Ah, yes — it’s a hot day in 1954, so what could be better than a cool movie theater projecting beautiful Italian scenery onto an Eee-Nor-Mous CinemaScope screen, with Frank Sinatra warbling an Oscar-winning tune. The simple escapism of Fox’s ‘three girls find love’ epic makes Rome look like a welcoming haven for carefree Americans — the stars park their cars anywhere, and admire the fancy fountains without a single competing tourist to bother them: “It’s the favorable exchange rate!”
Three Coins in the Fountain
1954 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date April 16, 2019 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Clifton Webb, Dorothy McGuire, Jean Peters, Louis Jourdan, Maggie McNamara, Rossano Brazzi.
Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner
Film Editor: William Reynolds
Original Music: Jule Styne, Victor Young
Written by John Patrick from the novel by John H. Secondari
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Directed by Jean Negulesco
Back in the early 1960s many of us kids’ first introduction to ‘prestige’ movies of the previous decade was NBC TV’s Saturday Night at the Movies, which in its first year presented mostly Fox movies with premiere-like fanfare. Here is where we first saw things like The Egyptian, which with brain-numbing commercial breaks stretched from two-point-five hours to almost four. Here is where I first found out that The Day the Earth Stood Still even existed: a major thrill at age eleven.
Not every selection was a classic but the presentations made us think they were. A case in point is one of the most vapid films ever to be nominated for Best Picture, 1954’s Three Coins in the Fountain. Just the same, it’s a compellingly watchable movie. Fox slathered Three Coins with production values, making it the first big CinemaScope, color and stereophonic sound attraction to feature Rome as its setting. Aggressively glossy and highly successful, it has a lot to say about 1954 values even though the three romances that form the plot are substance-free twaddle.
Did you know that classy American women flocked to postwar Rome to take menial jobs for employers that restrict their extracurricular activities? Working secretary Maria Williams (Maggie McNamara) comes to The Eternal City to replace Anita Hutchins (Jean Peters), who is going home. They room with Miss Frances (Dorothy McGuire), who is the secretary to John Shadwell, a famous writer (Clifton Webb) resting on his laurels. The romantic problems of all three boil down to strategies to nab a desired spouse. Anita tries but cannot resist the charms of Giorgio Bianchi (Rossano Brazzi), a penniless interpreter who takes her to the country to witness his sister’s marriage. Sneaky Maria uses cheap tricks to attract the curiosity of Prince Dino de Cessi (Louis Jourdan), a notoriously desirable playboy. Miss Frances does her best to interest her elderly and somewhat stuffy employer. But never fear — the magic of Rome will solve all problems.
The secretaries work at ‘The U.S. Office of Disbursement,’ which is apparently the place where our hard-earned tax dollars are frittered away for Italian foreign aid. That largesse would seemingly justify the attitude in Three Coins in the Fountain that Rome should be a home away from home for lovesick Americans.
The Rome pictured in Three Coins is a superficial tourist fantasy. Our three secretaries have little or no money yet they live in fabulous view apartments. They maintain terrific wardrobes and are waited on by cheerful maids and cooks. They tour Rome in last year’s Ford but can park anywhere they please; the streets are clear of traffic and the pesky unwashed locals keep a discreet distance. The main activity is visiting picturesque settings… with the right people, of course. Shabby, butt-pinching street Eye-Ties need not apply. The cultured Giorgio shoos them away like flies.
When the girls go strolling in their high fashion outfits, they might be walking through a new ‘Land’ in Disneyland. The streets of Rome are unusually de-populated, seemingly existing for their pleasure alone. “It’s the favorable exchange rate,” says Dorothy McGuire, cheerfully annexing all of Europe as American vacation property. Today’s viewers may feel cheated when they go to Italy on their own, and find all these locales mobbed by selfie-taking tourists.
