1955 / Best Director

Film #617: Summertime (1955)

David Lean is a director who I most associate with grandiose historical epics which usually have long running times, feature large ensemble casts and are set in some far-flung exotic locale. Lean is the man behind Best Picture winners The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia as well as other nominees such as the similarly spectacular A Passage to India. However, he was also responsible for smaller more subtle movies and two of these netted him Best Director nominations even though the films themselves didn’t receive recognition in the Best Picture category. The first of these is our final from 1955; Summertime which, whilst it does feature an exotic setting, focuses squarely on one woman whose searching for something whilst on her first European vacation.

The exotic setting in Summertime is Venice whilst her protagonist is Katharine Hepburn’s Jane Hudson; a single school secretary from Ohio who has saved up for years to afford her holiday. Instead of staying at a hotel, Jane instead opts to stay in a pensione run by the widowed Signora Fiorini who transformed her former home into a place for foreign visitors. Also staying at the pensione are young American painter Eddie Yeager and his wife Phyl who constantly seem to be socialising and have no time to chat with Jane. The main thrust of Summertime sees the guarded Jane attempt to let someone into her life that being antiques shop owner Renato di Rossi. On her first night in Venice, Renato spots Jane at a bar and the following day she comes to his shop without knowing that he is the proprietor. Jane constantly struggles with her feelings for Renato and, after letting him into her affections, is troubled to learn that he is married but estranged from his wife. The couple eventually cement their relationship however Summertime didn’t have the happy ending I was expecting as Jane decides to leave Venice to return to her mundane existence in America. However, the final scene at least gives the audience some hope that Jane may return as Renato runs to the train and attempts to present Jane with a gardenia; a flower that she’d earlier dropped in the water.

After a week in which I’d watched severalĀ dramas that had been put me through the emotional wringer, Summertime was just the sort of film I needed to watch. It’s one of those movies that looks beautiful, has a stunning setting and an easy to follow plot with a sympathetic protagonist. Lean makes sure that the audience know that Jane is someone we need to root for and an image of her enthusiastically staring from the train widow is the first thing we see of her. Always joined by her trusty camera, Jane is an identifiable leading lady in that we can understand the attitude of a character whose out to enjoy a holiday which they spent years saving up for. Jane is also a well-drawn character; she’s somebody who’s confident in some respects but isn’t great in social situations as we see through her relationship with Renato. In my opinion, Summertime is at its strongest when we’re just following Jane’s sightseeing adventures in Venice or witnessing her conversations with the fellow residents at the Pensione Fiorini. I personally wasn’t that interested in her Jane’s romance with Renato although, as I’d grown to like the character by this point, did understand the motivations behind her hesitance to get involved with the antique dealer. Furthermore, I felt the ending made perfect sense as Jane was presented as a sensible woman who wouldn’t remain in Venice just for the hope of starting a life with a man she barely knew. Aside from Jane, the only other real character in Summertime is the city of Venice which is photographed beautifully throughout the movie. Witnessing the stunning Venetian vistas through Jane’s camera lens, it’s easy to see why Lean earned a Best Director nomination for his work here. Additionally, I felt that he allowed the camera to capture the vulnerabilities of Jane and therefore get the audience to stay with her as she continued her travels in Venice.

Like with our previous movie East of Eden, a lot of the success of Summertime hinges on the lead performance and in this case I found Katharine Hepburn did a stunning job as Jane. I’ve personally found Hepburn to be very hit and miss but here she was superb especially considering that I believe Jane appeared in every scene. Hepburn brought her trademark sass to the role but of all the characters I’ve seen her play, Jane is the most vulnerable and I felt the actress did a fabulous job in capturing these emotions. Unfortunately, I felt Hepburn and her male co-star Rossano Brazzi lacked the sort of chemistry that would make their relationship feel realistic which contributed to my feelings about the Jane/Renato relationship. Hepburn was rightfully nominated for her role in the movie but hers and Lean’s were the only recognition the film deserved however I believe the movie’s cinematography and costume design should have also received Oscar nods. However, I don’t feel that Summertime was strong enough to be considered a contender for Best Picture as it was quite a forgettable picture overall and the main highlights were the fantastic shots of Venice and Hepburn’s fantastic central turn. In terms of 1955’s Best Picture field I would definitely add both Bad Day at Black Rock and East of Eden as I feel they’d make up a stronger selection if they replaced Picnic and Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. I do think that these films represent more of a varied example of the sort of movies 1955 was offering and overall it would make a more impressive Best Picture category.

Next time we stick with David Lean as we watch a train-heavy romance which often cited as one of the best British films of all time.

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