William Holden plays a drifter who rides into town one Labor Day in search of direction. He's not lazy, he's just not realistic. He's a 1950s rebel, to the point of going much of the film bare-chested. Anyway, he's in town because his old college friend Cliff Robertson lives there, and he thinks he might get a cushy office job with Robertson's dad's granary. He quickly becomes involved in the lives of two sisters, played by Kim Novak and Susan Strasberg, and their mother Verna Field. Field runs a boarding house and raises her two daughters, the pretty and vapid Novak and the introverted and intelligent Strasberg. Also living there is Rosalind Russell, who plays a shrill harridan who gets to tear off chunks of the scenery and gnash them with her teeth. She's a spinster schoolteacher who drinks on occasion (like whenever there's a bottle handy) who is dating the milquetoast O'Connell, whose easy manner and straight delivery of his comic relief lines make him a joy to watch in the midst of all of the angst and overacting going on.
Holden has always looked old to me. He was 37 when he did this role, and was supposed to be believable as a young, twenty-something hunk that Novak would fall for. I didn't buy it. He's the romantic lead here, but he has always looked more comfortable as the veteran character actor, like in "Stalag 17". Novak has that broad prettiness that worked so well in Hitchcock's "Vertigo"; here, she looks uncomfortable. Strasberg is the daughter of Lee Strasberg, who was the father of the Actor's Studio that produced Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Al Pacino. She holds her own here, but her part is so annoying that it's hard to forgive the actress for the lines she had to deliver.
Getting back to the plot, Holden quickly falls for Novak, and vice versa, which makes things rough for them because she's dating and supposed to marry Robertson. Tensions rise as the long Labor Day wears on, coming to a head at the town picnic that is among the worst-filmed segments I have ever seen. Everybody gets to yell and tear at their hair, and I'm not giving anything away by saying that true love wins out in the end, as Holden leaves for Omaha where he will work as a bellboy and Novak will live on his love. And it's all delivered in a dead-serious manner. Thinking of contemporary films like "A Streetcar Named Desire" that dealt frankly with sexuality without being this corny, I really can't understand why this one was so critically acclaimed in its day.
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