Focus on Cinematographer James Wong Howe!

Picnic (dir. Joshua Logan, 1955)

Joshua Logan’s Picnic isn’t the finest melodramatic offering from the 1950s, as it calls to mind both the films of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray without reaching the tonal effortlessness of either. Yet if the film’s direction falls slightly short of assured, a distinctly raw, off-rhythm beauty emerges that is overpoweringly effective. Brimming with a wistfulness that is felt everywhere from Kim Novak’s heaving collar bones to the trees that sway restlessly overhead, Picnic is one of the best cinematic evocations of American small-town life, and captures the butter-thick sense of community and strange isolation that relentlessly push and pull at its characters.

Hal Carter (a bronzed and broad-shouldered William Holden) arrives fresh off the freight train in an unnamed Kansas town, looking to reconnect with his old college pal Alan Benson, who has found success in the grain refinery business. Coming off a failed career attempt in Hollywood and facing the onset of middle age, Hal hides his acute frustration and disappointment with life behind an athletically showy demeanor. He is warmly received the morning of his arrival by Alan, and with reserved fascination by Alan’s girlfriend, reluctant, sultry-eyed beauty queen Madge Owens (Kim Novak in full knockout mode).

Madge has an instant, if unspoken, connection with Hal, perhaps because he shows up shirtless in her neighbor’s yard, and perhaps because she sees his suppressed insecurities and shortcomings as an extension of her own unease with being, as her bookish sister Millie puts it, “the pretty one.” While Madge and Hal speak to each other in occasional sentences, slight smiles and long glances, Millie and Miss Rosemary Sidney (Rosalind Russell, chewing the scenery with bravura), a brash schoolmarm boarding at the Owens’ house, approach Hal in the way each knows how – Millie with defiant confusion over her new-found sexuality, and Rosemary with careening vulgarity.

With these small dramas in motion, the women, Hal and Alan set off for the town’s Labor Day picnic, knowing little of what the long day will bring. The picnic occupies the middle third of the film, and is a collage of visuals that matches the changing rhythms and emotions of the busy, buzzy, sun-frayed event. When the activities kick off in the morning – three-legged races, watermelon eating, obstacle courses – the camera, directed with astute intuition by cinematographer James Wong Howe, takes an intimate stance, focusing on crying babies, complacent elderly faces, and all the juicy, sweaty stickiness of a local picnic. In the afternoon lull, when the women and men have seated themselves by the river bank for a lackadaisical lunch, Howe’s composition, along with dewy, speckled light and a candy-colored palette, is reminiscent of certain Impressionist paintings, channeling the repose of a Seurat with the smudgy softness of a Renoir.

James Wong Howe had long been recognized as an exceptionally dexterous and elegant cinematographer by the time he worked on Picnic, having moved with agility from genre to genre, including screwball murder mystery The Thin Man, leftist boxing picture Body and Soul and James Cagney musical Yankee Doodle Dandy (after Picnic, Howe’s career would include the masterful film noir Sweet Smell of Success, as sharp, slick and meticulous in aesthetic as it is in dialogue).  Interestingly, aspects of Howe’s camerawork in Picnic call to mind the original reason his talent was singled out in 1920s Hollywood: his ability to film starlets. Mary Miles Minter, an up-and-coming celluloid cutie, preferred Howe to photograph her because he could make her pale blue eyes look intriguingly dark on camera (a clever trick he employed by hanging black velvet behind the camera, reflecting in the light pigmentation of Minter’s irises). After shooting Clara Bow in Mantrap in 1926, drenching the It Girl in prismatic light which gave her figure a sumptuous, three-dimensional look on screen, Howe was the go-to cinematographer for screen goddesses.

When Kim Novak approaches William Holden in Picnic‘s steamy dance sequence, her hands brushing and hips swishing in a sort of primal trance, her skin bathed in a psychedelic, otherworldly glow from the riverside’s rainbow lanterns, she is nothing if not a screen goddess. This was perhaps Howe’s greatest gift to Picnic, and the reason the film holds up as a work of desire, sensuality and longing. It has sex. The ordinary tragedies that emerge throughout the course of Picnic – betrayal, desperation, fracture – are beautiful and tangible because they are rooted in the most human of needs. And James Wong Howe, a master of cinematic feminine allure and of intimacy and urgency as expressed visually, transforms these needs into art.

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