At last it’s time to start my armchair vacation to Italy! The first film in this year’s movie holiday is Rome Adventure, directed by Delmer Daves and starring Troy Donahue, Angie Dickinson, Rossano Brazzi, and Suzanne Pleshette. It’s one of the most visually stunning of all the Italy-based movies I’ve seen, and contrary to what the title implies it’s not set only in Rome. We get a look at many beautifully filmed locations. The scenery really should’ve received top billing — for me it’s the real star of the movie.
Rome Adventure tells the story of Prudence Bell (Pleshette), a young woman from New England who quits her job as a librarian at a girl’s school after being taken to task for sharing a racy novel called Lovers Must Learn with one of her students. She doesn’t like the teachers’ prudish attitudes toward sex, and doesn’t want to turn into a loveless old spinster like her colleagues, so she declares she’s off to someplace where they really know about love — Italy.
While on board the ship taking her to Europe, Prudence is attended to by two men — nerdy but kind Etruscologist Albert Stillwell (Hampton Fancher), the son of a family friend, and dreamy Italian ladies’ man Roberto Orlandi (Brazzi).
Once in Italy, Roberto gives the two Americans a tour of the sights, then finds them lodgings at a boarding house owned by a Contessa. Also staying there is Roberto’s friend, American architecture student Don Porter, played by Troy Donahue.
When we first see Don he’s in a huff, rushing off to the train station to try and stop his girlfriend Lydia Kent (a gorgeous Angie Dickinson) from leaving him. They’ve had a carnal, tempestuous relationship, and Don doesn’t want to let her go. “Hasn’t anyone ever tried to cut your heart out?” Don asks Roberto as he shows him the Dear John letter Lydia left him. “I doubt, my passionate friend, that it’s your heart that’s involved,” Roberto replies. Ha! Lydia leaves Don in spite of his pleas for her to stay, and he subsequently mopes around the boarding house in a grumpy huff.
In the meantime Prudence is being wooed by Roberto, whom she likes but doesn’t feel romantic about. When he kisses her she doesn’t hear wild bells ringing like she wants to. Instead there are just distant tinkles. Being a big fan of Brazzi and finding him quite attractive myself, I don’t really understand this! But to each her own.
She explores Rome on her own, and gets a job at a bookstore owned by Daisy Bronson (Constance Ford), another American who escaped provincial life in the US to experience the lustiness of Italian men who pinch her bottom and make her feel like a real woman.
One afternoon Prudence runs into Don at a sidewalk cafe and he apologizes for being such a grouchy jerk to her. They spend the day together and begin to fall in love.
That evening they visit a nightclub and hear a beautiful song that becomes their musical theme as the movie progresses — “Al Di La.” It’s a lushly romantic scene, as the camera moves back and forth from the singer on stage to the couple as they look into each other’s eyes and hold hands.
Jazz trumpet player Al Hirt is also at the nightclub. He plays himself, or a version of himself, in a rather odd scene in which he introduces his girlfriend to Don and Prudence and has her show them the knife she keeps strapped to her thigh. Later, while Hirt performs on stage, the girlfriend makes out with another man and a brawl breaks out.
As Don and Prudence continue to spend time together, they try to hide it from the curious and judgmental fellow inhabitants of the boarding house.
To get away from prying eyes they take a trip around Italy together, seeing all the tourist spots and facing embarrassing decisions every time they come to a hotel. Should they pose as a married couple or not? One room or two? Will they or won’t they? Prudence insists on separate rooms, or on Don staying on the balcony when they only have one room, but she’s tempted to give in and sleep with him. Her prim New England upbringing is at war with the more passionate side Italy is bringing out in her.
When Prudence runs into Albert and his mother while shopping at a street market in a small town, she panics and lies to them, saying she’s on a bus tour with a group and rushing off before they get a glimpse of her with Don. At first she and Don try to continue their trip, but in the end Prudence decides they need to stop traveling around alone together. What if her parents found out? Her conscience is getting the better of her, she says, so they return to Rome.
Back at the boarding house, who should be waiting in Don’s bedroom but Lydia. She regrets letting him go and greets him with a kiss, which Prudence walks in on.
Lydia invites Prudence, Albert and Don to her house for dinner, and uses the occasion to give Prudence the mean girl treatment. She shows her around her bedroom, pointing out the big bed she and Don shared, the photograph he signed to her declaring his love. Feeling she can’t compete with this sexy siren, Prudence breaks down crying, leaves the party and parts ways with Don, who seems confused about which woman he really wants to be with.
She tries to prove to herself that she can lose her virginal ways and be like Lydia if she has to, inviting herself to Roberto’s for the weekend with plans to seduce him. Roberto is a good guy, however, so he refuses her advances and tries to get her to go back to the man she really loves.
Prudence decides it’s better to go back to America and takes the next ship home. When she gets there her parents are waiting or her, but so is Don. He took a plane to meet her there and declare his love.
Rome Adventure isn’t going to make it onto anyone’s list of the best movies ever. The dialogue can be extremely hokey at times, especially during the love scenes between Don and Prudence. Suzanne Pleshette does the best she can with some terrible lines, and with her husky voice and intelligent demeanor she basically pulls it off. Troy Donahue is no great shakes as an actor, however, and can be a little painful to listen to.
I also don’t get his romantic appeal at all, myself. He’s bland and uninteresting — especially compared to Rossano Brazzi! But obviously he had his fans back in the day, one of whom was Suzanne Pleshette herself. They married in 1964, although it was short-lived and they divorced only nine months later.
Whatever its shortcomings of writing and acting, Rome Adventure is still fun to watch. Getting a glimpse of Italy in the early 1960s is such a treat. There’s just something about the country during the 1950s and ’60s that seems so magical, at least if the movies are to be believed. The cinematography by Charles Lawton is beautiful, as is the memorable score by Max Steiner. It had been several years since I saw Rome Adventure, and I enjoyed re-watching it. It was a fluffy and fun way to kick off Springtime in Italy.