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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Picnic"

In the Best Shot series we all watch a pre-selected movie and pick what we think of as its best shot.

If watching Picnic (1955) taught me anything it's that you really need to exercize caution. Caution about whose filthy shirts you'll launder, who you'll let kiss you in the car parked by the river, which daughter you'll vicariously live through, which college friend you'll drop in on unannounced and empty-handed, which man you'll drunkenly throw yourself at to tear off his clothing (Rosalind Russell you crazy bitch!), and so on. Above all else Picnic reminded me to use caution before renting DVDs! I had never seen this Best Picture nominee and had only heard tales of its beautiful photography but the version I got was a terrible transfer in *gasp* "Pan and Scan".

In this slinky sexy scene pan and scan robs us of the beautiful lines of Novak and Holden's bodies as they dance romantically around each other.

If that's what you watched I apologize profusely for assigning this movie. But let's talk about Young Beauties, Old Maids, and Hunky Men anyway. The movie demands it...

In the 80s when VHS transformed the entertainment industry thousands of movies were defiled forever by the pan and scan technique which chops off both sides of the movie's image to fit it onto square televisions. "Forever" sounds alarmist but too many movies only get one shot at a home video format so forgive the hysteria. Thankfully over this past decade as televisions grew larger and more rectangular, pan and scan is approaching its death bed. May I spit on its grave when it finally croaks? But my copy of Picnic was hopelessly square (and I'm not talking about the film's content) marring the beautifully lit images that the legendary cinematography James Wong Howe dreamt up for its end of summer narrative.

I'm going on and on about this because the movie itself is obsessed with physical beauty and gets all angsty over the sexuality of both the male and female gaze. Given the topic, corrupting the image feels especially unfortunate!  So now I've seen Picnic but I really don't feel as if I've seen it. Choosing a best shot is futile but I'll try to anyway.

Runner up: here's a mirror shot I love (this series has taught me that I'm actually kind of obsessive about reflection shots) and the super disturbing conversation that precedes it. Madge (Kim Novak) is being placed on a literal pedestal by her mother Flo (Betty Fields) while they work on a party dress. Flo is encouraging Madge to throw herself at her rich boyfriend Alan (Cliff Robertson) with a little more enthusiasm.

Flo: Better get busy.


A pretty girl doesn't have too long. Just a few years. Then she's the equal of kings; she can walk out of a shanty like this and live in a palace!  If she loses her chance when she's young she might as well throw all her prettiness away.

I'm only 19!

and next summer you'll be 20. And then 21.

And then 40. 

Madge: You don't have to be morbid !!!


Both Madge and her sister Millie (Susan Strasberg) have surely been indoctrinated with this Beauty is Everything talk their whole lives and both of them are terribly unhappy with their roles as "The Pretty One" and the other one. 

I chose the following two shots as best on account of their dreamy beauty and their character revealing nature. Both shots feature Madge gazing at the two men competing for her heart... or at least her surface beauty.

Kim Novak looking at Cliff Robertson

the female gaze: Kim Novak staring at William Holden

What good is it just to be pretty? Maybe I get tired of only being looked at"

...Madge says to her mother with genuine confusion and frustration.

It's a plight one imagines all the great beauties of the silver screen can relate to but it might be even more complicated for Madge than it is for Kim Novak. In Madge's case the real issue is never addressed, the question may be only half-asked. What good is it only to be looked at when you're the one who wants to do the looking?

Picnic baskets
Antagony & Ecstacy Tim rises to the challenge for a movie he doesn't like at all
Okinawa Assault on the construction of women in Picnic 
Cinesnatch 'are we doing this? i believe we are.'
Encore Entertainment appreciates how many characters Logan can fit in a shot.  

next on "Hit Me" 
7/11 Road to Perdition (2002)
7/18 Pink Narcissus (1971)
7/25 The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
8/01 How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

previously on "Hit Me"... 
If you love this series, spread the word so it gets a season 4!
The Story of Adele H
,  PossessedThe ExorcistRaise the Red LanternSerenitySnow WhiteEaster ParadeBonnie and Clyde and Ladyhawke.

