The Golden Age of Hollywood

David Lean’s SUMMERTIME (1955)

on July 9, 2012

Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn) has finally earned herself a personal holiday in Venice, Italy. An unmarried professional, she travels alone, hoping to discover she knows not what in this exotic new city. She meets handsome antique dealer Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi) and after a bit of a rocky start, they have a brief, but passionate, affair. At the height of their romance, Jane abruptly terminates their relationship and returns home alone, but with the memory of her great love in Venice.

The most famous scene of the film is when Hepburn falls backwards into a canal while taking a picture. Although warned about the dangers of making contact with the polluted water in the canals, Hepburn insisted on doing her own stunt work. Passersby were informed that Hepburn was in fact an excellent swimmer, so they weren’t to be alarmed when she tipped into the water. The effect is marvelous, although Hepburn did contract an eye infection as a consequence. Years later she remembers the incident:

“I had no fear, but if I had known just how toxic the garbage in the canal was, or what kinds of problems it would produce for me for the rest of my life, I would have been afraid.I still wouldn’t have let someone else do it for me, although it might not have been as hard on someone tougher-skinned than me. My skin has always been sensitive. I certainly would have put up a bigger squawk about it and suggested they use a dummy. As it was, they did use a dummy, and the dummy was me.” (Chandler, 209)

SUMMERTIME is one of what scholar Andrew Britton would call Hepburn’s “spinster cycle.” It is a film that features Hepburn as a repressed, middle-aged, unmarried professional (214). However, in many ways, this film is feministically progressive because, as biographer William J. Mann points out:

“Rather than a mawkish, tearjerker ending, SUMMERTIME gives us the rare portrait of a woman who decides the love of a man isn’t necessary to make her whole.” (Mann, 399)

SUMMERTIME is one of the few romantic movies I’ve seen that allows the female protagonist end the picture without a husband, or at least the potential of a husband. Yet the film concludes successfully – it is not a tragic ending. The Hepburn character is permitted to maintain the dignity and self-respect she earned as the story unfolded. Although at the beginning of the film, Jane displays an almost self-pitying loneliness, she doesn’t ultimately satisfy that loneliness with a male companion. I think it becomes clear that societal pressures had convinced Jane that marriage (or sex) was necessary to be a whole woman, but after experiencing a very fulfilling sexual relationship with a man, she realizes that she is not, in actually fact, an incomplete woman without a man. Once Jane has proven to herself that she is perfectly able to attract and satisfy a man, she no longer feels the desire to maintain such a relationship indefinitely. So, she rides off into the sunset alone, but not lonely.

SUMMERTIME was based on the play “The Time of the Cuckoo” by Arthur Laurents, who also wrote the plays-turned-movies WEST SIDE STORY (1961) and GYPSY (1962). Apparently, Laurents was not impressed with the finished product of this film, claiming that “Kate’s movie-star wattage blindsighted director David Lean” (Mann, 399). It is certainly true that the English director David Lean (DR. ZHIVAGO (1965)) altered the script a great deal. In her autobiography, Hepburn commented on Lean’s perfectionism:

“[David] threw out everything but the main plot… David was always very fussy about a script and removed everything that didn’t interest him – so this movie is really David in Venice.” (Hepburn, 253)

“There were two love affairs;  one was mine with Rossano Brazzi in the story, and the other, David’s with Venice.” (Hepburn interview, Chandler, 202)

Director David Lean filming
Venice’s famous Piazza San Marco

Lean was a perfectionist when it came to directing. In DR. ZHIVAGO (1965) he delayed filming for several days to have a field of poppies planted. The result was spectacular. For the red glass goblets in SUMMERTIME, he had several test goblets of different shades, sizes, and shapes hand blown before he selected the perfect one to use in the film. When I first saw SUMMERTIME, I was blown away by the way Lean had really captured the beauty of Venice, with all its magnificent colors, the canal culture, and the wonderful history of art around every corner. When David Lean won the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990, Billy Wilder asked him what his favorite film (that he directed) was:

“I can choose without any hesitation. SUMMER MADNESS, or as you call it here in America, SUMMERTIME. It starred my favorite actress, Katharine Hepburn, and it was filmed in my favorite place, Venice. And the subject is the most basic and pervasive of all: not love, but loneliness. The idea of tragic loneliness appealed to me.” (Chandler, 204)

Lean and Hepburn clearly had a very good working relationship. They each respected each others as artists before they worked together, and that respect only grew after making SUMMERTIME. Hepburn described Lean as “very basic – he was simple – he was true” (Hepburn, 253). About negotiating for the part, Hepburn says:

“Fortunately, I didn’t go as far as to say, ‘I would work for free to work for David Lean.’ Worse yet, I could’ve said, ‘I’d pay to work for David Lean.’ I only thought those thoughts. But I was told I’d said more than enough. Too much. I’d spoiled the negotiation. I didn’t care. I was glad. They might have negotiated me out of the part. That happens sometimes, and an actor never knows what wonderful opportunity was lost.” (Chandler, 201)

Of Hepburn, Lean said:

“Kate Hepburn is a great natural spontaneous actress. She would never admit to being a lonely person, but professionally no one can convey it better.” (Chandler, 205)

