William Holden in Picnic

William Holden as Hal Carter in Picnic (1955)

William Holden as Hal Carter in Picnic (1955)

Vitals

William Holden as Hal Carter, aimless former college football star and Army veteran

Kansas, Labor Day 1955

Film: Picnic
Release Date: February 16, 1956
Director: Joshua Logan
Costume Designer: Jean Louis

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!

Background

This Labor Day, we celebrate one of the lesser-recognized cinematic holidays with a look at the Academy Award-nominated Technicolor hit Picnic. Adapted from William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Picnic reflects the mid-century vision of small-town America with white picket fences housing sweltering suburban repression as frequently depicted by Inge, Douglas Sirk, and their contemporaries.

William Holden plays Hal Carter, a drifter who rides into the fictional small town of Salinson (a portmanteau of the actual Kansas towns Salina and Hutchinson) on a hot and still day, washing himself by the street before venturing into town. Though he’s seeking his old fraternity pal Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), Hal earns his breakfast doing chores for Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton), an older woman who is far more interested in feeding and caring for the young man than making him work.

“Oh my gracious! Nobody works today… it’s Labor Day!” she exclaims when Hal shows up at her door, offering to work. Sensing the young man’s needs, she follows up with “Are you hungry?” to which he responds, “I guess my stomach didn’t know it was Labor Day, ma’am,” and is promptly treated to a cherry pie breakfast.

As Hal finally settles in to some work for the kindly Mrs. Potts, he’s distracted by the scene across the yard as the obnoxious local boy “Bomber” (Nick Adams) harasses the Owens sisters—bullying the smart tomboy (Susan Strasberg) and attempting to work his questionable “charms” on her older sister, the voluptuous and vivacious Madge (Kim Novak)—before Hal intervenes.

Bomber: Who are you?
Hal: What’s that matter? I’m bigger than you are.

After Hal dismisses the pesty Bomber by bouncing a ball off of his head, the sweaty stranger makes the sisters’ acquaintance and begins his inadvertent seduction of almost every woman in the town, culminating in the titular picnic, in fact a town-wide party.

Arguably the best known scene finds Hal and Madge finally acknowledging the mutual attraction that’s been growing between them throughout the day as they increasingly close together under the harvest moon to George Duning’s now-famous arrangement of “Theme from Picnic”, a strings-driven variation of the 1934 standard “Moonglow” conducted here to equable perfection by Morris Stoloff. (Mob movie fans may recognize the song from an early scene in Casino as Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci’s expository narration takes the viewer on a tour of the fictional Tangiers casino’s security measures.)

William Holden had initially resisted the scene, afraid of looking foolish during his dance with Kim Novak. “I just don’t know how to dance,” he once explained to Robertson. Holden first attempted to avoid having to film the dance by requesting an $8,000 “stuntman premium” from Columbia Pictures, though he was as surprised as anyone when the studio readily agreed to pay the fee in exchange for his participation in the sequence.

After practicing authentic dance steps with choreographer Miriam Nelson at a few Kansas roadhouses, Holden—an alcoholic—was forced to resort to his second tactic… drinking heavily, and the scene was filmed while Holden was intoxicated, making Picnic the fourth and final film of his career that featured William Holden dancing.

What’d He Wear?

The Drifter

Hal Carter arrives in town dressed to work.

Hal Carter arrives in town dressed to work.

Hal Carter arrives in Salinson dressed head-to-toe in hard-wearing work attire that combines classic utilitarian military menswear with rugged Western-influenced staples for a look that immediately establishes his hearty masculinity. The flight jacket and chambray shirt are likely items that the young man retained from his military service, which we know about after he explained to Benson that he was in the Army. (“Yeah, how long?” asked Benson. “‘Til I got out,” Hal grumbled in response.)

Hal and Madge, the morning after they scandalized the town. Kim Novak's signature blonde hair was dyed a more auburn shade for the movie.

Hal and Madge, the morning after they scandalized the town. Kim Novak’s signature blonde hair was dyed a more auburn shade for the movie.

Hal’s blue chambray cotton work shirt is almost certainly U.S. Navy surplus, reflective of his military service albeit in a different branch. The shirt has a point collar, front placket, two button-through patch pockets on the chest, and button cuffs worn undone with the sleeves rolled up past his elbows. All buttons are dark blue plastic.

PICNIC

“It’ll be awful hot in that jacket,” suggests Mrs. Potts as Hal attempts to get straight to work upon his arrival, “you better take it off.” Indeed, Hal’s heavy goatskin flight jacket is a curious garment for him to enthusiastically keep wearing while offering manual labor near a fire barrel on such a famously humid holiday, though it did make an effective makeshift rucksack for him to carry his boots while traveling on the train.

Despite the work being done in her benefit, Mrs. Potts reminds Hal that there's no need for him to actually labor on Labor Day.

Despite the work being done in her benefit, Mrs. Potts reminds Hal that there’s no need for him to actually labor on Labor Day.

