Picnic (1955)

Picnic

Why should anyone be interested in him? Former college football star and failed Hollywood actor Hal Carter (William Holden) is drifting through Kansas and stops in Neewollah where his old fraternity buddy Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) is dating beauty queen Madge Owens (Kim Novak) whom Hal meets when he’s doing chores for her elderly neighbour Mrs Potts (Verna Felton) who immediately sees he’s hungry and has fallen on hard times. Alan’s father owns the grain elevators in the town and Alan promises Hal a job but it’s Labor Day and Alan says his date at the town picnic can be Madge’s little sister Millie (Susan Strasberg). The Owens’ boarder, unmarried teacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) gets drunk on the whisky that store owner Howard Bevens (Arthur O’Connell) brings and her violent jealousy of Madge and Hal’s obvious romantic attraction causes a commotion and disrupts Alan and Madge’s relationship to Mrs Owens’ (Betty Field) horror, who wants Madge to marry well, unlike her …  I liked you from the first time I saw you. This lushly romantic if rather heavy-handed adaptation of William Inge’s play by Daniel Taradash retains its power principally through the expressive masculinity of Holden as the overgrown hunk and the several phases of womanhood represented by the female cast. Russell is shocking as the put-out spinster and O’Connell impresses as her trapped bird of a suitor. Strasberg is fantastic as beautiful Madge’s pigtailed little sister. Novak is Novak – a smalltown girl with a future due to her exquisite looks. What is stunning still is the big scene between Novak and Holden – that dance, to Moonglow, one of the most sensual ever captured on film. It’s simply breathtaking. What a perfect mid-century moment in a film of such feeling, capturing the difference between night and day like few other movies. Directed by Josh Logan, scored by George Duning with Robertson in his debut. You love me. You love me!

Kansas Raiders (1950)

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He’s a real man is all I know. In Missouri after their parents are killed by Union soldiers, Jesse James (Audie Murphy) and his brother Frank (Richard Long) with the rest of their gang Cole Younger (James Best), James Younger (Dewey Martin) and Kit Dalton (Tony Curtis) ride into Kansas looking for William Clarke Quantrill (Brian Donlevy). Seeking revenge against the Union, Jesse wants to join Quantrill’s Raiders, who are plotting to claim Kansas for the Confederacy. The more time Jesse spends with Quantrill, however, the more he realises Quantrill isn’t a hero fighting for the South, but a murderous madman and the boys earn their stripes the hard way during a raid on Lawrence … In border country you’re either a Union man or a spy. Perhaps there’s a certain inevitability to America’s greatest WWII hero playing its greatest anti-hero but as well as being a Civil War story this is also a kind of rites of passage tale. The emphasis is on colourful fast-moving ride and revenge action and it’s hardly history even though it’s inspired by the Kansas-Missouri Border War:  the raid on Lawrence wasn’t so much a gun battle as a straight up massacre.  Donlevy is too old but is certainly vicious enough in his role as the notoriously maniacal Quantrill. However the sentiments are true and Audie’s neophyte acting fits the part neatly in his fifth film. This is all about youthfulness and finding your place in the world, albeit with a knife in one hand and a gun in the other. An early highlight is a ‘handkerchief fight’ between him and Quantrill’s third in command Tate (David Wolfe); and Marguerite Chapman has an apposite role as a woman in a man’s world. And as for Curtis’ accent! Written by Robert L. Richards and directed by Ray Enright in locations that do not suggest their setting. More recruits for the butcher brigade

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

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When we’re young, we looks at thing very idealistically I guess. And I think Woodsworth means that… that when we’re grow-up… then, we have to… forget the ideals of youth… and find strength.  1928 Kansas. High school football star Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) and his sensitive high school sweetheart, Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood), are weighed down by their parents’ oppressive expectations, which threaten the future of their relationship. Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) and Bud’s oil baron father (Pat Hingle) caution their children against engaging in a sexual relationship, but for opposing reasons: Deanie’s mother thinks Bud won’t marry a girl with loose morals, while Bud’s father is afraid marriage and pregnancy would ruin Bud’s future at Yale… One of the great performances, by Wood, in one of the great movies from a Hollywood negotiating carefully between outward sexuality and the censorship mores which wouldn’t be properly thrown out for another half-dozen years. William Inge’s screenplay of adolescent yearning and learning falls plumb in the middle of his own playwriting and screenwriting run, with director Elia Kazan expertly treading the lines governing behaviour and desire in a small-minded society living in stultifying olde worlde interiors. Wood gives a total performance:  from the poetry-loving 1920s kid to the girl who falls heavily for Beatty’s rich boy and doesn’t know what to do with the burgeoning wish for sex that overwhelms her very being.  She literally goes crazy for want of him. Beatty is a superb match for Wood in his screen debut: and how beautiful are they together?  He was an important actor for Inge, having done his only stage performance in A Loss of Roses. His soft questioning hooded face seems to hold all the answers to the playwright’s questions:  Is it so terrible to have those feelings about a boy?  Barbara Loden (Kazan’s future wife) is good as Beatty’s slutty sister Ginny and Hingle is superb as his demanding father facing ruin when the stock market fails. Christie is frightening as Mrs Loomis. There are a lot of scenes set around water – it forms part of the narrative’s sensual mythology that envelops the players:  they are literally drowning in love. Kazan coaxes hysteria from an actress who was herself troubled enough to go into analysis (it was her offscreen tormentors who really needed it) and her heartbreaking expressive emotionality makes this utterly unforgettable. This is a film that takes teenagers seriously. Moving like few other films, this is a stunning and tragic evocation of repression, lust, desire and love. Wood is simply great.

Sgt. Bilko (1996)

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Can’t is a four-letter word in this platoon! Sergeant Bilko (Steve Martin) is in charge of the motor pool at his Kansas base but more importantly he oversees his base’s gambling operations and occasionally runs a little con game, all under the oblivious nose of his commanding officer, Colonel Hall (Dan Aykroyd). After Bilko’s old nemesis, Major Thorn (Phil Hartman), shows up, intent on ruining his career and stealing his girlfriend, Rita (Glenne Headly), Bilko must take extra care to cover his tracks while concocting the perfect scheme to take down his foe… I have been avoiding this since it came out (a long time ago) because I grew up watching the Phil Silvers show on re-runs practically every night. I even gifted myself a box set of the series a short while back.  However I’m glad to report that far from the grimfest I half-expected it’s a very likeable physical comedy with some great setpieces perfectly cued to showcase Martin’s adeptness at farce. The material and scenarios are somewhat updated to accommodate modern mores – which provide some fun during a dorm check – and Hartman gets a wonderful opportunity to exact revenge for a laugh out loud prank which we see in flashback:  the best boxing match ever on film with both participants taking a dive! And then Bilko gets his turn when all the chips are down and the guys line up to help him out. It’ll never erase the great TV show but there are compensations – Headly as the woman forever scorned (until she bests him) and the chance to see a soft side of Aykroyd who allows all the chicanery to take place without ever expressing a cruel word. And Austin Pendleton shows Bilko how to play poker! There’s even Chris Rock and Phil Silvers’ daughter Cathy who come to audit the base and cannot catch Bilko for love or money. It’s like watching a magician!  she declares. Very funny indeed. Andy Breckman adapted Nat Hiken’s show and it’s directed by Jonathan Lynn.