It’s summertime and the living is easy. It makes me think of sultry summer days and cool summer nights and George Gershwin. But summertime also means travel. It did for my family when we were growing up as kids and it took us to many places near and far off. That’s what this film gives us license to do. Venture into another world for a picturesque vacation.
News that Summertime was supposedly David Lean’s favorite picture of his own work is not all that surprising when put into the context of his career. When I think of him I am quick to reference monumental epics or British narratives out of Charles Dickens but here is a picture that feels strikingly different. It’s intimate and small yet still gorgeously photographed and affecting. It’s no Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or even Great Expectations (1946) but it has no aims to be. That’s what makes it a delightful change of pace.
Katharine Hepburn plays an American school secretary from Akron Ohio, one Jane Hudson, who has always had a dream to travel and get out of Middle America to see the world. We see her aboard a train bound for Venice and she’s beyond ecstatic chatting up her fellow traveler and snapping pictures on her camera that’s already logged rolls and rolls of film undoubtedly, capturing the most mundane things for the simple fact that they come from a foreign land.
But there are even more stereotypical American tourists who are hilariously ignorant and subsequently stick out like a sore thumb wherever they wind up. To say the McIlhennys are slightly insufferable is kind of the point. Still, they’re hardly to be taken seriously. It’s people like them that cause Jane to want to venture to Italy to get away and allow herself to be wrapped up in the throes of another culture. I can certainly resonate with that sentiment. I feel that way now.
So, in one sense, she still maintains the awe of a tourist but manages to experience the life as if she were a local and that’s the key, boarding in a pensione and trying to get a taste of everyday life.
First, she is befriended by a spunky little boy who tries to sell her his goods and out of that grows a mutual affection for one another. She also wanders into an antique shop to buy what she deems to be a precious goblet and strikes up a conversation with the proprietor (Rossano Brazzi) who she had unwittingly crossed paths with before. This is the first of many meetings.
In a film such as this where the sets are left behind for a foreign locale, a place like Venice very easily becomes almost another character in the film because being there alone creates a dimension you would never get otherwise. Without Venice, those layers of history, accents, and textures, something magical would be lost. But with it, Lean makes something that rings with gentle passion.
The sumptuous visuals capture both the immense character and quaint waterways with their gondolas drifting lazily by. Tailor-made for romance especially between an American school teacher and a handsome Italian shopkeeper, bringing them so close together over the course of the film. The Piazza San Marco is showcased front and center in numerous sequences but even with its presence this still exists on a smaller scale than the parade through Rome that is Roman Holiday (1953). Because it readily occupies itself with many smaller scenes too.
Lean even preceded Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) with a very similar fireworks show. In both cases, the moment signifies the strides made in the relationship and just how splendorous they are.
Summertime also features one of the most striking endings because it’s not quite as cathartic as we are used to in a love story and yet it hardly can be considered downbeat or melancholy. A lot like life, it simply is and how can you be glum anyway? It’s summertime. Venice is immaculate. Love is afoot.
It so enraptured David Lean that he would make it his home away from home. At that point, it doesn’t matter if we like this movie because as its director Lean was taken with it. That’s praise enough.