On Location: A 'Summertime' Romance In Venice

Katharine Hepburn (left) and Rossano Brazzi in Venice in David Lean's 1955 film Summertime.

Katharine Hepburn (left) and Rossano Brazzi in Venice in David Lean's 1955 film Summertime. United Artists/Photofest hide caption

itoggle caption United Artists/Photofest

David Lean directed some of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time. He directed six movies that were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai both won, and he also nabbed Best Director statues for those two films. But Lean sometimes said the movie that meant the most to him was the 1955 romance Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn.

The story of a single, middle-aged woman who finds love during a vacation to Venice, Summertime makes such lavish use of Venetian backdrops that it was an easy selection for our "On Location" series, which looks at movies with a strong sense of place. But we wanted to know what made Lean fall in love with Venice, and how he made the film. And, more than 50 years later, what do Italian viewers think of it?

Katharine Hepburn (left) and Isa Miranda in Venice during the production of Summertime. i i

Katharine Hepburn (left) and Isa Miranda in Venice during the production of Summertime. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
Katharine Hepburn (left) and Isa Miranda in Venice during the production of Summertime.

Katharine Hepburn (left) and Isa Miranda in Venice during the production of Summertime.

AFP/Getty Images

Watch Clips from 'Summertime'

In the 1950s, Europe was still an inexpensive place to travel, and American tourists flocked there in droves. Summertime was the story of one of them: Jane Hudson, a secretary from Akron, Ohio, who travels to Venice on the trip of a lifetime. "I've come such a long way," she tells another traveler she meets on the train into the city. "I've saved up such a long time for this trip."

But from the moment she steps off the train, Jane is intoxicated by Venice. It's like nothing she's seen before: gondola buses in the canals, ancient fountains and churches, pigeons in the Piazza San Marco. As Lean's camera follows her through the city, Jane looks as though she's rediscovered life. And yet all is not perfect. Jane, who is traveling by herself, says, "I'm the independent type, always have been." But amid all this beauty, she feels painfully alone.

She attempts to tag along with another American couple, but feels like a fifth wheel. Salvation comes when she meets Renato, a handsome shopkeeper played by Rossano Brazzi, and falls in love.

Summertime was based on a play called The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents. Norman Spencer, an associate producer on the film who worked with Lean on many others, says that Lean was originally asked to direct the movie, by British producer Alexander Korda. But, says Spencer, Lean didn't much care for the script Korda showed him: "And Korda said, which was the sort of great man stuff he always did, 'Why don't you go to Venice, have a look around, and see what you think?' "

Lean fell under the spell of the city. He agreed to make the movie, and decided to include so many location shots that Venice becomes a character in its own right. Kevin Brownlow, the author of David Lean: A Biography, says that at the time, British movies hardly ever shot on location. It was just too expensive. But Lean had the backing of Alexander Korda, as well as the American film studio United Artists.

"Korda said, 'For God's sake, don't be shy of showing these famous places,' " Brownlow says. "And of course, David Lean always talked about getting 'eyefuls' — getting an eyeful of something like a postcard shot."

Lean and screenwriter H.E. Bates changed the story to match the film's new title, making it lighter and less cynical. In the play, Renato is something of a gigolo. In Summertime, he's an antiques dealer who sells Jane a glass goblet before pursuing her. At first she resists, but soon they are dancing under the stars, and Jane's prim reserve is melting away.

Spencer says that with Summertime, Lean wanted to make a film about loneliness and the transformative power of love.

"David liked women," Spencer says. "I mean, David was famous for having dozens and dozens of women, and he just wanted to show to the world what love of that kind, for a beautiful summer, was like."

The story of a lonely woman who goes to Italy and finds love is one Hollywood has returned to again and again, recently in movies like Enchanted April, Under the Tuscan Sun, and Eat Pray Love. Writer Sarah Ball of Vanityfair.com calls these movies "gelato for the soul."

"Typically, the heroine is an already sort of independent woman, and she's suppressed all the pleasures of life," Ball says. "She doesn't drink wine. She doesn't have fun. And all of a sudden she's sort of unshackled."

A costume change typically accompanies the attitude adjustment, Ball says. While she might arrive in a tweed travel suit with her hair in a tight bun, soon she's wearing loose linen shirts, her hair flowing freely around her shoulders. She discovers Italian food. She inevitably rides a Vespa. The Italy in these movies is a place of unchecked passions.

"You can throw caution to the wind and eat what you want and say what you want and date who you want, and that sort of thing, Ball says. "I think it represents, in these movies, the dissolution of rules."

As for the Italians who change the life of these heroines, they often have a more casual attitude toward sexual morality. Which gets on the nerves of Anna Di Lellio, who grew up in Italy and now teaches international relations at the New School in New York. She's not a big fan of these lonely-woman-finds-amore movies.

"The Italian [men] in particular are portrayed in a very negative way," Di Lellio says. "They're both seducers and fickle and untrustworthy and highly sexualized."

And she says that's ultimately true of Summertime's Renato, who turns out to have a wife and kids. "I was afraid," he tells Jane when she confronts him. "I was afraid if you knew too soon, it would end us before it began. And now I see I was right."

But after Renato convinces Jane that he's separated from his wife, she tucks aside her scruples and spends the night with him.

Perhaps Venice just has that effect on people. Whatever the film's subtext, Lean intended it to be an affectionate portrait of the city. He became so intoxicated by it that he made it his second home.

"Venice was in his bloodstream by the time he came to do this picture," Brownlow says. "And I think that's one reason he said, 'I put more of myself in that film than in any other I've ever made.' "

Lean managed to make a lot of other people love the city, too. A year after the movie was released, The New York Times reported that the movie had caused a spike in tourism to Venice, and that an unusual number of the visitors were women. The city was enormously grateful — for years, whenever Lean went to Venice, orchestras would immediately strike up the theme from Summertime, the movie he'd made there.

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