The Criterion Completist – Summertime (1955)
written by: H.E. Bates and David Lean (based on the play by Arthur Laurents)
produced by: Illya Lopert
directed by: David Lean
runtime: 100 min.
U.S. release date: June 19, 1955
British filmmaker David Lean will always be remembered for his sweeping historical epics like “The Bridge on the River Kwai“ and “Lawrence of Arabia“, but before those blockbusters made him famous, he crafted smaller, more personal films. In 1955, two years before “River Kwai“, he released “Summertime“, a delightful adaptation of the play Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents which showcases the incomparable acting of Katherine Hepburn and the beautiful scenery of Venice.
The story focuses on Jane Hudson (Katherine Hepburn), a middle-aged secretary from Akron, Ohio who is on summer vacation and finally enjoying her lifelong dream of visiting Venice, Italy. A self-described “independent woman”, Jane is at first happy to explore the city by herself, soaking in the local culture and overeagerly filming everything with her portable camera. At her hotel, she befriends an American couple, Eddie Yaeger (an almost unrecognizable Darrin McGavin), and his wife Phyl (Mari Aldon), but soon learns that despite all the gorgeous scenery and friendly people, happiness can be elusive when sight-seeing alone. This all changes however when she catches the eye of local shopkeeper Renato De Rossi (Rossano Brazzi), and strikes up a whirlwind holiday romance. Renato is charming and tender, and brings Jane out of her shell as they enjoy the wonders of Venice in summer, but the situation becomes complicated when she discovers that he is married.
Katherine Hepburn’s performance is simply a master class in acting, as her portrayal of Jane paints her as a woman trapped in contradictions. She is excited and confident, yet bored and a little uncertain. She dresses and acts prim and proper, yet smuggles a bottle of bourbon into her hotel, and eventually gets entangled in an affair with a married man. What it boils down to is loneliness. Despite the fact that she is surrounded by people, and even makes some temporary friends along the way, she is beset by loneliness and the lack of love in her life, and it tarnishes the preconceived notions of a perfect holiday in her mind.
Perhaps the real star of “Summertime“ is the city of Venice itself. Shot entirely on location, and in spectacular, almost overwhelming Technicolor, the city simply dazzles (I’ve actually been there and don’t remember it looking this good!). David Lean shoots at dusk and dawn, at night with shimmering stars in the sky, and the height of lunchtime in a sun-splashed plaza at a crowded outdoor café. For such a crowded, almost claustrophobic city, Lean manages to find the wide open spaces, and shoot them beautifully from every angle, from canal-level to the tallest church spire. The movie moves at a leisurely, almost plot-less pace for most of the running time, but it never gets dull, and I suppose that’s because it’s like going on a vacation yourself. Wandering through the winding streets, dealing with the charming locals, taking pictures of ancient statues and so on, we are simply along for the ride. A perfect summer film, “Summertime“ is highly recommended, and if you can’t make it to some exotic locale this year, just pop this in for your own cinematic vacation.
Of all the Criterion films I’ve reviewed so far, “Summertime“ has the fewest extra features, only the original trailer. It was one of their earlier releases (#22), so it’s possible they’ll be reissuing it later in a bigger Blu-Ray package. The film was nominated for 2 Academy Awards (Best Director and Best Actress), but lost. One extra factoid: in an interview I found with David Lean, he said that “Summertime“ was the favorite of all his films.
Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL. Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992. He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.