The faded brown leather jacket, styled like the classic A-2 flight jacket made famous by the heroic figures of the U.S. Army Air Force, has a shaped shirt-style collar, a covered-fly zip front, epaulettes, and patch hip pockets that close with single-snapped flaps. The cuffs and hemline are elasticized in a finely ribbed knit wool.

PICNIC

Though he cycles through a few shirts for the day’s later festivities, Hal always wears the same trousers and boots. His khaki flat front chino cloth trousers have slightly slanted side pockets, no back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms. Now ubiquitous in menswear, khaki clothing had entered the 20th century almost strictly in the domain of military uniforms until they were popularized in mid-century by veterans returning home from World War II. The durable trousers had impressed service members across all branches and found a place as practical yet somewhat fashionable work wear.

Through the belt loops of his khakis, Hal wears a brown tooled leather Ranger-style belt with a slim center strap that fastens through a curved steel single-prong buckle.

Legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe was director of photography on Picnic, framing shots like these that subliminally communicate Hal awakening carnal impulses of women in the town like Rosemary.

Legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe was director of photography on Picnic, framing shots like these that subliminally communicate Hal awakening carnal impulses of women in the town like Rosemary.

“Where’d you ever get those boots?” asks Rosemary Sydney (Rosalind Russell), a local schoolteacher who—like many women in Salinson—can’t help but to flirt with the mysterious but friendly newcomer. “My old man left ’em to me when he died,” responds Hal, adding:

He had a very big foot…. he’d say, “son, the man of the house has got to have a pair of boots ’cause he’s gotta do a lot of kickin’.” Then he said, uh, “son, there’ll be times when the only thing you got to be proud of is the fact that you’re a man. So wear your boots so people know you’re comin’ and keep your fist doubled up so they know you mean business when you get there.”

Hal’s departed father would have no doubt taken pride in his son’s chestnut brown leather boots, a pair of slip-on boots with lower shafts that covers his ankles like roper boots, a more basic style of footwear than the taller—and often more ornately stitched and decorated—cowboy boots. Many companies that specialize in Western boots, including Justin, Old West Boots, and Ranch Road, offer roper boots as more basic alternatives to cowboy boots, though they’re almost always fitted with pull tabs unlike Hal’s boots.

Hal pulls up his pant legs to show off his well-traveled roper boots.

Hal pulls up his pant legs to show off his well-traveled roper boots.

For a brief foray into town with Benson, Hal changes out of his work shirt into a more fashionable camp shirt made from mint green slubbed shantung silk with an atomic-influenced motif of yellow and black swirl designs. Hal characteristically wears the long sleeves rolled up past his elbows and open at the camp collar. The shirt has two patch pockets on the chest that each close through a single button.

PICNIC

It remains unexplained whether or not Hal brought the shirt with him or borrowed it from Benson, though the latter scenario is certainly likely.

The Dancer

The famous "Moonglow" dance, for which William Holden prepared by practicing with choreographer Miriam Nelson in Kansas roadhouses... and getting considerably drunk before filming.

The famous “Moonglow” dance, for which William Holden prepared by practicing with choreographer Miriam Nelson in Kansas roadhouses… and getting considerably drunk before filming.

We do know that Hal borrows from Benson for his double date to the picnic itself, dressing up in one of Benson’s sport jackets and camp shirts. Hal is clearly uncomfortable as he offers to Madge, stating “I never could wear another fella’s clothes… ya see, I’m beefy through the shoulders.” Mrs. Potts once again urges Hal to remove his jacket, suggesting that “nobody’d mind if you took it off,” even though Rosemary had only just scolded her date, Howard (Arthur O’Connell), for having the gall to pick her up for the picnic sans jacket. (Despite this, Rosemary later makes it quite clear that, the less Hal is wearing, the happier she is.)

Free of his ill-fitting sport jacket, the robust Hal subconsciously flexes his physique for the townspeople he would eventually scandalize with his dance and dalliance with Madge.

Free of his ill-fitting sport jacket, the robust Hal subconsciously flexes his physique for the townspeople he would eventually scandalize with his dance and dalliance with Madge.

Benson’s two-button sports coat fits the informality of the occasion, but the tan mini-checked linen material does not contrast enough with Hal’s khaki slacks and—in addition to the heat—it’s no surprise that the drifter soon discards it.

If only Hal had kept his sports coat on, he may have out-dressed Benson, whose take on the stereotypical movie gangster would likely have been out of place for a small town picnic in rural Kansas.

If only Hal had kept his sports coat on, he may have out-dressed Benson, whose take on the stereotypical movie gangster would likely have been out of place for a small town picnic in rural Kansas.

The single-breasted sport jacket has notch lapels, three-button cuffs, and a single back vent. The three outer pockets are all patch pockets with flaps covering the two hip pockets.