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Reader Comments (13)

I loved this movie ... the dance that Kim did with Holden at the picnic was done by ALL the girls the weekend after it opened at our school . I was in the 8th grade and was very horny all the time... I lost my virginity to this dance... the girl I was with is still
a good friend of mine after 50 plus years...!

July 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick

that is crazy! thanks for sharing. Novak is pretty memorable in that first bit of the dance sequence with the staring and hand clapping.

July 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Since our host is to polite to do it himself, I will huff and puff self-righteously on his behalf: really? Only two entries? Yeah, it's the day after a federal holiday and all, but really. Taking part in this series every week is one of the most fun things I do as a blogger, and that's true whether I love the movie or if I've never seen it or whatever.

In short: START PLAYING ALONG, Y'ALL! Because two entries is just weak, and this series is so much fun to do.

July 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Sorry I couldn't participate this time, just couldn't get access to the film. I'm excited for 'Road to Perdition' though!

July 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

Hi Nat, I will spit on P&S's grave with you. I agree that the film ends with some unresolved questions. But, it is a melodrama. (Does that excuse it; I don't know) Thanks for a great week (despite the P&S).

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCinesnatch

Yes, I agree to watch this movie, share the source of this movie, then i can easily watch this Movie.

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered

Oh this on tomorrow night where I am. Will be giving it a look.

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim B.

Dude as I was saying in my comments section I have both the full screen and the wide screen version of the movie. My video rental place told me to turn the disc around.

I also found the reaction shot to Madge's (and the Rosalind Russell character's) female gaze interesting. Hal's either way afar or behind the screen, as if the female gaze, as well as the male's, are obstructed.

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

My copy of Picnic came in the mail today, and I just finished watching it. Unfortunately, I got the pan and scan version as well. It was a sad moment of realisation haha.

I gotta say though, I definitely enjoyed this movie a lot more cinematically than thematically. I was never really convinced that Madge and Hal were in love. Thanks for linking to Tim's article. It made me feel better, because I too forced myself to sit through this.

@Paolo- that's a really good point about the female and male gaze being obstructed. I did notice that a couple of times too. But it's doesn't really work though seeing as there's still plenty of male gaze going on like with that creepy dude the teacher is dating and his comment about how he always goes around to the Owen's house hoping to see Madge (ew). Even though there is an effort at giving Madge a voice in this movie, I felt that the entire movie was completely male driven. I mean what was I expecting?- it's 50s Hollywood.

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMel

An interesting piece of trivia is that "Picnic" was one of the many films where Holden was asked to shave his hairy chest. There's an article on the topic on the web.
Some of the films where he was his normal hirsute self are "Sunset Blvd," "The Bridges of Toko Ri" and "Paris When It Sizzles."

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

Paolo -- that is a great point. I really think this movie is so much about the looking.

Mel -- thanks for joining in the conversation. It's what I'm always hoping for if multiple people watch a movie. As for the male driven... if you want your lead female to have a voice, Kim Novak might not be the best choice. I mean, I like her tremendously a lot in a couple of films but she is a limited actress.

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Madge (Kim Novak) descending the stairs, clapping her hands to the beat of "Moonglow"....

One of the best moments in 1950s cinema. Novak is too easily overlooked, underrated. Maybe she's too hard to quantify. But that's her essence there, descending the stairs, clapping her hands to the beat, eyes only on William Holden, the man who has destroyed her life, and saved her.

July 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrotherfrancis

@ brotherfancis nails when he talks about Kim descending the stairs there. I looked back at a bit of it after my write-up and generally I don't love the performance but that moment works, it REALLY works. And it's where she comes across as most natural.

I love the shot you pick of Kim watching Cliff. I feel as if he's so underrated here. In fact, I feel like most the performances (admittedly, it's not really a "performance" flick like typical ensembles and they're not all excellent but still.)

July 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.
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