One of my favorite songs from the 1950s is “Moonglow and Theme from Picnic” by composer Morris Stoloff. Stoloff served as music director at Columbia Pictures from 1936 to 1962, and was subsequently tapped by Frank Sinatra to be music director of his label Reprise Records.
The beautiful instrumental piece is actually a medley arranged by Stoloff that combined the popular 1933 song “Moonglow”, written by Will Hudson, Irving Mills and Eddie DeLange, with the “Theme from Picnic”, written by George Duning for the 1955 film starring William Holden, Kim Novak, Rosalind Russell, Betty Field, Cliff Robertson, Arthur O’Connell and Susan Strasberg. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Picnic by William Inge, the film was adapted for the screen by Daniel Taradash, and directed by Joshua Logan, who also directed the Broadway production. Stoloff’s piece was used in the film, and later released as a single in early 1956. The song spent three weeks at #1 on the Billboard Most Played by Jockeys chart that spring (from 1955-57, Billboard had four distinct, and rather childishly-named, pop charts: Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played by Jockeys, Most Played in Jukeboxes, and Top 100).
From the 1940s to the early 1980s, instrumentals were quite popular and often released as singles. Beginning with the Big Band era and continuing all the way through to the Rock and Disco eras, numerous instrumentals became big hits. Some of the iconic instrumentals that went to #1 include the Benny Goodman classic “Sing Sing Sing”, Perez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”, Percy Faith’s “Theme from A Summer Place”, Booker T & the MGs’ “Green Onions”, Paul Mauriat’s “Love is Blue”, Hugo Montenegro’s “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly”, Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas”, MFSB’s “T.S.O.P”, Barry White’s “Love’s Theme” and Vangelis’ “Theme from Chariots of Fire”. For me, “Moonglow and Theme from Picnic” ranks among the best of them. The cool percussion, jazzy piano keys and stirring orchestral strings are positively sublime.
The song is wonderful all by itself, but what makes it even more significant is the fact that it was used for one of the most important and memorable scenes in Picnic. A rather intoxicated Hal, played by William Holden, dances to the song with his college friend Alan’s girlfriend Madge, played by the devastatingly beautiful Kim Novak, while her younger sister Millie, played by Susan Strasberg, watches with teenage envy as she swigs liquor from a bottle hidden in Hal’s jacket. The also intoxicated middle-aged schoolteacher Rosemary, played by Rosalind Russell in one of her finest performances, and the hapless Howard (Arthur O’Connell) watch from the sidelines. Rosemary stews with bitter jealousy as she watches the younger, more beautiful Madge dance with Hal, who she finds both attractive and repellant. It’s an incredible scene taut with sexual tension and desire, and the sensuous song sets the perfect mood.