Springtime In Italy: Rome Adventure

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Springtime in Italy – Summertime

I can’t believe it’s already time for the last Springtime in Italy post! I’m glad I committed to this series, since otherwise I’m not sure I’d have written here much at all in March. It’s been such a crazy, busy month.

Summertime (1955)

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Director David Lean’s Summertime is a gem, one with much more in common with his quiet, intimate 1945 film, Brief Encounter, than his sweeping sagas like Doctor Zhivago and Laurence of Arabia.  It’s a truly touching, romantic movie, and one that doesn’t seem to be as popular or well-known as it should be.  I absolutely love it.

Summertime is the story of a middle-aged spinster secretary from Akron Ohio, played by Katharine Hepburn.  She has scrimped and saved for years in order to visit Italy, and from the first moment we see her she is brimming with enthusiasm about her adventure.  She’s also clearly eager to connect with those around her, from her fellow tourists to the Italians she meets.

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Hepburn is a marvel in Summertime.  The hope and wonder her character feels at finally being in this place she’s dreamed about for so long is very affecting, as is her loneliness and longing for beauty and romance.

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She finds that romance in a handsome Venetian played by Rossano Brazzi.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the one in which Hepburn, alone at a sidewalk cafe, realizes that Brazzi is gazing at her.

Her discomfiture at being noticed and appreciated by a good looking man is beautifully played.  Here is a woman who isn’t used to being paid attention to in that open, sensual, Italian way.  As much as she is yearning for romance and maybe even sex, she doesn’t know how to handle flirtation. The men in Akron don’t act this way – if they notice her at all, that is. 

Seeing Hepburn’s character come out of her shell – watching her put down the camera and start living life instead of simply observing from the sidelines – is a bittersweet joy.  Bittersweet because opening yourself up to love means opening yourself up to pain, and her admirer is a married man.  This isn’t the perfect, unencumbered romance she’s been dreaming of all these years.  These complications and compromises aren’t what she’s imagined for herself.

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I think Summertime is a movie that’s easier to appreciate when you’re a little older and can see that life isn’t quite what you dreamed it would be when you were young.  Things aren’t always straightforwardly black-and-white.  Is a little bit of imperfect romance in a love-starved life better than none at all?  Are a few days of passion and excitement worth the pain you might feel later?  There aren’t any easy answers – in the movie, or in life.

Or maybe I’m just a sucker for stories of forbidden romance.

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, I really like Rossano Brazzi.  He is especially good in this, making what could have been a smarmy character – a married man seducing a naive tourist — into something more complex and difficult to judge.  He’s very attractive and has great chemistry with Katharine Hepburn.

As for Hepburn, “sexy” is not an adjective I would use for her generally, but there are moments in Summertime when she shows that side of herself, and you understand why Brazzi’s character can’t take his eyes off her.

Aside from the touching, poignant story and Hepburn’s great performance, the movie is well worth watching for the gorgeous views of Venice in 1955.

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The city looks glorious in Technicolor, but unfortunately for Katharine Hepburn, the beautiful looking canals of Venice were actually filthy and dangerously polluted.  One of the movie’s scenes called for her to fall into the water, which she gamely did.  She was left with lifelong eye problems because of a resulting infection.

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I have an extremely long list of desert island movies, admittedly, but Summertime is definitely on it, and pretty close to the top, too.  I watch it every year or so, and it always breaks my heart in the most enjoyable way.  If you only watch one of my Springtime in Italy recommendations, I hope it’s this one.  It’s such a special film.

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Summertime is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.  There’s a good essay about the movie on the Criterion Site as well.

Springtime in Italy – Three Coins in the Fountain

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)

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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