Hal, a handsome drifter, arrives in a small Kansas town on Labor Day weekend, seeking work. The town happens to be the home of his old college roommate Alan, scion of a wealthy family. Alan is romancing Madge Owens, the prettiest girl in town. Madge's widowed mother Flo is desperate to get her married off to Alan and is horrified by the romantic sparks that soon emerge between Madge and Hal. Madge's younger, plainer, bookish sister Millie is jealous of the attention that Madge gets for her beauty. Rosemary, the spinster schoolteacher who lives in the boardinghouse next door, is also attracted to Hal, despite the attentions of her suitor, Howard, an older man who owns a general store.
The play's original Broadway production featured an unknown Paul Newman in the part of Alan. The film recast most of the roles with Hollywood stars, including 37-year-old William Holden as Hal, Kim Novak (in her Star-Making Role) as Madge, Rosalind Russell as Rosemary, and Cliff Robertson as Alan.
Tropes in this work:
- Age Lift: William Holden was reluctant to play Hal, as he was at least a decade too old for the part as written.
- Ambiguously Gay:
- In the film, Millie comes off like she might be a lesbian, what with the oversized glasses, the covert smoking, her comments about never dancing with boys and not wanting to get married and have babies, and her insistence that she has to lead while dancing with Rosemary. Less true in the play, where Millie confesses to a crush on Alan.
- In the play, Alan wraps his arms around Hal as Hal swings him around.
- And Starring: In the movie, Rosalind Russell gets a "Co-Starring" credit with her name in a large type, after all the other actors.
- Anguished Declaration of Love: Hal spits this out to Madge at the end, despite saying he was reluctant because it sounds stupid.
- As You Know: Rosemary introduces herself with "Anybody mind if an old maid schoolteacher joins their party?"
- Dare to Be Badass: Millie gives Madge this speech at the end of the film, telling her that she must go and fight for Hal.Millie: When I graduate from college I'm going to New York, and write novels that'll shock people right out of their senses. I'm never gonna fall in love. Not me! I'm not gonna live in some jerkwater town and marry some ornery guy and raise some grimy kids. But just because I'm a dope doesn't mean you have to be.
Millie: Go with him, Madge.
Millie: For once in your life, do something right.
- Disappeared Dad: Flo's father left sometime after Millie was born.
- Eating the Eye Candy: Lots of people notice how handsome and manly Hal is, like the other people going swimming, or Rosemary, who compares him to a Roman statue.
- Establishing Character Moment: In their first scene, Millie is wearing overalls, smoking a cigarette, shooting a basketball, and reading a book. She is bothered by dripping water—from her gorgeous sister Madge upstairs, wringing out her long, luxuriant hair. The Tomboy and Girly Girl dynamic is firmly established.
- Extremely Short Timespan: Takes place over just about exactly 24 hours, from Hal's arrival on the train on Labor Day to his departure on the next train the next day.
- The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Millie resents Madge's beauty, while Madge envies Millie's intelligence.
- Have a Gay Old Time: "Madge, does Alan ever make love?" Actually, this is a borderline example: Flo is using "make love" in its old meaning of "courting/romance", but as the context makes clear she's really asking how far Alan has gotten with Madge.
- I Was Quite a Looker: "When I was a girl I was just as good looking as she is", says a bitter Rosemary about Madge. (It's true! Go watch His Girl Friday!)
- Love Triangle: Alan is besotted with Madge, who isn't all that interested in him but is very much interested in Hal, who reciprocates.
- Maybe Ever After: After Hal hops a train to get out of town, Madge also leaves, getting on a bus to meet him in Tulsa. It's hopeful, but Hal doesn't seem very promising as a life partner.
- Old Maid: Rosemary, who is bitter about it and terrified at the prospect of growing old alone.
- Picnic Episode: The middle act of the story takes place at the town's Labor Day picnic.
- Precision F-Strike: Was this the first use of the word "slut" in a Hays Code-era American film? If it wasn't, it must have been one of the first. (Millie calls Madge this during an argument.)
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: A drunken Rosemary delivers a particularly cruel one to Hal after he rejects her advances at the picnic."Young? You been stomping around her in those boots like you owned the place, thinking every woman you saw as gonna fall madly in love. But here's one woman didn't pay you any mind. Aristocratic millionaire, my foot! You wouldn't know an aristocratic millionaire if he spit on you. Braggin' about your father, and I bet he wasn't any better'n you are. You think just 'cause you're a man, you can walk in here and make off with whatever you like. You think just 'cause you're young you can push other people aside and not pay them any mind. You think just cause you're strong you can show your muscles and nobody'll know what a pitiful specimen you are. But you won't stay young forever, didja ever thinka that? What'll become of you then? You'll end your life in the gutter and it'll serve you right, 'cause the gutter's where you came from and the gutter's where you belong."
- Romantic False Lead: Who thinks Madge will pick Alan after Hal arrives?
- Sdrawkcab Name: The town's Halloween festival is called "Neewollah". The scene where they all sing "Neewollah, Neewollah" as Madge, the newly-crowned Neewollah Queen, rides down the stream in a boat is more than a little creepy.
- Shirtless Scene: Hal's willingness to be shirtless, especially in mixed company, marks him as both more virile and lower-class than his college roommate.
- Shout-Out: The "filthy book" that Millie is reading is Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café.
- Small Town Boredom: All of the female characters suffer from this and seek to employ various strategies to escape or relieve it.
- So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Madge has a problem for being seen as primarily a beauty; Hal is the first person she met who loved her after knowing her a little better."I get so tired of just being told I'm pretty."
- Swing Low, Sweet Harriet: In the film, Madge swings on a swing during a long conversation between the characters in which Hal acts all manly.
- Tomboy and Girly Girl: Millie is studious, bookish, wears glasses, smokes, and shoots basketball. Madge is gorgeous and wears pretty dresses. See Establishing Character Moment above.
- True Beauty Is on the Inside: Millie discusses it in the film."The ones we love are always pretty, but the ones who are pretty to begin with... everyone loves them."