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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Summertime

Director: David Lean
Country: United Kingdom
Year: 1955

I think people remember pictures not dialogue. That’s why I like pictures.

I wouldn’t take the advice of a lot of so-called critics on how to shoot a close-up of a teapot.

When the great actor says the line, you can put scissors precisely at the point A and it’s wonderful. When the star says the line, you can hold for four frames longer because something else happens.

All Quotes: David Lean

Background

David Lean was born in 1908, in Croydon, Surrey (now considered part of Greater London). His parents were Quakers, which meant that – Irony Alert – he was not allowed to attend movies as a child.

In 1927, he began working in a movie studio as the guy who says, “Scene 12, Take 3!” and claps that clapperboard thing. He also served tea and did other odd jobs, but by 1930, he was working as a newsreel editor. From there, it was a quick jump to editing feature films, including Pygmalion, which we watched a few weeks back. By 1942, he had edited over two dozen films for other directors, and it was about time to take his place in the director’s chair.

Lean began his directing career by collaborating with witty, alcoholic, and very gay Noël Coward on four films (including Brief Encounter, which we watched waaaay back in February). After the “Coward Period” came the “Dickens Period,” with two peerless Dickens adaptations: Great Expectations and Oliver Twist (the latter’s reputation has suffered somewhat due to Alec Guiness’ portrayal of Fagin as a grasping, filthy, hook-nosed Jew).

After the “Dickens Period” came the “Transition Period” in which Lean directed The Passionate Friends, Madeleine, and Breaking the Sound Barrier, three films which don’t seem to fit in his oeuvre. Let us never speak of them again. Actually, Sound Barrier, Lean’s only foray into (sorta) sci-fi, was apparently a big hit when released, though it is rarely seen today.

He quickly rebounded with the “Light Comedies Based on Stage Plays” period, during which he directed Hobson’s Choice and today’s film, Summertime.

Of course, most of us know David Lean because of his next, and final, stretch of films, which I shall refer to as the “Bloated Epics Period.” During the years from 1957 to 1984, Lean only directed five more films: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, and A Passage to India.

Several other films were planned, but never made, or at least not by Lean:

A two-part film about the Bounty mutiny was eventually abandoned over lack of financial backing. The script was condensed and made into 1984’s The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson and directed by Roger Donaldson. Yes, the same Roger Donaldson who directed Cadillac Man with Robin Williams. Egads.

Lean originally owned the rights to direct Empire of the Sun, but, in poor health, he passed the project on to Steven Spielberg.

In the years preceding his death, David Lean was in pre-production on a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. The cast included Marlon Brando, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, Isabella Rossellini, and Dennis Quaid. Steven Spielberg was set to produce (originally; he later backed out). Before any film was shot, however, David Lean died of throat cancer. The film was eventually made as a mini-series for the BBC.

Lean was known as a sometimes-dictatorial perfectionist on set, but also as the creator of some of the 20th century’s most indelible cinematic images. Actors often didn’t like him, but he was revered by other directors (like Spielberg and Scorsese).

Last fun facts about David Lean: He married his first cousin, and later married the ex-wife of another first cousin.

I can’t tell you much about Katharine Hepburn except that she generally refused to sign autographs, and that unfortunate fans who dared to visit her home were generally told to “get the hell off my porch!”

In 1938, exhibitors deemed her “box office poison.” In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Hepburn as the greatest female star in the history of American cinema.

She knew how to wear a pair of slacks, I’ll give her that.

Synopsis

An opening title montage of Matisse-inspired painted images tells us that spinsterish Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn) has traveled from the U.S. to Europe.

When the action opens, she’s on a train, asking a fellow passenger to hold up a brochure labeled “Venice” so that she can shoot an establishing shot with her handheld movie camera. She’s kind of irritating, in a pushy, clueless American tourist way.

Oh, also on the brochure it says, “Romance” which I’ll bet is significant.

“I hope you enjoy [Venice],” says the brochure-holding man.

“Oh, I’ve got to!” exclaims Jane. “I’ve come such a long way!”

Then we are at the station, and our heroine is chasing after her luggage, pushing through the bustling crowd… and suddenly we are in Venice!

Aboard a waterborne “bus” she meets a horrible American couple, the McIlhenny’s. They are in the middle of a lengthy round-the-world trip, but this is Jane’s first time outside of her home town of Akron, Ohio. The bus passes all of the usual Venice landmarks that we’ve seen in countless films, but this is long before Don’t Look Now or Wings of the Dove, so Jane is agog, vainly trying to capture it all with her little movie camera. Silly American.

