agency ad man before eventually finding a teaching career.

This rousing, creeping, crawling and often raucous stanza of rock and roll impressed me. Perhaps only at the edge does one gain best perspective. Slowly protruding from my shadow, Darkness prompted a head-on collision with my own life’s chorus.

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Filed under Blog, Remember This?