Tonight: William Holden and Kim Novak, with Rosalind Russell, Betty Field, Susan Strasberg and Cliff Robertson, in the romantic drama Picnic.
The film was based on a Pulitzer-Prize winning play written by William Inge and directed by Josh Logan. The Theater Guild production opened in February 1953 and ran 477 performances.
Logan won a Tony award for his direction, and Picnic earned a New York Critic’s Award for best drama.
The play was Paul Newman’s Broadway debut. An unknown actor at the time, Newman campaigned for the leading role, but Logan didn’t think he was big enough to convey the lead character’s athletic presence.
As a result, Ralph Meeker was given the role opposite Janice Rule. Newman played the college roommate (portrayed by Robertson in the movie) while understudying the lead, which he eventually took over.
Logan was hired to direct the film, but the cast came from Hollywood.
Holden initially declined the role because, at 37, he thought he was too old.
He played the part perfectly, but there were problems.
He told off Columbia’s controversial chief Harry Cohn and scared Logan by drinking a number of martinis at the production party and then standing on the window ledge of Logan’s 14th floor hotel suite.
It would be Holden’s last picture at Columbia.
Holden began at Paramount with bit parts in 1938 and became a star with his first feature role in Golden Boy in 1939.
He was still turning in powerful performances four decades later in films such as Network (1976).
He died of a drinking-related accident in 1981.
Picnic was Novak’s first leading role. She was Cohn’s personal choice to replace Columbia’s then fading star, Rita Hayworth, who had followed an unsuccessful marriage to international playboy Prince Aly Kahn (1949-51) with another, to fading crooner Dick Haymes (1953-55).
But Novak posed another kind of problem for Cohn. Her real name was Marilyn Novak, and the studio insisted she change it because of the other Marilyn who was so popular in the 1950s.
Marilyn became Kim, but she refused to change her last name—proud of her Polish heritage.
An overweight lingerie model from Chicago, she was petrified of her part in Picnic. As such, she became reclusive, shunning social invitations. She went to church instead, praying she would be a success.
On hearing this, Holden remarked, “She’d be better off if she spent more time learning her lines and less time reciting her rosary.”
Her prayers were answered, however. Picnic was a box-office smash and made her a star.
Her new name became one of the most popular in postwar America.
There are more Playmates named “Kim” than any other name. I married one of them, but that’s another story.
In 1958, rumors of an inter-racial romance with Sammy Davis Jr. almost destroyed Novak’s career. In an interview with Hollywood columnist James Bacon, Sammy recalled, “Harry (Cohn) knew the consigliore of the Chicago mob and gave him a call. One morning, almost 2 A.M., after I finished the midnight show at the Sands, I was met in the parking lot by two of the boys who grabbed me and shoved me into their car. We drove out of Vegas to a remote spot in the desert. It was a dark and lonely spot, and I was scared to death they were going to kill me.
“One of these mobsters picked up a sharp stick and said, ‘You got one eye gone. You want two?’
“I naturally said, ‘No!”
“The other guy said, ‘You better marry somebody in the next 24 hours—preferably black or else you won’t be able to read music. Capiche?’”
The next night, Sammy proposed to Loray White, a black dancer in the show at the Sands.The marriage was never consummated. She took $25,000 and agreed to a divorce six months later.
The most famous scene in Picnic—the sensuous dance to “Moonglow”—is one Holden didn’t want to do. “I can’t dance,” he said. He actually got Cohn to write a check for $8,000 for doing his own “stunt work” in the film—the dance.
Picnic proved to be one of the most popular films of the decade. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Arthur O’Connell was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Rosaline Russell would have been nominated too, but she refused to have her name entered as a “supporting” actress. The picture took home Oscars for Film Editing and Art & Set Direction.
The review in the Hollywood Reporter got it right when it said, “William Holden gives a flawless performance. Kim Novak is out of this world.” The review concluded, “One of the sexiest films I’ve ever seen.”
So now—from 1955—Picnic.