PICNIC

Hal’s ice-white gabardine camp shirt is a bit too casual to be worn with a tie, particularly when Hal wears the long-pointed camp collar unbuttoned at the neck, but the image of Hal—sleeves rolled up as usual, tie half-heartedly knotted with his casual shirt—continually reminds the viewer that, pleasant as he is, he doesn’t belong in this sanitized part of the world. The color, described here as “ice-white”, is essentially a very pale shade of blue that could be mistaken for white.

The shirt buttons up a plain front with no placket and has two set-in chest pockets with flaps. The squared cuffs each close with a single button, through Hal naturally rolls them up well past his elbows after discarding his jacket.

While the tie was a sincere attempt for Hal to dress up for the picnic, he may have been best-advised to leave it with the discarded sports coat and embrace the more unified informality of his camp shirt and khakis.

While the tie was a sincere attempt for Hal to dress up for the picnic, he may have been best-advised to leave it with the discarded sports coat and embrace the more unified informality of his camp shirt and khakis.

Scott Fraser Collection specializes in these retro-minded long-sleeved camp shirts, described as “Cuban collar shirts” and manufactured in bold colors like teal and bright yellow, though the company’s summer 2019 collection includes a limited edition “white slub” shirt in a cotton and rayon/viscose blend for £130. Like Holden’s on-screen shirt, the Scott Fraser shirt has a fifties-friendly wide camp collar with loop, twin pockets with non-buttoning flaps, a plain front, and button cuffs.

Hal’s tie, which spends almost the entire duration of the picnic loosened, is dark brown with an array of white cubes dotted throughout.

PICNIC

“And thank Benson for his shirt!” Hal yells after he removes the garment that’s been irreparably torn by the jealous Rosemary, confirming that the shirt was among the several pieces he borrowed from his former pal.

New York Times critic Stephen Holden (no relation to William) commented in 1996 that, "in 1955, the 'Moonglow' dance and the 'torn shirt' sequences from the movie Picnic were about as steamy as Hollywood could get in evoking explosive sex."

New York Times critic Stephen Holden (no relation to William) commented in 1996 that, “in 1955, the ‘Moonglow’ dance and the ‘torn shirt’ sequences from the movie Picnic were about as steamy as Hollywood could get in evoking explosive sex.”

Repudiated by the town, Hal returns to Benson’s bronze convertible and retrieves the blue work shirt and leather flight jacket that he had worn when he first arrived, both more authentic sartorial reflections of the man:

What’s the use, baby? I’m a bum.

How to Get the Look

William Holden as Hal Carter in Picnic (1955)

William Holden as Hal Carter in Picnic (1955)

William Holden wears a few outfits during his character’s increasingly uncomfortable 24 hours in Salinson, Kansas, though there’s a reason Hal Carter looks the most comfortable in the compatible and rugged combination of military fashions like his flight jacket, work shirt, and khaki chinos with Western-inspired leather elements of belt and boots.

  • Blue chambray cotton work shirt with point collar, front placket, two button-through patch pockets, and button cuffs
  • Brown leather A-2 flight jacket with shirt-style collar, covered-fly zip front, flapped patch hip pockets, and ribbed-knit cuffs and hem
  • Khaki flat front chino trousers with belt loops, slightly slanted side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
  • Slim brown tooled leather Ranger-style belt with squared steel single-prong buckle
  • Brown leather roper boots

Many companies specialize in making flight jackets consistent with original A-2 specifications outlined by the U.S. Army. Cockpit USA offers the “Mustang A-2 Jacket” in heavy tanned goatskin, even featuring a model dressed like Holden in Picnic with a blue button-up shirt and khaki chinos.

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

I learned something today, and it’s that there comes a time in a man’s life when he’s gotta quit rollin’ around like a pinball.

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One comment

  1. KB

    Thank you for the write up on this movie. It’s one of my personal favorites; one main reason being that it portrays the lost culture of consensus and solidarity that followed the Second World War. Despite the personal soap opera between the characters in this film, the U.S. hasn’t mirrored the unity of the years between 1945-1965 and it’s looking like we never will again. The Labor Day picnic is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Hordes of families of European Christian heritage all there to pass on traditions to their children and grandchildren in the last days of summer circa 1955. Dressed in an appropriate manner; no gauges in ears; no visible tattoos; shirts tucked in; dresses for the ladies. What have we lost and what have we inherited?

    This picture is alive with human vitality and communities like that used to be like that before deindustrialization, college for everyone, feminism and the embrace of contraceptives and birth control from the 1960s onward. I reckon when the Baby Boomers start dropping in numbers there will be no one left to remember the country as it used to be and I’m not certain the Millenials and Gen Z—who are not Christian and openly advocate satanic Jacobinism and Marxism—won’t supply the final nail in the coffin, burying the American experiment for good. Ironically enough, many of those old playwrights thought they were edgy and stabbing into the heart of heritage America with these stories that dialed up the discontent in the American heart and mind, but they didn’t perceive we’d use films like this as a measuring stick to show just how far our standards have fallen. Not even atheist socialists like Tennessee Williams or George Bernard Shaw could envision the hellish future on the horizon.

    Like

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