“Katharine Hepburn was capable of playing a woman who was smart and independent and had scared off men all her life. She felt she knew what she wanted.” (Chandler, 206)

 At one point in the creative process, there was talk of Brazzi’s character being portrayed as a gigolo, but Lean was against the concept:

“For Jane to be deceived by a gigolo wouldn’t have suited the image that Katharine Hepburn brought with her. The man has to be worthy, not only of Jane Hudson, but of Katharine Hepburn, as well.” (Chandler, 206)

There are some other themes in the movie which are also very interesting to watch out for. The concept of the “ugly American” tourist is represented here by the McIlhennys who are on such a tight itinerary, they’re are unable to fully appreciate the romance of Venice. The question of what is legitimate romance is also brought up both in the relationship between Jane and Renato and in the relationships of the other guests in Jane’s hotel. This problem is combined with the cultural issues that Jane tries to navigate as she attempts to reconcile her puritanical ideals with her “continental” or “European” desires.

The McIlhennys and David Lean’s famous red goblets

Critics of the time liked the movie, praising Hepburn’s performance in particular.

“Few actresses in films could equal Hepburn’s evocation of aching loneliness on her first night in Venice as she wanders, forlorn and proud, like a primly starched ghost in a city of lovers.” (Time)

“[Hepburn] is wonderfully effective [as Jane Hudson], making the most of her opportunities for registering pathos and passion.” (The New Yorker)

Hepburn and young Gaetano Autiero hang out on set

Despite all this talk about pathos and loneliness, please don’t get the impression that this is a glum film. The sentimentality is very deftly undercut with some very comic scenes and with the charming humor in the child character, Mauro, a street child Jane befriends. SUMMERTIME is a great summer flick because it is a light combination of romance and comedy executed with a great deal of intelligence. If you managed to catch it on TCM earlier this week, I’d love to know your thoughts and impressions. Please feel free to leave a comment and start a discussion!

For a great scene-by-scene breakdown of the film and some awesome pix, I recommend “Jenny the Nipper’s” article about SUMMERTIME on her blog “Cinema OCD“. I can also recommend this review on the blog “Nothing is Written” and this one on “The Oscar Nerd“.


12 responses to “David Lean’s SUMMERTIME (1955)

  1. Rianna says:

    This was a fabulous post. I watched this film for the first time this January, and have seen it two more times since. This movie totally captured my heart. The romance touched me, the scenery was beautiful, and best of all I enjoyed seeing Kate in a role that was a step or two away from what she usually does – there was a vulnerableness to Jane Hudson that wasn't there in, for example, Tess Harding or Amanda Bonner. I love Kate's usual "every woman" roles, they're part of what I love about her, but it's always fun to see a actress stray from her usual typecast.I was surprised to see that some don't like this film as much as I do. I don't know. I absolutely adore it, and every time it's on television I really can't stop myself from watching it again!

  2. Rianna, I'm so pleased you liked my post! I also enjoy watching Hepburn stretch her talents, especially in her later films, after her "Hollywood starlet" period. I love how she is able to play vulnerability without becoming a pathetic wimp. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Thanks for such a great post! It's too bad Lean and Hepburn didn't make another film, they seemed to have a real rapport.

  4. Word. He seem to really respect her acting style and he photographed her well. They were definitely a good pair. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Fritz says:

    I really love this movie and your post makes me want to see it again right away!

  6. Really excellent article! I learned a lot about the film. Summertime is probably my favorite Hepburn performance and Lean's most underrated movie. More than anything, the contrast between Hepburn's melancholy and the beautiful locations really gets to me. And thanks for the link.

  7. Yay! I'm so glad! It's a good time of year for this movie, obviously! Thanks for commenting!

  8. You're so right – they really juxtaposed the the feeling of the space and the emotions of the character. Thanks for reading!

  9. mkmcginnis says:

    Wonderfully researched article, Margaret! I enjoyed learning more about the making of the film! It's so interesting how the simplest storyline (woman falls in love in Europe) defies so many societal norms (as you pointed out). When I watched this film for the first time, I remember being surprised that a 1950s movie depicted such blatant adultery. Do you know how American audiences felt about this? Was it acceptable because it was "European"? Or because she left in the end? While her choice to leave/end her affair illustrates a sense of individual completeness, maybe it merely adheres to the moral codes of the time period. What do you think? What if she had stayed and had more affairs of her own? 😉

  10. I don't really know 50s audiences very well. On the one hand, you have the Doris Day housewife and those very traditional roles. But on the other hand you have movies like A REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) which show a distinct counter culture. The only thing I can think is that Hepburn really was exempt from the expectations of the traditionally feminine by this point in her career – unless it's Spencer Tracy, audiences really wouldn't expect her to settle down and marry. Other than that she could kind of do what she wanted (in film). It would have been too radical for Jane Hudson to have stayed in Venice, because it wouldn't really fit her character. I think her actions are mediated in a way by her leaving at the end, but that non-conventional ending (her leaving alone and unattached) is radical in itself. The most traditional/acceptable ending would be if there had been a mistake and that he was actually a widower, or divorced, or not married at all, or that he would have in some way become available and married Jane Hudson. But that would then put this movie on a much cheaper level and completely ruin the purpose.Don't know if any of this makes sense. Thanks for commenting!

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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