The most famous moment in Summertime is, of course, when spinster Jane Hudson falls into the canal at Campo San Barnaba. It’s a surprising bit of slapstick in a romantic drama, but it serves its purpose beautifully: a wet and wild shock to Jane’s system that foreshadows her plunge into a life that includes physical excitement. The fact that Jane gamely climbs out of the canal with self- deprecating humor (“You should have seen me in the Olympics”) is also a signal: this is no easily embarrassed prude, it’s a mature woman fully ready to take that plunge. Before the immersion, Jane is captivated by Venice, but she’s an observer, experiencing it through guidebooks, her 8mm camera, excursions with a local urchin, and talks with her pensione proprietor, a voluptuary played by Isa Miranda. Although well into middle-age, Jane presents as a virgin. Not that she’s priggish; just inexperienced and stiffly conventional.
The role gained Hepburn one of her 12 Oscar nominations. Her leading man, Rossano Brazzi, is so soulful and seductive as the philanderer that we’re never quite sure if he’s a cad or if he really does fall in love with Jane to some extent. (A question Europeans may not care about as much.) But I contend that the real costar, for better or worse, is Venice. David Lean won the New York Film Critics Circle award for directing this, and no wonder. One of his wise choices was to film more than 90 percent of the movie there. He immerses us in the city right along with Jane. Views of Venice are everywhere, which is a particular feast for those of us who didn’t see it before the armies of tourists displaced native Venetians (a situation which this film helped cause, according to Robert Osborne).
The film works, and memorably, but I do have regrets, minor though they are. I couldn’t quite understand Brazzi’s attraction to an uptight spinster, and her attraction to him seems merely generic— an American woman of a certain age and any elegant European gentleman. Hepburn’s character was more fully developed than Brazzi’s, but both could have used greater depth. That said, however, I appreciate that Summertime acknowledges the fact that brief encounters with travelers are usually sketchy— often gloriously so. It’s part of the seduction of travel. You only need present what you want to about your life back home. (Although of course, there’s no changing your character. That takes more than a passport.)
Finally, and crucially, one of the great satisfactions of this film is that it is about love among adults, rather than among the insipid but photogenic twenty-something chick flicks that Hollywood dispenses like Snickers. In 1955, when this film was made, Hepburn was 48, Brazzi was 39, and Isa Miranda was 50. The youngsters were Darren McGavin, aged 33, and Mari Aldon, 29. Not a Megan in the bunch. Thank you yet again, David Lean.
My last regret, also minor, is one I will indulge at length because this is my blog and nobody can stop me. Admire Hepburn though I do, she may not have been the right actress to play a role that, in my view, should have been a less vital woman, and a slightly younger one. Hepburn is such a thoroughbred, and so indelibly herself on-screen, that it was a stretch for me to believe that she’d been wasting away in the spinster paddock all these years. I can’t help but wonder if the role shouldn’t have gone to someone else, and wonder at length, because it’s such fun. Question is, who?…
What actress might have been more à propos? Plenty of glamour pusses had aged into the role by 1955. It needed to be an American or one who can convincingly play American, so let’s consider: Loretta Young (42 at the time, and two years into her TV series); Rita Hayworth (41); Gene Tierney (45); Ginger Rogers (44, and winding down); Joan Fontaine or Olivia de Havilland (38 and 39, respectively). All could, by the mid-1950s, downplay their considerable beauty. So, if Summertime needed star power– which it might have, Hepburn is the only marquee name– I’d have opted for Fontaine. Fine actresses both, but De Havilland had recently done her plain spinster in The Heiress and gotten her second Oscar for it.
Other leading ladies of the silver screen come to mind, none big on glamour. In no real order, then: Dorothy Maguire (37 at the time) would seem to have been born to play Jane, but that’s the problem: it’s so much like her other plain-Jane roles, it’s like typecasting. Kim Hunter, then 33 and on Broadway in The Tender Trap, always looked like she could be a late bloomer. Jane Wyman (38) had been the plain Jane in her Oscar role as Johnny Belinda and had a similar role to Summertime‘s Jane in All That Heaven Allows, the same year. Ditto even plainer Betsy Blair in Marty, but I never thought she had much range. Perhaps the smartest move would have been to cast Margaret Sullavan. She was more a stage than a screen actress, and she was 46 (and unstable), but she could have been brilliant.
Finally, and hold your guffaws, but I can imagine Donna Reed making this role her own. Age 34 then, two years after her Oscar, she has a shy beauty, and playing Jane that year could have spared her the indignity of playing Sacagawea in the arms of Charlton Heston’s Meriwether Lewis in The Far Horizons, perhaps even spared her from her eventual fate: being embalmed for eight years as Mrs. Alex Stone on ABC-TV.
A lot of supporting and B-movie actresses also come to mind, and it is exciting to think about the many American women for whom Jane Hudson could have been the role of a lifetime, a character, like them, waiting in the shadows. To name a few likely candidates: Evelyn Keyes (39 at the time) really hit her stride in the 1950s, mostly in films noir. Celeste Holm (38) already had her supporting Oscar and merited more top-billing. Marsha Hunt (38) would have been marvelous, and it would have been a godsend compared to the TV commercials she’d been reduced to. Jo Van Fleet (41) had five films released in 1955, including her Oscar-winner, East of Eden, and what a contrast Jane Hudson would have been to that character, the brothel madam whose abandoned son (James Dean) sought her out.
An iconic stage actress, Uta Hagen (36) was blacklisted and didn’t make her first film until she was 53, but this would have been a magnificent film debut for her. Another stage actress, Jessica Tandy (46) could also have done a fine turn as Jane. Mary Beth Hughes (36), had range and charm that was never fully realized, but she may have been too luscious for the role; I mention her only because I regret her undeserved obscurity. Ann Dvorak (44) had retired, but she was the real deal and is also all but forgotten. Gloria Stuart (45) had also retired, though she came back to movies in the 1980s, and again in Titanic when she was 87. Last but by no means least, the inimitable Sylvia Sidney, then 45. She made only one film that year, Violent Saturday with Ernest Borgnine. But her quirky looks and tiny stature, on top of a strong screen presence, would have added immensely to the role of a librarian yearning to be set free.
But my choice: Beatrice Straight. In her 7th movie (of only 17), Network, she won the Oscar for her supporting role, which lasted only 5 minutes and 40 seconds on screen—a stunning accomplishment and, of course, a record. She was primarily a stage actress, though she was in dozens of television shows from 1951 until 1990. We cinéastes would have loved to know about her sooner, and Summertime might have been the perfect vehicle for her at age 41.