After twenty years honing his craft on ever-more precise filmic constructions, David Lean opened up his imagination for a story of loneliness and romance in Venice, Italy. A vacationing American woman searches for — she doesn’t know what. Katharine Hepburn reveals the vulnerable side of her personality, and the woman eventually leaves her fears behind. Lean creates the most compelling ‘relaxed vacation’ ever, yet every shot is as keenly envisioned as in any of his films. It’s an amazing ‘on location’ show that initially ran into trouble with U.S. censors — some thought it was morally incompatible with the Production Code, and shouldn’t be released here at all.
The Criterion Collection 22
1955 / Color / 1:37 Academy (1:66 widescreen?) / 100 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date July 12, 2022 / 39.95
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi, Darren McGavin, Jane Rose, Mari Aldon, Macdonald Parke, Gaetano Autiero, Jeremy Spenser, Isa Miranda, Virginia Simeon, André Morell.
Cinematography: Jack Hildyard, B.S.C.
Production Designer: Vincent Korda
Costume Design: Vincent Korda
Film Editor: Peter Taylor
Original Music: Alessandro Cicogini
Written by H.E. Bates, David Lean from the play “The Time of the Cuckoo” by Arthur Laurents
Produced by Ilya Lopert
Directed by David Lean
Isn’t Venice incredible in this show? Is there any chance that any of it still looks like that? First pollution, erosion and overcrowding, and now we’re told that parts of the city are sinking, too. That makes David Lean’s breathtakingly beautiful Summertime essential for we movie tourists, who yearn to understand far off places by watching pictures like Local Hero, I Know Where I’m Going!, even The Ipcress File for central London. We know better than to think that the city we see in Pool of London is anything but a look back in time.
Back when European tourism was a genuine luxury, Summertime uses the allure of Venice to explore a vacation of self-discovery. By 1954 director David Lean was so respected that most any actor would leap to work with him, without reservation. Katharine Hepburn took a break after 1952’s Pat and Mike, putting her career on hold to be with Spencer Tracy; we’re told that filming in Venice worked out well because for part of the time Tracy would be occupied elsewhere in Europe filming The Mountain. The only really bad film Hepburn accepted at this time was the Bob Hope Cold War comedy The Iron Petticoat, a truly awful picture. It’s a Ninotchka variant that sticks it to the Russians — which makes us wonder exactly why she took the job.
Summertime exists on a different spirital plane entirely — it’s one of Katharine Hepburn’s best. She invests a big part of her personality into her character Jane Hudson, a professional woman that some would type as a spinster. Jane has worked hard and long. We don’t know if she has avoided men, if they’ve avoided her or what.
We meet Jane as she approaches Venice by train. Summertime is bookended with train scenes, which in David Lean’s films are often bad news. The most salient example is Celia Johnson’s heroine in Brief Encounter. Will this show be another bittersweet David Lean romantic tragedy? We’re fully ready for something downbeat, even with the bright color, the cheerful titles, Katharine Hepburn’s glowing smiles. Jane Hudson’s enthusiam even inspires the very proper Englishman sharing her compartment, André Morell.
But we soon see that Jane’s cheer is tentative. The self-possessed woman is not sure she should let down her emotional guard in the near-magical surroundings of Venice. Hepburn plays Jane as someone who cannot hide her feelings, and her face is troubled when she seems to see nothing but paired-up couples enjoying the sights. Jane turns down the social invitation of her hotel host Signorina Fiorini (Italian star Isa Miranda), and another from the married, amorous Yeagers (Darren McGavin & Mari Aldon). She doesn’t want to stand out as unattached among others that are. Jane will only be in Venice for a week or so, but we can tell she’s looking for a romantic experience, perhaps something transfigurative. Is she more desperate than she looks? In terms of David Lean women, Jane has much in common with the far more naïve Rosy (Sarah Miles) of Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter. The starry-eyed, questing Rosy is keen to marry a quiet schoolmaster, under the illusion that sex will transform her existence, change everything about her life.
Enter Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi), a Venetian shopkeeper who is both a credible character and the perfect romantic fantasy for Jane. Renato isn’t a masher, but he’s attracted to Jane. He passes her as she sits in the main plaza, and at first it isn’t obvious that he’s in pursuit. But Jane sends out enough nervous messages to be obvious herself. Renato passes Jane’s table, saying hello but excusing himself. My wife had to explain to me that Jane’s tilting an unoccupied chair forward is a signal that she was expecting somebody. There were ‘rules’ in Latin public places where people walk at night, and everybody is expected to run into everybody. . .
The tentative business of Jane and Renato getting together is the whole movie. Jane is sitting alone in the plaza, feeling typically isolated, when the camera pulls back to show a wider view behind her. We suddenly know that a certain figure entering in the background is Renato, when he’s still a silouette. Other people in the crowd are moving, yet our eye goes to his lighter suit, in the backlight. Technically it ought to feel forced. An uninspired director will reveal a door when a scene pauses, and we know somebody will enter to freshen the scene. But that doesn’t happen here. We instead ask ourselves ‘will HE show up?’ — just when he does.
