Summertime in Magical Venice

Venice, Italy, is a magical place. My wife and I spent memorable days there during a dream vacation trip to Tuscany in 2005. I had never been to Venice before…physically. I had traveled there and fallen under its spell many times emotionally, thanks to the beautiful David Lean film, Summertime, which starred Katherine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi and made its debut in 1955.

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Summertime was only the second major Hollywood film ever to be filmed entirely on location abroad. The first was The Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara (1952). In those days, well before the low-fare jet age, considerable time and expense was required to locate an entire cast and crew in Europe for weeks of filming.

Thank goodness, the studios for both films took the gamble and did it…and in color, too! What they produced was as good as it gets in the movie business. Summertime is the most beautiful travelogue on Venice you will ever see…and much more. I say that without reservation. The beautiful cinematography of Jack Hildyard is richly deserving of the Oscar it won. The luscious photography combined with the deft character-studies which emanate from the director, David Lean, and the cast provide a “whole” which is much more than the sum of its excellent parts. Then there is the music, music which fits the film beautifully, music which stays in one’s head for a long, long time. I saw this film as a teenager in 1955, with my parents and sister, and I recall that it made an impression on me even then – especially the lilting, breezy,  theme, Summertime, which is woven throughout the film and adds immeasurably to the overall effect.

When I decided to write this post on Summertime and our personal travel impressions of Venice, I replayed parts of the DVD version  just to check on a few details for this piece. And, although I have watched the film many times, I found myself being drawn, once again, back under its magic spell – a trip that is hard to resist. It is that kind of film.

What is it about this film that does that to me, I ask myself? I  feel what it is; I merely need to find the words to express it adequately, here. It is the gorgeous photography, it is the beautiful musical score, it is the innate charm of Venice itself; ultimately, what makes the greatest impression on me is the film’s masterful portrayal of that frightening, yet bittersweet, human condition – feeling alone and lonely. The film opens with Hepburn’s portrayal of an exuberant secretary from Akron, Ohio, named Jane Hudson, riding the connecting rails to the Venice train station on this, her vacation trip of a lifetime. Her excitement is palpable as she energetically chats with her seat-mate, disembarks from the train, and works her way through bustling crowds to her lodgings. There, on a gloriously sunny terrace amid the canals, she meets the classy, worldly hostess, Signora Fiorini, who operates Pensione Fiorini. They are briefly joined on the terrace by some of the other boarders: An attractive young couple, Eddie and Phyl Yaeger, and elder “typical tourists” from Kankakee, Illinois, of all places – the McIlhennys.

After introductions, much animated conversation about being in Venice, and drinks on the terrace, the McIlhennys from Kankakee and the young artist, Eddie Yaeger and his radiant wife, are off in different directions to see the sights of Venice. In very short order, Jane finds herself alone on the still sunny, but now deserted terrace of the pensione…with no one to talk to, and no one to be with. She is a woman in her late forties or early fifties, never married and none-too-sure about what she already senses during her brief time in Venice: Namely, that her nineteen-fifties era, middle-America attitudes and up-tight notions of sexuality may not be the norm in Venice.

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The scenes of Jane on the terrace, feeling so alone and lonely in Venice, of all places, are beautifully portrayed. A spell is cast by the combined effects of Hepburn’s acting, the soft musical interludes of the lilting theme, Summertime, the gently lapping waters whose laconic sound is occasionally interrupted by the muffled voices of nearby gondoliers;  it all works magically to portray just how alone one can feel in the most unlikely of circumstances.

As Hepburn’s character watches young couples stroll over the nearby canal bridges, hand-in-hand, playfully laughing – immersed in Venice and in each other, her loneliness suddenly seizes her. Now the camera is following her as she makes her way through throngs of people to Piazza San Marco, the focal point of all of Venice…and home to most of its pigeons. She is in search of whatever Venice has to offer to relieve her anxiety and despair, feelings which undoubtedly spring from a late-in-life realization that she has missed-out on something essential to human happiness.

Seated alone at a small table amidst many busy small tables at an outdoor café on Piazza San Marco, she is surrounded by a sea of people – all sorts of people from all sorts of places – mostly couples and small groups, all obviously enjoying the magic of Venice and its famous Piazza. As she deeply breathes in the exuberance of the crowd and the physical beauty of her surroundings, she becomes aware of a handsome, middle-aged, well-dressed Italian at a nearby table. He also has been sitting alone, reading his newspaper, and has just become aware of this obviously American woman whose features and palpable anxiety immediately intrigue him. His bemused, male European stare and demeanor create an immediate flustered response from the uptight Miss Hudson who quickly and clumsily gathers her things and beats a hasty retreat to a solitary back-alley. There, she seats herself on the stone steps of a small canal and stares forlornly into its lapping waters. Scene ends.

Before long, Miss Hudson and the dapper Italian gentleman are serendipitously reunited when she spots a brilliant red glass goblet in an antique store window, goes into the small shop to inquire, and comes face to face with Signor de Rossi. To her great surprise, he is both the  interested gentleman she encountered at Piazza San Marco and the shopkeeper. The opening picture of this post shows them in front of the shop’s window which looks out on Campo San Barnaba.

Doing Some Research Before Our Trip to Venice

When Linda and I planned a four-night stay in Venice as part of our 2005 Tuscany vacation, I wondered whether the descriptions in the film were accurate – about the places filmed. Our map soon told me that there is indeed a Campo San Barnaba and showed the way to it. Linda and I both agreed: We would have to go check it out…and we did. Before setting out to see if we could find the Campo San Barnaba and perhaps the actual little shop in the film, we took the time to see and “feel” Venice for a day or two.

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The Grand Canal with the Dome of Santa Maria della Salute

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Mosaics: The Glories of Venice Portrayed

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Serenity: Off the Beaten Path

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Piazza San Marco: St. Mark’s Basilica

It took little time for Venice to envelop us both in her magic – for us to “feel Venice” in the words of Renato di Rossi. Venice quickly captured our hearts and spirits. As we strolled hand-in-hand, had dinner in Piazza San Marco, and dined after dusk on a small intimate piazza off the beaten path, we were so glad we were there… together. I could not help but think of Summertime and poor Jane Hudson, initially alone in regal, bustling Venice with no one to share its splendor.

Jane finally does find romance and companionship with Renato di Rossi for the duration of her stay. But, alas, it is a romance which must end when her two weeks are up. Signor di Rossi is married with a son, but separated from his wife. Jane discovers this early-on, with little help from di Rossi, and, although it flies in the face of her middle-America values, has an idyllic, passionate affair with di Rossi for the duration of her time in Venice. She knows it must end.

The stark contrast between Jane’s values and the casual attitudes she finds abroad make for an interesting drama, early-on. On her last day, she pries herself away from di Rossi’s charms and Venice’s tenacious hold. The final scene finds Jane, with great sorrow and some misgivings, on-board the train pulling from the station as di Rossi futilely tries to catch the moving train to hand her a gardenia at the last possible moment. She leaves Venice without the gardenia, but carrying memories of a romantic idyll in Venice which she could not possibly have envisioned for herself.

Finding Signor di Rossi’s Antique Shop on Campo San Barnaba

We dedicated one afternoon to make our way to the supposed site of Renato di Rossi’s little antique shop on Campo San Barnaba. That open-square area is not near Piazza San Marco and our hotel, but Venice is certainly not that big in area, so it did not take long to trek there.

Would we find anything resembling the little shop in the movie? Yes, we did, and here is the proof – with Linda standing in the doorway. The small shop and its building had ostensibly changed little from the way they were exactly fifty years prior to our visit when director Lean and company filmed on that spot. The shop, which was closed that afternoon, displayed “regional tourist goods” in the window, not antiques, but we were both excited to see that very little seemed to be different after fifty years. Even the Ponte S. Barnaba with its wrought-iron railings was there, obviously visible through the front window, just as in the film. It was fun!