Jane makes her way to the Pensione Fiorini, with its beautiful proprietress, grand sitting room, and musical housemaid. On the patio lounges Darren “Kolchak” McGavin as some sort of groovy artist, adorned by a sexy blonde wife.

From her room, Jane can look across the lagoon and marvel at the church towers.

From her conversations with Signora Fiorini (the beautiful proprietress), we gather that Jane has led a sheltered life in Akron, and that she is hoping to find… something in Venice. Hoping for a miracle, hoping to embrace the adventure, expand her cultural horizons, or perhaps just enjoy a roll in the hay with an antiques dealer. Who knows? Anything seems possible in Venice!

Later, Signora Fiorini counsels Jane not to live so carefully: “Those miracles, they can happen sometimes. But you must give them a little push.”

Jane ruminates on this sage advice for a bit, and then goes out exploring. After being accosted by a nine-year-old con artist with a Chico Marx accent…

…she follows the sound of church bells to the Piazza San Marco. An American tourist nearby, dazzled by the statues and the architecture, exclaims, “Don’t change a thing! Not one thing!”

Sitting at a café, Jane films the people, the buildings, the birds. She is observed by a suave, Continental-looking middle-aged guy in a nicely-tailored suit.

He seems particularly focused on her ankles, which, now that you mention it, are actually pretty attractive.

Flustered by the palpable sexual tension, Jane flees.

On following days, Jane explores, often accompanied by the nine-year-old Chico Marx, with whom she shares her American cigarettes.

She inquires about a red goblet in an antique store…

summer_goblet02

…and is flustered all over again when the owner of the store turns out to be (wait for it…) Sexy Continental Guy! The ankle fetishist from the Piazza! Her realization of this is accompanied by the swelling of violins and the swirling of harps, so we can be fairly confident that they will eventually do the deed. And when I say, “do the deed,” I mean, “have sexual intercourse.”

After a tutorial in haggling technique and some awkward, abortive flirtation, Jane leaves with the goblet. Several lonely days later, Sexy Continental Guy again finds Jane at the café. But she pretends to be with someone else, and he excuses himself politely. For God’s sake, woman, do you want to get busy in Venice or not? We’re already 45 minutes in, and you haven’t even gone on a date!

A second visit to the antique shop (and another opportunity to hook up with Mr. Continental) ends in disaster, when Spinster Jane falls in the canal.

Finally, Mr. Continental tracks down Jane at the Pensione and puts it to her straight: “We talk about goblets, about Venice, but we are not really talking about Venice, are we?” Huffy Spinster Jane isn’t buying any: “I’m not sure what your experience is with American tourists, but…”

Just as Jane appears to be coming around to the Italian way of thinking, the McIlhennys burst in with some glass they just bought down at the corner glass store… which happens to be identical to the “antique” glass that Jane bought from loverboy! After a brief hissy fit, she agrees to have coffee with the Duke of Love. “We have coffee,” he says in that silky, seductive voice of his. “It is not very much, to have coffee with me, is it? What happens after that… happens… or does not happen.”

Indeed.

In the Piazza, illuminated by moonlight, they drink coffee and listen to a symphonic concert.

“To many pleasant surprises,” he toasts, and buys her a corsage. She chooses a gardenia, which is meaningful because of a long story she tells. I won’t bore you with it here, but just, you know, take note of this, because it’s important: GARDENIA. “Let’s take a walk,” he suggests, and they do. These Venetian men, they are smooth!

“Say my name,” he demands roughly, and when she does, he kisses her! “I love you!” she hisses, and runs away. “Tomorrow!” she calls, and disappears in the dark.

The next day, in preparation for her date, Jane gets her nails done and buys some sassy red shoes. In the Piazza, at the appointed hour, she waits and waits, but Mr. Continental is late. His young assistant comes bearing this message, and in the ensuing conversation, everything changes. Sexy Continental Guy – according to the young messenger boy – is a married man! The horror! Upon receipt of this shocking news, Spinster Jane beats a hasty retreat.

And Jane’s not the only one in romantic distress; the artist’s girlfriend (wife?) is drowning her sorrows in a bar, and Signora Fiorini is breaking things off with her kinda-boyfriend, or else negotiating with a john (it was a bit confusing). The world is a sad and tawdry place, it seems. Or maybe just Venice.

Mr. Continental eventually shows up to explain himself to Jane. “You Americans get so disturbed about sex!” he exclaims in frustration. “You are like a hungry child who is given ravioli. ‘No!’ he says. ‘I want beefsteak!’ My dear, you are hungry. Eat the ravioli!”

Inexplicably, this reasoning convinces Jane, and they make out. Spinster Jane is still huffy, but slowly she surrenders to Mr. Continental’s urbane manliness. In bars, restaurants, and piazzas across Venice, they dance, drink, and smooch the night away. Fireworks burst in the Venetian sky as Jane and Mr. Continental get their freak on in her pensione room.

Intoxicating days of romance follow, as Spinster Jane and Mr. Continental take boat rides, share hotel rooms, admire the flocks of pigeons in the Piazza, and stare into each other’s limpid eyes.

Everything seems perfect until Jane makes an unexpected announcement: “I’m leaving. My train leaves in two hours.” Why? “Because it’s wrong, and because you and I will end in nothing.”

True to her word, Jane tearfully boards the train. Mr. Continental shows up at the last minute and tries valiantly to catch up with the train, but it is too late. Defeated, he holds up a single gardenia. See? I told you that was important. Jane throws him a kiss as the train speeds away, presumably toward Akron, Ohio.

What I Liked

I’ve never been a huge fan of Katharine Hepburn; a little too mannered for me. And for the first half-hour or so of Summertime, I saw nothing to change my mind. I have to admit, though, by the halfway mark, I kinda fell in love with her.

Her frustrated attempts to make friends, her awkwardness, the flashes of anger masking her carnal desire, the despair and terror that flashed across her face when nobody was watching, were all perfectly rendered. In this case, her awkward uptightness worked perfectly for the character.

The cinematography of Venice was beautiful and painterly, complete Technicolor bliss.

I also liked Isa Miranda as the beautiful proprietress of the Pensione Fiorini, and wished that she had been given more to do. Her brief appearances hinted at a depth of character that we never got a chance to see.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

This was perhaps the most trite and simply uninteresting film of the series for me. Certainly it was professionally made, and there were performances and scenery to enjoy, but the plot was strictly by-the-numbers “repressed American woman experiences sexual awakening with smooth Continental lover, and becomes self-actualized, to boot” malarkey.

I consider myself a David Lean fan, but Summertime has none of the charm, chewy character actors, and dazzling technique of his early films, nor the spectacle, sweep and political complexity of his later films.

Should You See It?

See it if you’re a Katharine Hepburn fan or a David Lean completist; if you are endlessly fascinated by the canals and architecture of Venice; or if you have a hankering for old-school Hollywood “doomed romance abroad” baloney.

Otherwise, watch any other David Lean film, or one of Katharine Hepburn’s earlier comedies, like The Philadelphia Story or Adam’s Rib. Okay, The African Queen is pretty great, as well, but it’s still not available on R1 DVD.

Next: The Third Man

2 Comments

  1. You and I are agreed, sir, except for one thing: Either of Sirk’s masterpieces (All That Heaven Allows or Written on the Wind) are infinitely more subversive and interesting than “How Spinster Jane Got Her Groove Back.”

  2. “EAT THE RAVIOLI!” Now, I’ve never compared sex to Italian food before but, well, there’s a first time for everything.

    “Summertime” is the film this week and it’s a David Lean “chick flick” – a melodrama of the highest order – not too far removed from a Douglas Sirk picture….and the story goes like this:

    Jane Hudson is a single woman (I assume) traveling to Venice. She’s got a 16mm movie camera and some good ol’ Akron, Ohio spunk and when she lands in Venice at her hotel – after some obligatory confusion with the language and meeting other annoying tourists, she settles in from some shots of bourbon and relaxation. But, here’s the problem, she’s ALONE. She wants to party, she wants to hang out with the other young tourists who are having the time of their lives but, sadly…she’s ALONE. Golly, what’s a girl to do?

    Befriending a street urchin she starts touring the city with her camera in hand. When she arrives at some big square a handsome Italian gentleman makes contact with her. Though all he does is call over a waiter she’s smitten. What’s not to like? He’s handsome, he speaks Italian, he’s, uh, handsome?

    The next day (or later that day) she wanders into an antique shop and buys a red goblet. Lo and behold the owner of the shop is said Italian Handsome Guy and they do a little bargain hunting flirting: “You said it was 10,000, I’ll give you 10,000.” “No, madam, we Italians like to bargain. I give to you for 8,700.” Now you KNOW it’s love when you’re getting discounts from hot Italian antique salesmen.

    Still smitten she returns to the shop the next day and ends up in the drink. She knows she’s acting foolish but, by God, she’s SMITTEN (and she’s ALONE). Eventually they start talking some more and spending time with each other and then it comes to the BIG MOMENT… When the dork tourists we meet early on show up out-of-the-blue with the very same goblets they purchased at a lesser price. He demands, though, that his are GENUINE 18TH CENTURY! And then the comparison to ravioli and sex. She wants to, God knows she wants to…but the struggle. She’s an American. He’s Italian. Okay, they go out.

    Out on the town, they listen to some classical music, he buys her a flower, they walk the streets, she loses the flower. They kiss, she backs away, she kisses him, she announces her love for him and off she runs. ‘Till tomorrow! 8 p.m.!

    In pure “Pretty Woman” fashion, she gets all dolled up for him and still, sadly, looks like Katherine Hepburn (she just ain’t that pretty – no doubt about it). As she waits for him he’s delayed. How do we know this? HIS SON has come to tell her that he’s delayed. That means he’s…MARRIED? OH MY GOD! NOT THAT!! She runs home to cry in her whiskey.

    When he shows up a little later he admits, yes, that he’s married. But they’re estranged (or something). She fights him off for about 10 seconds and then they’re off to see fireworks and finally consummate their relationship. Shoes are dropped. Fireworks are seen. We know all we need to know (wink wink).

    They spend the next few nights making love (with lines like: “You sleep all day…then you’re up all night.” ooooooooooooooooooooooooh, that means they’re having sex) and tooling around on tour boats and having a grand time.

    When they return to Venice proper she, though, announces she’s leaving on the next train. Two hours and she’s gone. Back home to Akron. Back home to…well, Akron. He insists she stay. He tells her he loves her. But she won’t be swayed.

    In the final scene she’s on the train. Hoping, I guess, that he’ll show up. But, alas, it’s the street urchin with flies buzzing around him. He gives her a pen. Is that it? But…NO! In pure cinematic clichéd fashion just as the train is leaving he shows up but it’s too late and he brought her a gift a…..flower….

    The End

    WHAT I DUG ABOUT THIS FILM:

    The print was pristine, the Technicolor’s vibrant, some of the camera work is done very well. Lots of camera movement, some great angles and they use the city of Venice like it’s a picture postcard. I would be surprised if Venice didn’t PAY them to come and film there. The only downfall you see of Venice is someone dumps some waste in the water. That’s it! Other than that – the city is perfect.

    The acting was “okay.” I always find Katherine Hepburn to be a bit “stiff” and she always seems to play the same character. She was right for the role, though, in the fact that she’s not some hottie Audrey Hepburn who’d have men crawling out of the canal. The part was played as someone who doesn’t get out much, so in that way Kate fit the bill. Rosano Brazzi played his part just fine as the handsome guy. Really not much to do. Stand around, look handsome, compare sex to ravioli. SIMPLE!

    The film is based on a play and the creators did a great job expanding it out to the city and beyond. It did not “feel” play bound. If I didn’t know this going in – I would be surprised.

    WHAT I DIDN’T DIG ABOUT THIS FILM:

    Simply put, it’s the character that Katherine Hepburn plays: Jane Hudson. There is ABSOLUTELY NO BACK STORY on her character. WHO is she? WHY is she in Venice? WHAT does she do for a living? Is she getting over a heartbreak? Is she a Sunday School teacher? Is she a spy and all this “filming” is actually to find targets upon which her terrorist network can destroy? NOTHING. NADA. ZIP.

    Due to the fact that she has no back story – it was very hard for me to engage in the character (and was wonderful as Kate Hepburn is in the part – she’s always hard for me to engage with). What this did was create a distance that I couldn’t cross.

    If she’s there for two weeks, then the fact that she’s now fallen in love takes on added weight. If she’s there to wait for her husband to meet up with her, then the fact that she’s fallen in love adds layers of conflict. If she’s there because she can’t deal with the reality that she is an alien baby carrier and needs to be around water to give birth…well, you get what I mean. ANYTHING would have been better than to just see a lonely woman that I don’t know anything about get jiggy with some handsome Italian antique dealer.

    And, again, what is it with the DUBBING!? I don’t know if it was the processing or what, but the first few minutes of the film, the over-dubbing of the dialogue was really awkward. Everything was off a split second which just made me concentrate on that – and not on what was actually being said.

    Side note: She’s a “spinster” as described by Leonard Maltin. Okay, she may very well be a spinster, but early scenes of her throwing back shots of whiskey and mixing drinks and offering to buy drinks for the entire party, etc. makes me think that – she may not be having sex, but she’s a borderline spinster alcoholic.

    SHOULD YOU DIG (OR NOT DIG) THIS MOVIE?

    The film was okay. Good scenery. Nice picture postcard. Melodrama got a bit stretched at moments but, overall, nothing much.

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