Summertime (1955): David Lean’s Romantic Melodrama, Shot in Venice, Starring Katharine Hepburn in Oscar-Nominated Performance

Director David Lean shot his romantic melodrama, Summertime, on location, in glorious Venice, a city seldom seen so alluring on screen before.
Lean’s restrained direction and Katharine Hepburn’s splendid performance rescue this movie from its banal, borderline schmaltzy premise.

Both Lean and Hepburn were nominated for Oscars in their respective fields, but the winners were Delbert Mann for “Marty,” which swept the 1955 awards, and Anna Magnani for her first English-speaking film, “The Rose Tattoo.”

Hepburn plays Jane Hudson, a single, middle-aged, rather unsophisticated secretary from Ohio; she uses “wow” and “golly” in her speech. She also makes repeated references to her loneliness. But in Hepburn’s interpretation, Jane nevertheless possesses that fundamental American energy, dignity, and open-mindedness, qualities that set her apart from her compatriots (depicted as crass).

In due time, Jane meets a suave antique dealer named Renato Di Rosi (played by the debonair Rossano Brazzi). At first, Di Rosi’s advancesand his confession that he is marriedbring out Jane’s prudish and puritanical side. But before long, she learns how to let loose and begins to enjoy life and the gentlemanly courtship he offers.

Based on Arthur Laurent’s play, “The Time of the Cuckoo,” the script was co-written by director Lean and H.E. Bates. Handsomely filmed by lenser Jack Hildyard, this romantic travelogue was a popular genre in the 1950s, when Hollywood pictures left the fake studio lots and went on location. Some critics dubbed the film “Three Coins in the Canal,” alluding to “Three Coins in the Fountain,” the romantic travelogue shot in Rome the year before.

The cast also includes Italian pro Isa Miranda and the very American Darren McGavin and Mari Aldon. As noted, Hepburn’s multi-nuanced turn (very much in vein with the other spinsterish characters she played) and the Venice locale were the main reasons to see the picture, which was commercially successful.

“Summertime” is more in the vein of David Lean’s earlier, modest, intimate films, such as “Brief Encounter,” than that of his later historical epics, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Doctor Zhivago.”

Oscar Alert

In 1955, only two of the men nominated for Best Director Oscar were up for films that were also nominated for Best Picture: Joshua Logan for “Picnic” and Delbert Mann (the winner) for “Marty.” The other three contenders were: John Sturges for “Bad Day at Black Rock,” Kazan for “East of Eden,” with James Dean, and Lean.

The films that received Best Picture nominations without their directors were the romantic melodrama “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” John Ford’s “Mister Roberts,” and “The Rose Tattoo.”