Based on William Inge’s play, a handsome drifter looks up a rich school friend in Kansas and falls in love with his girl-friend at a picnic while a school-teacher gets her boy-friend to marry her.
Barefoot Hal Carter (William Holden) gets out of a boxcar when a train stops in the town where his friend from school lives. He washes in a waterfall and puts on boots. He goes to a house and offers to rake or burn her trash. Helen Potts (Verna Felton) says it is Labor Day, and she offers him some breakfast. Next door Millie Owens (Susan Strasberg) smokes and reads. In the window above Madge Owens (Kim Novak) is drying her hair. Millie says she does not want a date. The school-teacher Rosemary Sidney (Rosalind Russell) comes out and sits with Millie and her mother Flo Owens (Betty Field).
After enjoying cherry pie Hal goes out to work in the yard. He asks Helen if she knows Alan Benson, and she says he visits the girl next door. Helen says it is okay for him to take his shirt off. Rosemary says he is naked. Millie fights with Bomber (Nick Adams), who tells Madge he is getting a car and offers to pick her up. She puts him off, and he asks why good-looking girls are so stuck on themselves. Hal tells smaller Bomber to go along, and he leaves on his bike. Hal says hello to Madge, and Millie asks if he is working for Mrs. Potts. Flo asks Hal what he wants. He asks if she is the mother and leaves. Helen tells Madge that he knows Alan. Hal asks Madge where he lives. She says he can ask anyone; his father owns the grain elevators.
Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) and his father (Raymond Bailey) practice golf on the lawn. Hal says hello to Alan, who asks where he has been. Hal says he was in the army. Alan heard he went to Hollywood, and Hal says they wanted to replace his teeth. Hal asks him to lend him a razor. Hal says he worked on a ranch in Nevada. He saved $200 but got rolled while hitch-hiking. He was picked up by girls who gave him martinis. He pleased them, and then one held a gun on him. He says he passed out and woke up without his money.
Flo advises Madge to marry soon because a pretty girl does not have long. Madge says she is only nineteen. Rosemary admires a gown Flo is fixing for Madge. Rosemary says that Millie is reading a banned book, The Ballad of the Sad Café. Millie wishes she could go out, but Madge says she is not interested in boys. They get into a fight. Millie cries and slams the door. Madge says “poor Millie” won a four-year scholarship to college. Flo says Madge will belong to the country club. Madge asks what good is it to be pretty. She gets tired of just being looked at. Flo asks if she lets Alan kiss her, and she says of course. Flo asks about going beyond kissing. Madge admits she likes being kissed by him. Flo says the picnic tonight is a big opportunity for her. Flo tells her not to pick on Millie. Madge runs upstairs and cries. Flo follows her and shows she loves her too. Flo says that when Millie came, her father was not around and then left. Flo says she wants to make it up to Millie.
Alan drives and says Hal was the hero on campus. Hal says in football, but his father died in jail. Alan shows him the huge grain elevators. They are working because of the backlog. Alan shows Hal how they tie up the large hose the grain comes through. They go up on the man-lift to the roof. Hal asks if he owns all these. Alan says the corporation owns them. Hal asks if he could get a job in an office with a secretary. Alan says he has start as a little pigeon.
Alan takes Hal to go swimming with the girls. Some girls admire Hal, and Millie says he is taking her. Under a tree Alan tells Madge he wants to be alone with her later. He says she is most beautiful. In the dressing-room Hal tells Alan he has doubts about going on the picnic. On the girls side Millie asks Madge how to talk to boys. Madge says to say whatever comes into her head. She says Millie is supposed to be the smart one. Alan asks Hal what he thinks of his girl. Alan says she will be the queen of Neewollah. Millie hears them and explains.
Flo welcomes Irma Kronkite back and meets Christine Schoenwalder (Elizabeth Wilson). Flo tells Rosemary to change because Howard will be there soon. Hal greets Millie enthusiastically and calls Helen his girl. Hal carries a tub of bottles in ice. Howard Bevins (Arthur O’Connell) arrives and tells Rosemary she looks nice. He says business is fine. Helen calls Alan and Madge the bride and groom as they come down the stairs. Hal says his coat is too small for his shoulders, and Howard tells him to take it off. Hal gets in the car with Millie and drives off. Rosemary expects Howard to open the car door for her.
Alan drives Madge, Flo, and Helen. Alan says Hal could have been an All-American if he had not flunked out. Hal sings with Millie. Alan says he was Hal’s roommate and got to know him. Flo asks if he drinks and says Millie is a child. Howard offers Rosemary a drink, but she is afraid of losing her job. He takes a drink and hands her the bottle. She hides and takes a drink.
At the picnic many people gather as a band plays. They have contests and games. People watch a talent contest. Hal tells Millie he is having fun. Howard invites them to see his shop. Hal says he got his boots from his father, who said they can be used for kicking. Howard asks his business, and Hal says he is going into the grain business. Alan says Hal will be scooping wheat, but he won’t be able to afford to join the country club. Hal says he may settle down there, and he says hi to Madge.
At sunset people sing. Helen tells Flo it has been easier watching her two girls grow up. Rosemary and Howard appreciate the sunset. Millie sketches Hal, who says he modeled once. Hal says he went with a girl who was in the Book-of-the-Month Club. Millie says she memorized all of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Alan tells Madge they will pick her as queen. Millie tells Hal that she writes poems, and he says she must be a genius.
Later couples dance. Alan tells Flo they are going down to the dock. Howard hands the bottle to Hal, and he drinks. Rosemary takes another drink. An announcer says the queen is coming. In a boat on the river Madge arrives with a crown and flowers. People sing “Ain’t She Sweet.” Howard tells Hal he likes to look at her, but he couldn’t touch her. People ask for a speech, and Madge says she will try to do her duty and not to get conceited. The president pushes Alan aside to dance with the queen. Rosemary dances with Millie. Madge says she has to return the cape to Mrs. Johnson. Howard and Hal dance together, and Rosemary takes Howard to dance. Hal asks Millie to dance. Madge watches them and imitates Hal’s dancing. He sees her and stops. She approaches, and they dance together. They stop and then dance closer. Others watch them. Rosemary wants Howard to dance that way, and she dances with him. He says she has nice legs. Howard shows his legs, and she laughs. Rosemary tries to see Hal’s legs and dances with him, clinging. He tries to get free, and she rips his shirt. Howard tells Rosemary to let them alone. Millie says she is sick. Madge tries to help her, and Millie says she hates Madge and runs off. Flo asks who gave liquor to Millie, and Rosemary accuses Hal who was making eyes at Madge. She lectures Hal and calls him a fake, and she says he will end up in the gutter where he belongs. Howard tells her to stop talking. Howard tells onlookers to mind their own business. Alan asks Hal what he did and says he should have known better than to trust him. Flo says there will be no more drinking. Howard says it is his fault for bringing the whiskey. Rosemary asks Howard what made her act that way. She says she wanted to have a good time. He suggests they go for a ride.
Hal goes to the car and tells Madge to beat it. He drives off with her and says she asked for it. He parks, gets out, and takes off his shirt. He drinks from the river, and she follows him. Hal says he is a bum. There is no place for him. Madge says he is young but also a man. She says she likes to hear him talk and that he is a wonderful dancer. She says he has qualities. Hal says he spent a year in jail when he was fourteen for stealing a motorcycle. He says he wanted to get away. His mother turned him in. When he got out, his mother was sorry to see him because she had a new boyfriend. He says he never told that to anyone. Madge kisses him, and he kisses her back. Then she walks off and says they have to get back to the picnic. He embraces her.
Howard opens the car door for Rosemary at the house. He kisses her goodnight, and she asks where he is going. He says home, and she says he has to take her with him. He asks what people would say. She says she does not care. She wonders if he will be back. She asks him to take her with him. She says he was going to marry her. He says he is too old to change. She is set in her ways too, but she wants to change. She hopes something will happen, but nothing ever does. He says he wants to talk about this on Saturday. She says he has to marry her, but he says he can’t marry her now. He wants her to say please, and she cries and says please. He tells her to get some sleep, and he will come back in the morning. He gets in his car and drives off as she watches.
Hal asks Madge how she will get in. She says the kitchen door is always open. He asks if she is all right. She tells him to go. He says he has to take the car back to Benson’s house. She says goodnight, and he asks when he can see her. He is starting a job tomorrow. He asks if she minds seeing a “grain-scooper.” She says of course not. He asks her to kiss him goodnight, but she says no. He asks if she is trying to punish him, and she realizes she was. They kiss and embrace. He says she makes him feel patient. He kisses her, and she says no more and runs into the house. Madge lays on her bed, and Millie says she put mom to bed. Millie says she will never drink again.
Hal drives the car to Benson’s house and sees a police car in front. Inside Mr. Benson and Alan talk about a stolen car with two policemen. Hal walks in and says it is all right. Alan blames Hal for adding a pretty girl to his list. He tries to fight Hal and says he was glad to see him in the morning. Alan says he wants him arrested for stealing the car. Hal says he brought it back; he did not steal it. Hal tells Alan to tell them it is because of Madge, not the car. As Hal is leaving, Alan jumps him. Hal fights him off, turns around, and knocks down a policeman. Mr. Benson tries to stop the police from chasing Hal. Police insist on following. Hal gets in the car and drives off, followed by the police car with a siren. Alan tells his father he must be pleased because he wanted him to break up with Madge; but Alan says he will marry Madge.
Hal stops at the railroad yard and runs into a grain elevator. He pulls the hose down, and grain pours out on the police. Hal goes out and hides under the waterfall. The policeman does not see him, and Hal swims across the river.
Howard talks to himself about how he could arrange his room for a woman. He hears the door buzzer, and Hal comes in, saying police are looking for him. Howard says he understands and offers him a drink. Hal asks for a rag and cleans his boots. Howard asks if he went to the Owens girl. Howard asks if a man has to marry.
In the morning light Millie goes out on the porch and starts smoking. Flo comes out and asks about Madge. Helen comes over. Rosemary comes out and asks if Howard is there. Two ladies arrive and go to get Rosemary for school. Howard arrives, and Rosemary comes out and hugs him. She tells the ladies they are going to be married. Madge sees her. Flo tells Madge that Alan wants to see her. Howard tells Madge that Hal is hiding in his car from the police, and he has to see her. Hal hides in a shed. Rosemary is dressed up and comes out with Howard. Rosemary thanks Helen and says goodbye. Howard says they have to pick up the license. Rosemary asks where they are going, and Howard says his cousin has a tourist camp in the Ozarks. They drive off in a car that is decorated “Just married.” Hal summons Madge and tells her he is in a jam. He says he is going to Tulsa where he can work. Helen, Flo, and Millie come over, and Hal says he is leaving town. He asks Madge if she is mad at him. She admits she likes him. He says he loves her and asks if she loves him. Flo says she will call the police. Hal says he is catching the freight train. Hal says they will give him a room in a hotel. He says she is the only real thing he ever wanted, and they kiss. He has to claim what is his. He says she loves him as he runs off. He climbs on the moving train and waves from on top of a car. Flo goes to Madge, who goes in the house. Flo asks Helen if she liked him, and she says she did. She says it was good with him in the house.
In their room Millie tells Madge that she is going to write novels that shock people. She will never be with a man and does not want kids. Millie tells Madge that she does not have to be a dope too. She advises Madge to go with him. Boomer arrives on his bike and asks Madge to go dancing. Flo comes out and hits him with a broom. Madge is dressed up with a bag and tells Flo that she is going to Tulsa. Flo warns her that he will drink and have other women. Flo asks her to think about it for a few days. Madge kisses Helen goodbye. Flo says it is her duty to be there for the festival. She mentions Alan, but Madge says she does not love Alan. Flo calls Madge her baby, and Madge walks off. Flo tells Helen that she meant to tell her many things. Madge gets on a bus, and Millie waves goodbye. The bus and the train are both leaving town.
This romantic drama from mid-America portrays a holiday in a rural town, showing how people have fun. Physical appearance and dancing are especially important in sexual attraction, and two people who attract much attention find that they like each other. The school-teacher and the brainy younger sister both feel they are missing something, but the aging schoolteacher manages to persuade an older man to take a chance on her.