This month’s screening responds to those who accuse Classic Film Club of showing only black and white movies – though it is none the worse for that! For some, this 1955 film is little more than a travelogue that might have been sponsored by the tourist board – a thin story that is not much more than a ‘mood piece’.
But what a mood!
Director David Lean – with the help of cinematographer Jack Hilyard – shows that Venice requires going beyond monochrome and here they surely come as close as is possible to capturing the magical atmosphere of the great city. The viewer is soon put under the spell not only of the city’s fabulous beauty but also of a subtle, affecting performance from Katharine Hepburn.
As a veteran actor, a wise-cracking comedy partner of Spencer Tracy – and having not so long ago been on a sweltering trip up the river with Humphry Bogart in The African Queen (1951) – Katharine Hepburn, now 48, plays against her usual feisty screen persona in a story that treads a delicate line between humour and a beautiful sadness.
Jane Hudson (Hepburn), a middle-aged secretary from Akron, Ohio, has finally made it to Venice, having saved for many years for this dream trip. On arrival, she goes to a café where, feeling uncomfortable because she is alone, she gratefully accepts the help of another diner, Renato (Rossano Brazzi), who calls the waiter for her. Next day, she visits an antique store – owned coincidentally by Renato – who again helps her by explaining that, this being Venice, she should always bargain for a lower price.
Renato seems very nice but, because she is an independent type, Jane is determined to discover the city for herself. Armed with her trusty movie camera, she seems at first quite content to go it alone, but soon discovers that, even in a city as beautiful and fascinating as Venice, going it alone can leave one feeling terribly lonely.
With its occasional use of sardonic humour, this may be a simple story of the loneliness of a traveler in a foreign land but it also has deeper resonances. For example, because we are in the 1950s, we might read this tale of a spinster hungry for love but too repressed to accept affection as a reflection of the sexual mores of the times. A few years later, the fact that Renato is married (but separated) would not have been an issue. But the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ was yet to happen and perhaps this film illustrates one of the reasons it did.
The other interest of the film lies in its nuanced performance. As one reviewer says, “this is the kind of film they don’t make any more–and for good reason: they couldn’t top it. Nor is there a ‘Hepburn’ today able to carry a full production like this on her shoulders as effectively as this legendary actress.”
It might also be argued that in some ways the quiet desperation of the heroine of this film mirrored the personal circumstances of Hepburn’s private life during the filming.
Hepburn suffered eye damage from her fall into a Venetian canal (in a remarkable shot that dispenses with using a double) and the stagnant waters no doubt aggravated ailments that she still suffered from her African Queen adventures.
Some scenes must have been filmed in winter since, as one Venice-familiar reviewer notes, “the Moors of San Marco Square’s clock only appear once a year – at Christmas time and (in one scene) while the Moors were striking the hour, people in the back ground, although out of focus, can clearly be seen wearing coats and furs.”
Summertime originated from a one act, one scene play The Time of the Cuckoo which takes place on the front patio of the hotel. The play ran 263 performances during the Broadway 1952-1953 season and netted a Tony Award for Shirley Booth.