Three Coins in the Fountain never gets down to the reality of living in a foreign city where (gasp) not everybody speaks English. It’s odd conflict is that the three girls’ prudish American employers police their behavior. Maria and Anita are invited to swank cocktail parties but are forbidden to date anyone associated with their work. The ‘right’ Italians won’t take them out and the rest are middle or lower-class locals that aren’t acceptable. Louis Jourdan’s jet-setting nobleman gets Maria to agree to fly with him to Venice, presumably as the target for some fast-track seduction action. With a sly trick surely learned in high school, Maria gets him into taking Miss Frances along as a chaperone. But all of them are being watched. When Anita is seen in public with some locals, it’s cause for dismissal — being caught out of chaperone reach with the woo-bait office translator could result in getting a big ‘tramp’ sign hung around her neck.
Three Coins in the Fountain opens with Frank Sinatra singing the lush title tune over a four-minute visual prologue of Roman waterworks. Like the orchestral prologues on some early MGM ‘Scope offerings, it’s an advertisement for the ‘new, big screen’ process: “you can’t get Deluxe-color CinemaScope scenery and directional stereo sound from your 16-inch TV at home.” But Jean Negulesco’s considerable directorial skills are neutralized by the notion of how ‘first phase’ CinemaScope movies should be filmed. The camera often stays wide, showing entire rooms. Two-shots have acres of space around the characters, giving furniture and lamps near-equal compositional emphasis. Close-ups are just not used, to avoid the ‘CinemaScope Mumps’ horizontal squash effect as objects near the camera. To keep characters in focus, they are arrayed in a line along the X Axis. Compositions in depth are rare, belying the slogan that ‘Scope is “3-D without Glasses.”
Because at least 20% of the show is a travelogue, we get many wide shots of cities, country hills, and famed locations like the Fountain of Trevi and the Spanish Steps. But with each camera pan we also get a demonstration of the distractingly warped field of vision that plagued pre- 1959 ‘Scope lenses (and that cinematographers hated). Horizontal motions distort the image like a fun-house mirror — things shrink and stretch as they move across the screen. A person at the left extreme will be half as wide as when they walk to the middle. Fellow UCLA student and future camera and effects ace Hoyt Yeatman thought Fox’s early anamorphic lenses should have been called ‘Warp-O-Scope.’
The number of cuts is minimized and there is no fast cutting; the idea seems to be that because CinemaScope is so BIG, audiences will relate to it like a mural in which some movement takes place. Until directors like Nicholas Ray and John Sturges began shooting ‘Scope films as they would any other movie, the new format could almost be described as anti-cinematic. Some directors would become adept at keeping large-frame film space ‘alive’ by directing our attention from one part of the image to another, ‘cutting’ within the frame. But not in these early extra-wide CinemaScope pictures.
The three actresses definitely went to Rome for the shoot, but so much of the film plays out before rear-projection screens that we’re not sure anybody else did. Whenever a character exits a car in a long shot, it could easily be a double. The entire trip to Venice has not one shot of McGuire, McNamara or Jourdan actually on location — it’s all in a studio set or filmed on a process stage. All the interiors appear to be Hollywood work. This economy and control of this must have made Darry Zanuck very happy: all the fabulous scenery can be filmed on the cheap by a second unit, and the actors plugged in later, on process stages back on the lot. Many stars made movies set in far-flung locales without ever leaving Los Angeles, a pattern that persisted until the 1970s. Now of course, many pictures are filmed with actors performing on green screen stages, in a context vacuum where nothing is real.
Three Coins’ attitude toward romance follows the philosophy spelled out in the 1948 Betsy Drake/Cary Grant comedy Every Girl Should Be Married, which empowers assertive young women to aggressively pursue the male of their desires. The strategy seems to be to keep one’s self in the company of the target male as long as possible, without actually going to bed with him. Attraction is supposed to be a natural result of familiarity and proximity, like the measles. After a proper interval, a marriage proposal should be spontaneous.
Dorothy McGuire’s Miss Frances has spent fifteen years in Rome typing her famous author’s papers, and hasn’t received so much as a kiss on the neck. She breaks her silence by acting petulant and announcing a return to the states. A proposal follows five seconds later. Top-billed Clifton Webb is his patented prissy & intolerably blunt self, but without the charm or humor of some of his other characterizations. Some health complications set in to give the final act a semblance of suspense. The finale turns what might rightly be a weird deathwatch into a pallid romantic surrender. Webb’s John Shadwell is such a cold fish, he initially sees Miss Frances as somebody to see that his body gets shipped back to the U.S. of A.