A Wholly Adult movie about Consentual Sex
Audiences found Summertime inoffensive, but no so America’s moral watchdogs. (Spoiler) Jane Hudson’s sightseeing adventures contrast her with the tiresome McIlhennys, the middle-aged couple that give American tourists a bad name — yet provide the tour and souvenir money that the Italians are eager to earn. She bonds with a street kid, a total cliché that’s better handled than most. In between staring sadly at unhappy statues and occupying herself with her 16mm movie camera, Jane soon becomes aware that Venice is not Primtown U.S.A.. She witnesses her hotel hostess conducting an affair with one of her guests, practically out in the open. And when she does start spending time with Renato, he doesn’t try to hide what he wants. Renato’s line of romance talk is considerate, polite and very possibly heartfelt.
Jane wonders if Venice is outside the bounds of conventional morality — and the film endorses the notion. She learns that Renato is married but separated, yet even that doesn’t cool things down — Italian divorce laws left many ‘couples’ in complete limbo. (Real Spoiler) Initial trade reviews of Summertime (See Motion Picture Daily review below ↓) stated that the film might very well be denied a Production Code seal, severely limiting its U.S. distribution prospects. Adultery takes place without punishment and even without regret. In this case, it’s a positive development. Renato and Jane are definitely sincere; in this film’s view, whether or not he strikes up an equally sincere tourist romance three times a year is irrelevant.
We’re told that a few seconds of cuts were imposed so that the film could be shown, but I doubt anyone was fooled. A couple of really tame ‘suggestive’ lines were cut, and perhaps a ‘Cinderella’ shot of one of Jane’s shoes left out on a balcony while hoop-de-doo transpires beyond the curtains. Incredibly unshocking stuff; and Lean leans back on the symbolism of fireworks to seal the deal (what, no flowers, no ice crystals on windows?). We’re told that Summertime was slapped with a Catholic Legion of Decency rating of B — morally objectionable in part.
Katharine Hepburn is an odd one, angular and handsome. She can be graceful, or sometimes just too much. Jane Hudson wears her emotions like Japanese masks. In one moment of unhappiness her downturned mouth looks as extreme as Emmett Kelly under greasepaint. Yet, if Renato is attracted to refined and sensitive women, she’s a definite catch. Renato is a charming fellow: equally refined but not a snob or louche in any way. He’s diplomatic when talking about money, nationality, and his honesty as a merchant. He’s one of the few amorous Italians in film that gets a full pass — whatever Renato’s game is, he’s not just after a conquest.
Isa Miranda had been a ‘white telephone’ star in the 1930s and was sufficiently glamorous to make a couple of films at Paramount just before WW2 broke out. It would be interesting to know how Darren McGavin got to play Eddie Yeager — after this his TV career jumped into notable feature roles, as in The Man with the Golden Arm. We don’t get into the Yeagers’ marital details, but we immediately recognize actress Mari Aldon from The Barefoot Contessa. She’s on the wrong end of that film’s most famous dialogue exchange, a withering put-down by Elizabeth Sellars’ character.
Not until the Florence-set A Room with a View (1988) did another movie usurp Summertime’s romantic travelogue crown. We’re told that David Lean loved Venice, and wanted to capture its splendor on film. Most accounts of the filming note the location cheat used to give Jane Hudson the Most Incredible Hotel Room Ever — the interior, the terrace over the canal and the sunny lagoon view out the back window are reportedly separate locations miles apart.
It’s a glorious picture, covered well in all the David Lean books and given the star’s approval in her memoirs. She was a pretty good judge of her own work. Jane Hudson is not Katharine Hepburn — but we sense that Hepburn really feels the character inside her.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Summertime was one of the label’s first DVD releases, 24 years ago. This new disc is touted as a new 4K digital restoration. Cinematographer Jack Hildyard’s colors truly glow; he’s managed to capture the city’s sights in shadow and sunlight, never giving the impression that a big movie crew is just out of camera range.
We do wonder what it was like for the crew to be crammed into some of those narrow spaces. How much of the audio had to be post-dubbed? It must have been chaotic trying to film amid the the Venice crowds.
On the other hand, is it possible that most everyone we see around Jane Hudson is a paid extra? That might have to be the case, as hardly anybody looks at the camera. I can’t see David Lean giving up control of his scenes to that degree.
The movie has an aspect ratio controversy. It looks great in flat 1:37, even though it was composed for 1:85. Bob Furmanek of the 3-D Film Archive had the answer: the producer originally intended Summertime to be exhibited in a process that would change aspect ratio in mid-film: “Mobilia.” The titles are definitly formatted for 1:37 Academy, but at a certain point the screen would open up wider, with a Lowell Thomas-like widescreen reveal. With predictable research and documentation, Bob Furmanek explains what was planned on a thread at the Home Theater Forum. So now we know why the titles and the body of the film are in different aspect ratios.
I never noticed before, but this time through I realized that heads and building-tops were positioned lower in the frame. I don’t mind at all, because in Venice of 1955 even the gutters below and rafters above are photogenic. Just the same, it’s another instance of Criterion not going with research. They once did an unnecessary THREE aspect ratios for On the Waterfront, but not this show.
The extras give us some expert commentary — Melanie Williams hosts a video essay, while an insert foldout gives us another essay by Stephanie Zacharek. An audio interview with Jack Hildyard is interesting, but yet another excerpt of a film chat with David Lean mainly shows him putting on a smooth personality to charm the interviewer.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements (from Criterion):
New interview with film historian Melanie Williams
Interview from 1963 with director David Lean
Audio excerpts from a 1988 interview with cinematographer Jack Hildyard
Plus an insert folder with an essay by Stephanie Zacharek.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 16, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson