Release Date(s)1955 (July 12, 2022)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Criterion – Spine #22)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Very often, a location is so powerful in storytelling that it becomes a character in itself. Such is the case with Summertime, a mid-1950s film that takes place in Venice. The picturesque Italian city of canals and gondolas works its magic on a spinster secretary from Akron, Ohio, who finds romance.
Her summer in Venice is the trip of a lifetime for American Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn). As she explains enthusiastically to a fellow passenger, she has to enjoy her first time in Europe because she’s saved up for many years to afford it. With her movie camera in tow, she’s enchanted by the beauty of the old city with its churches, piazzas, and foot bridges over canals. At the Pensione Fiorini, where she has booked accommodations, she finds herself alone among couples, both elderly and young. She develops a nice rapport with young street urchin Mauro (Gaetano Autiero), who accompanies her occasionally and is a sort of local guide.
While sightseeing, Jane notices an unusual goblet in an antiques store and goes in to inquire about it. The shop is run by middle-aged Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi), and the two find themselves attracted to one another. Renato proves to be an excellent companion for Jane as she drinks in the old world charm of Venice, and she believes that in him she has found the romance that’s been missing from her life. Eventually, she discovers that Renato is married and the father of several children. Initially shocked and upset, she later rationalizes that, though the relationship may not be the ideal romance she dreamed of, it is a real one, and the couple spend several idyllic days on the island of Burano.
Katharine Hepburn’s performance is sensitive and intelligent. She’s especially effective in the film’s early moments when she conveys a nervous tension and longing. Several scenes show her alone, sitting at the Pensione after the other guests have left, strolling the narrow alleyways of the city, or sitting in a crowded piazza cafe. Her wistful expression reveals her character’s unhappiness as she longs for something more than taking pictures of Venice’s attractions. At 47, Hepburn was the right age to play a lonely spinster, and is adept at conveying Jane’s practicality, self-awareness, and maturity. Her desire is not a schoolgirl’s storybook longing for a knight to sweep her off her feet. The film’s stage origin is evident in the naturalistic dialogue, which Hepburn delivers in her distinctively clipped manner.
Based on the Arthur Laurents play The Time of the Cuckoo, the film is a bittersweet modern fairy tale. Jane surrendering herself to emotion rather than grimly adhering to her puritanical upbringing may have been somewhat shocking in the 1950s, but now seems less so. The clash of values and personal morality drives the dramatic conflict. Brazzi’s character is all charm, which is exactly what Jane responds to. We don’t see him as a cad, and we believe his attraction to Jane is real. But Brazzi’s low-key performance almost renders him invisible next to Hepburn’s thoughtful, emotional portrayal, and he comes off more as a convenient device to move the narrative than as a flesh-and-blood person.
Director David Lean filmed the entirety of Summertime on location in Venice, which was unusual at the time. Generally, a second unit would film remote location footage, as in An American in Paris, and the majority of the picture would be shot at the home studio. Lean is known more for the Academy Award winners The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia than for this modest romantic drama, but it does weave its charm, particularly with its lovely Technicolor photography, Alessandro Cicognini’s recurring romantic theme, and Hepburn’s touching performance.
Summertime was shot by director of photography Jack Hildyard on 35 mm using Technicolor three-strip cameras and spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Criterion’s 4K digital restoration is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, an apparent preference point on their part as their original DVD release was similarly presented in 1.33:1. Regardless, the film looks exquisite, despite the extra space. Technicolor hues are rich and deeply saturated, providing both bold primary colors and subtler pastels. Most outdoor scenes feature bright sunlight, with splashes of color among the clothing the tourists wear. Hepburn’s hair ribbons are bright and cheery and her costumes reflect the simple elegance and good taste of a career secretary. During interior romantic scenes, back lighting sets Hepburn and Brazzi apart from the backgrounds, creating a halo effect. At night, Venice takes on a romantic feel, with shadows and partially illuminated actors contributing to mood.
The soundtrack is English mono LPCM. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout. Key sound effects include a train entering Venice, the ambient sound of tourist crowds, and a critical splash into a canal. The instrumental theme music is played often and serves as the musical motif for Jane and Renato. It has a lush, romantic quality that perfectly mirrors the tone of the film. Silence is used effectively in scenes when Jane is alone. Her isolation is accentuated by the absence of others as she longs for what she’s unsure of.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of Summertime includes an accordion-style booklet containing an essay about the film by Stephanie Zacharek, production credits, information about the film’s digital transfer, and several pen and ink drawings of characters and scenes from the film. Bonus materials on the Blu-ray include the following:
- David Lean Interview (22.04)
- Melanie Williams Interview (21:48)
- Jack Hildyard Interview (13:01)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:15)
David Lean Interview – This black-and-white interview was originally broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Close-Up on April 7, 1963. Lean discusses his start in the film business, how he selects projects, casting, and the importance of the writer. As he speaks about Lawrence of Arabia, scenes from the film are shown.
Melanie Williams Interview – Recorded by The Criterion Collection in March 2022, this is an interview with film historian and author of the biography David Lean. She discusses Lean’s reputation as a “cold craftsman.” He achieved great success with box office smashes of the 50s and 60s, including Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Williams discusses several of Lean’s films, common themes, and his storytelling technique. She discusses his influences in specific films as film excerpts, stills, and poster art are shown.
Jack Hildyard Interview – These are audio excerpts from an interview with the film’s director of photography, conducted by Alan Lawson and recorded on January 7, 1988 as part of the British Entertainment Project. Hildyard discusses his early career and working with David Lean on Summertime.
Summertime was one of David Lean’s favorite films. Hepburn’s portrayal as a vulnerable woman contributed to the box office success. Just as Three Coins in the Fountain was a love letter to Rome, so Summertime captured the charm, beauty, and romance of Venice.
- Dennis Seuling