I got the idea for doing weekly Springtime in Italy posts this month from a silly annual ritual I’ve had for the past several years. Once the weather starts getting warm and springy, I throw open the windows so I can hear the birds singing, make some Italian food, and spend a day watching my favorite movies set in Italy.
Sometimes I’ll watch more recent films like Only You or Under the Tuscan Sun, but usually it’s the classics I turn to for my Italian pseudo-vacation – Come September, Summertime, Rome Adventure, Light in the Piazza, Roman Holiday. I’d rather visit Europe in the ‘50s and ‘60s anyway. The clothes were so much nicer then. All those lovely sundresses!
Today’s movie is one of the quintessential Americans-in-Italy movies from the 1950s.
Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)
Three Coins in the Fountain is the cinematic equivalent of candy– a sugary, low-nutrition confection that tastes good in the moment but might leave you feeling a little queasy afterward. Still, I can’t help popping it in the DVD player every now and then because even though it’s fluff, it’s very pretty fluff.
The movie was Fox’s first big Cinemascope production, and director Jean Negulesco fills the wide screen with the most sumptuous, romantic views of Rome and the country surrounding it. The costumes by Dorothy Jeakins are mid-50s perfect, and the Academy Award winning theme song, sung by Frank Sinatra, is beautiful and memorable.
Maybe too memorable. After listening to it a couple of times, I always go around like a broken record, singing “Which one will the fountain bless? Which oooone wiiiiiiiiiill the fountain bless?” for hours. Here, listen and see if it doesn’t happen to you, too.
The story revolves around three American secretaries working in Rome. Dorothy Maguire is the (supposedly) old one, Miss Frances. She’s been working in Rome for fifteen years and is secretary to expatriate writer John Shadwell, played by Clifton Webb. She’s in love with him, though she hides it behind her spinsterish professionalism.
Webb is hilarious as the sharp-tongued, dandyish Shadwell, who is basically a non-murderous version of Waldo Lydecker from Laura. Poor Miss Frances doesn’t have any gaydar, and thus doesn’t think it odd that her beloved wears floppy bow ties, white gloves and is a “confirmed bachelor.”
Jean Peters is Anita. She works for a US government office, where fraternizing with the local employees is strictly forbidden. That’s too bad for her, because she’s attracted to Giorgio, a translator and law student portrayed by that staple of ‘50s/’60s movies set in Europe, the sexy Rossano Brazzi. The feeling is mutual – he’s smitten with her, too. Unfortunately the office’s ridiculous rules get in the way of their romance. So does the lie Anita has told everyone as an excuse to quit her job and go home – that she’s engaged to a man in the States.
A gushing sidenote on Rossano Brazzi, who will doubtless show up in at least one more Springtime in Italy post this month – I love him! He’s so handsome and suave and Italian. He tended to play the same kind of character, at least in all the movies I’ve seen him in: the worldly Continental lover, forever kissing hands.
He was good at those roles, though, and when he had strong material to work with, as he did in my favorite of his films, Summertime, he showed a lot of sensitivity. He was a dreamboat! Here he is in Summertime, when he first lays eyes on Katharine Hepburn. SWOON.
Okay, back to the ladies of Three Coins. Maggie McNamara is Maria, the new girl who arrives in Rome and moves in with roommates Frances and Anita. Roommates seems the wrong word, though; palace-mates might be more appropriate. The US dollar was really strong in Italy in the post-war years, I suppose, since even secretaries could afford huge houses and servants! One of the characters even says something along those lines. Whether it was really true or simply a justification for the girls’ glamorous digs I don’t know.
Maria meets jet-setting, womanizing Prince Dino di Cessi, played by French actor Louis Jourdan, and despite being warned about his reputation as a lothario she sets out to catch him. She does this by finding out about his tastes and opinions and pretending to share them. He ends up in love with her, thinking they’re soulmates. The audience ends up believing the conniving girl may not even have a soul. I think Maria is supposed to be the cute if amusingly flawed heroine of the piece, but I find her insufferable.
The ladies have romantic ups and downs with their men. Frances feels doomed to old maidenhood, even accepting her housekeeper’s pity gift of a kitten to keep her company in her tragic spinsterhood. She decides to give up and go home so she won’t grow old alone in a foreign land.
This finally inspires Shadwell to propose to her, offering her a marriage of convenience and companionship. (Yay? Personally, I think she’d be better off with the cat.) But things don’t go smoothly even then, since he’s soon diagnosed with a terminal illness and breaks their engagement in order to spare her.
Maria finally admits to Prince Dino that she’s been lying to and manipulating him, driving him away from her, albeit all too briefly. Seriously, their storyline is just plain awful. Their whole romance is based on her pretending to be someone she’s not, which is obviously the best way to start a relationship – especially with someone known for his inability to be faithful to a woman.
In the movies’s only believable and compelling romance, Anita falls for the passionate Giorgio and admits to him that she isn’t really engaged. But just when it seems they’ve found happiness, their boss sees them together outside the office. He assumes Anita is not a “nice girl” anymore, since she broke the office rules and was out gallivanting with an Italian. Giorgio loses his job and perhaps his chance to become a lawyer.
Of course things finally work themselves out for our characters, however unrealistically, and in the end all is well. The three couples meet up at the Trevi fountain as the theme song reprises and we all wish we could jet off to Rome, preferably Rome circa 1954.
As snippy as I can be about Three Coins in the Fountain, it’s a snippiness born out of grudging affection. The movie is travelogue escapism – a way to see attractive people in a gorgeous setting and have an Italian vacation without ever leaving home. On that level it’s quite enjoyable and worth watching.
Also, Rossano Brazzi is as delizioso as a dish of gelato on a warm day! For me, that’s reason enough to see it. Siiiigh.