Young Maggie McNamara is billed as “The Wise Little Girl from The Moon Is Blue.” That refers to Otto Preminger’s hit film of the previous year, in which McNamara’s young heroine outraged the Catholic Legion of Decency by openly voicing the possibility of sex before marriage. The word ‘virgin’ is spoken out loud. Preminger’s film hastened the breakdown of the puritanical Production Code that insured that sexual realities never got near a movie screen. Here in Three Coins McNamara is an inconsistent little busybody. She sabotages her roommate by blabbing foolishly to her boss. The lies and misrepresentations she uses to chase her Italian Prince ought to backfire big-time. Maria’s happy ending is irritatingly undeserved.
This side of Marilyn Monroe, Jean Peters was perhaps Fox’s most luscious dish of the early 1950s. Her Anita is the only one of the three women in question who risks anything, and who makes her choice out of simple physical attraction. She acts tough but needs little encouragement to fall for the honest Giorgio, who has no money and is not considered a good match. At one point it is made clear that Anita moves into Giorgio’s modest rooms for at least two days. It’s good to know that somebody is doing something with somebody in this picture.
When her whereabouts are unaccounted for for one evening, Jean Peters’ Anita is sanctimoniously offered the services of her employer’s doctor. How that differs from the U.S. repression they came to Italy to avoid, I don’t know. One indiscretion and you’re no longer fit for the men of polite society, at least not the type that wears gloves like Clifton Webb. With every change of wardrobe, one of the women threatens to go back to the states as a romantic failure.
Viewers will instantly recognize Norma Varden. Her ditzy partygoer behaves as if she wished Clifton Webb would strangle her like Robert Walker did in Strangers on a Train. The IMDB says that Merry Anders is in a party scene, but we missed her. But we can’t help but spot the attractive Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball‘s fabulous Fiona) as Rossano Brazzi’s shy sister. I thought that a servant looked like an actress from the Italian film industry, but she turned out to be Hollywood’s Renata Vanni, who I had liked in William Wellman’s excellent Westward the Women.
The fatuous ending with the Fountain of Trevi granting all three girls’ wishes may be a low for Hollywood movies of the fifties. Six years later, Marcello Mastroianni & Anita Ekberg spent five minutes wading in the Fountain to blow away the memory of all this pap. Is the golden goal of Marriage really going to make these women happy? Does perky little Maria seriously think that her skirt-chasing Louis Jourdan is going to be faithful?
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Three Coins in the Fountain is a handsome scan and encoding of this early ‘Scope feature in the full original width of 2.55 to 1. The color and density seen here seems to have been recovered from slightly faded materials, but it all looks good. Spotting rear projection and traveling matte shots is easy, as the grain goes up considerably. Stereo tracks have been reconfigured from the original 4-track magnetic stereo. I imagine that, back in the better picture palaces, Frank Sinatra singing the title song encouraged many viewers to buy the new Stereophonic Hi-Fi systems when they became available.
The Victor Young music score is given its own Isolated track, as is Twilight Time’s generous habit. The other extras are repurposed from an earlier Fox DVD. Jeanine Basinger’s commentary covers most of the bases but sounds a bit padded and doesn’t analyze the picture much beyond providing career histories for the principal actors. A Fox newsreel for Oscar night ’55 shows Grace Kelly and Marlon Brando getting their awards — the narrator mentions Brando’s turn as Napoleon in Désirée before admitting that his Oscar is for ‘the Waterfront movie.’ A nice historical touch is an original teaser that touts the CinemaScope process using only stills, followed by identical standard trailers in flat and ‘Scope formats.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes stress the film’s specialness as a Fox sensation of the ‘fifties, and wonders if that tradition will be lost now that the studio has been absorbed by the Disney organization. Although the IMDB states that the film was released in Technicolor all the posters say Color by Deluxe. Perhaps in Italy?
Three Coins in the Fountain has the glitz, stars and scenery that spelled ‘importance’ for audiences of 1954. It nabbed undeserved nominations for directing and Best Picture, and won for Milton Krasner’s Cinematography and Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s popular title song.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Three Coins in the Fountain
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, audio commentary with Jeanine Basinger, teaser & two trailers, newsreel, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 23, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson