David Lean‘s Summertime (1955), newly on Blu-ray from Criterion, is many things. It’s a lush romance, a jet-age postcard vacation film, a dazzling burst of color, a meditation on Americans abroad and the difference between Old and New World morality, a vehicle for Katherine Hepburn, and the link in Lean’s career between the small personal scale of his exquisitely wrought studio films and the extravagant location epics that mark the rest of his career.
As the credits unfold over what look like brilliant watercolor sketches, underscored by Alessandro Cicognini’s lush romantic music, Summertime showcases itself as one of the most seductive Technicolor films of the decade, on par with the color films of Jean Renoir. Cinematographer Jack Hildyard apparently needed only to aim his camera anywhere in Venice, employing depth of field all the way to distant canals and scurrying people. The formidable Vincent Korda is the production designer, but I’m not sure what he had to do besides point out fabulous buildings and bridges. Indeed, Summertime could play without its soundtrack, and the audience would still be stunned.
The story opens on a train approaching Venice. Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn) eagerly films everything with her portable 8mm camera, thereby identifying herself with Lean. The camera is a typical tourist impediment that demarcates her from what she sees; it imposes control upon her surroundings and emphasizes her as a voyeur more than a participant. As she films Italian men watching women and realizes she’s shut out of the romantic mood, Jane becomes self-conscious, almost panic-stricken when she notices a man watching her with interest. But we get ahead of ourselves.
On a bus boat to her private pensione, Jane meets a stereotypically gauche and crass pair of American tourists, Lloyd McIlhenny (MacDonald Parke) and wife Edith (Jane Rose), who express complacence over their hectic package tour. People like this visit Italy not only as tourists but in a sense as postwar conquerors contributing to the burgeoning economic rebirth of the country as a tourist Mecca. The pensione is owned by the glamorous Signora Fiorini (Isa Miranda), who makes Summertime‘s only reference to the war when mentioning that her husband died in it. Without that barely acknowledged war, Summertime‘s context wouldn’t exist.
Additional guests are another American couple, the quasi-successful painter Eddie Yaeger (Darrin McGavin) and his half-chic, half-common wife Phyl (Mari Aldon). Jane attaches herself to or is attached by Mauro (Gaetano Autiero), a street urchin on the tourist hustle, a more or less homeless orphan who smokes and sells dirty postcards.
When Jane goes shopping and gets dazzled by a big red Murano goblet in a window, she meets the local man who’d been giving her the eye, Renato de Rossi (Rosanno Brazzi). Will she acquire him along with the goblet, and who’s picking up whom? Later, she’ll go on a bigger spree where an extravagant Italian shoe merges consumption with sexual desire. When she leaves a single shoe like Cinderella on a balcony, it’s a sign not of retreat but fulfillment.
The rest of Summertime will be romance, with Jane progressing in conscience-stricken fits and starts before giving over to the magic of Venetian atmosphere and foreignness. Renato says he knows he’s not her perfect dream, but when you’re hungry, you should take the ravioli and not hold out for beefsteak. Signora Fiorini had advised her that miracles may happen, but you must give them a little push. The philosophies of carpe diem and playing what you’re dealt win the day, especially since Jane knows she’s leaving.
The story’s simplicity is its secret weapon. The concept is a splashier international version of Lean’s beloved homey romance, Brief Encounter (1945), almost a remake or at least a re-think. The direct source is a slightly cynical Broadway romance by Arthur Laurents, The Time of the Cuckoo (1952), about a middle-aged American tourist who, after reluctance over her midwestern standards, throws herself into a fling with a married Italian lothario and has the time of her life.
At the risk of a sweeping generality, queer playwrights have been at the forefront of celebrating “wrong” affairs from a woman’s point of view. For example, see also John Van Druten’s The Voice of the Turtle (1943), given censor-friendly filming in 1947. It helps if you can blame decadent Old-World Europe; see Tennessee Williams’ 1950 novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, filmed in 1961.
One of the aces up Lean’s sleeve was hiring H.E. Bates as his co-scripter. Generally lauded as among the best English short story writers of the 20th Century, Bates is probably responsible for the numerous revealing details and personal touches among the characters in Summertime.
Lean’s greatest ace, apart from Venice, is Hepburn. Sometimes she overplays her heartbroken moments of lonely ache or her Akron, Ohio, spinster-ish offense at European immorality, but then she’s competing with the general Venetian overstatement around her. Jane’s famous backward pratfall into the canal, a key moment that literalizes the idea of getting in over her head and becoming fully immersed in the Venetian scene, is also overstated, just as the whole touristy run around famous locations is frankly and rapturously in our faces.
These neurotic or judgmental yet broadly gorgeous elements are necessary for the story to get away with Jane’s fling, which still had to be trimmed to get past the Hollywood Production Code. This British co-production, released by United Artists, emerged as Hollywood was still negotiating how adultery could be handled, and one solution is that it was the province of only the classiest folks: the Hepburns, the Deborah Kerrs, the Cary Grants.
When Jane insists on fleeing alone to the station and then hopes frantically that Renato shows up anyway, she’s casting herself in her remake of Brief Encounter and topping her vacation with a sense of herself as a heroine of glorious melodrama. She’s still giving in to her intoxication as much as she’s renouncing something “wrong”. In other words, she’ll still directing, although the camera is no longer clutched in her hands. The best film she brings back is the one in her head.
I saw Summertime on VHS while working at Blockbuster Video in my callow 20s. It didn’t impress me. I wasn’t Jane’s age yet, and her waffling over nothing in a film where not much happens didn’t engage me as much as it does today. That’s partly because I see how great the film looks in this 4K digital restoration, and mostly because I’m older and less wise.
Among the modest extras, film historian Melanie Williams gives an engaging lecture in which she places the film among Lean’s legacy and observes that he called Summertime his favorite and described it as a film about loneliness. There’s an audio interview with Hildyard in which he doesn’t really address the film. We also get a 1963 television interview with Lean that’s partly intriguing for the way he casually offers his hostess a cigarette, which she takes while they smoke on air.