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Site of Signor di Rossi’s Antique Shop in Summertime

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“Other” Red Venetian Goblets We Saw in Venice

I heartily recommend this movie. I have it on the DVD from The Criterion Collection. That version has all the brilliant color of the original release – the result of extensive efforts to restore the finest original print they could find to begin with. The color and naturalness will dazzle you. To see what could have been lost but for the magic of digital restoration, take a look at the original film trailer (furnished) which was not restored: Thank you so much to all who were responsible for preserving this film.

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As always, I have no connection with any product I endorse in these posts. My only motive is to make my readers aware of something that, in my opinion, they might enjoy or benefit from.

Favorite Movies and Special Scenes

Here goes my daunting attempt to name a few all-time favorite movies. This is difficult in so many ways. For instance, what criteria of the many involved will be applied in the selection? One could choose “best story” (or screen-play), “best acting,” “best directing,” “best musical score,” and so-on. My favorites involve these tangible metrics, for sure, but they inevitably qualify based on certain intangibles, qualities that are difficult to “get one’s arms around” in words without digging too deeply and losing the joy or satisfaction that the films offer.

“The Godfather” : Part One and Part Two

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 Because this film brings so much to the table, I have long ceded first place to Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, “The Godfather.” Choose either part one or part two, it makes no difference; they are equally fine. The subject matter may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Coppola and cast weave so many memorable character portrayals into this intriguing study of the Italian Mafia that the screen literally comes to life.

 For me, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone is the finest character portrayal in all of film – so powerful and consistently believable. Every one of the characters in these two films, from the “extras” to the main protagonists, was beautifully acted. The story line, with its psychological underscoring of the Mafia’s conflicting “loyalties” and “codes of honor,” was the perfect vehicle for these fine performances. Great direction too, and then there was the music – that haunting theme and the mesmerizing, uber-Italian Godfather’s Waltz! Beautifully photographed, the film taken as a whole is the cinematic equivalent of a Rembrandt masterpiece on canvas. Finally, how often is a sequel as good (perhaps better) than the five-star original?

 Chaplin’s “City Lights”

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I recall my mother, long ago, remarking about Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 masterpiece, “City Lights.” Although seeing much of Chaplin in his comic sketches throughout my early and adult years, I had never seen his movies with the exception of “Limelight” in the 1950’s. Linda and I have regularly attended the Stanford Theatre in nearby Palo Alto for many years. It is a beautifully restored 1925 downtown movie house which shows old, classic films exclusively. Often, we take a “flyer” on certain old films unfamiliar to us, and rarely have we come away disappointed. It was in that perfect venue that we first saw “City Lights” several years ago when it came for a rare, one-night showing.

 Directing and starring in a 1931 silent film (except for the enchanting musical score) after talkies were already in vogue for more than three years was a big gamble on Chaplin’s part. Yet, his genius in the form of the always recognizable “little tramp” in the bowler hat made it so endearing that it stands as a masterpiece of comedy and pathos. Chaplin even did much of the hands-on film editing in the cutting room himself. The house was full that night at the Stanford Theatre, and, when the lights came back on, I understood why.

“The Right Stuff”

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Number one on my list for pure entertainment! A larger-than-life sweep of  two important sagas in our country’s history. The film opens with the relatively unknown story of the anonymous test pilots who risked their necks flying new aircraft designs at a God-forsaken place in the high California desert called Edwards Air Force Base. Soon, we encounter the nation’s highly-publicized Mercury space program complete with our original seven “rocket jockeys,” AKA astronauts. The highly successful Mercury program begun in the late 1950’s paved the way for Apollo Eleven’s ultimate moon landing in 1969.

 Fantastic performances pepper this highly entertaining and epic sweep of those critical times in the history of aviation and the United of America. Dennis Quaid as the Mercury astronaut Gordon “Gordo” Cooper made me laugh throughout and has left an indelible imprint upon my mind even after all these years. Often do I recall his mugging and his quips in the various scenes, and they never fail to produce a smile or a snicker, even now. Sam Shepard does a great job portraying the now- legendary test pilot from Edwards AFB, Chuck Yeager. Yeager was the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound in 1948 at Edwards in a rocket plane, the Bell Aircraft X-1. 

The film highlights tensions that existed in the late 1950’s between the faceless, nameless hands-on pilots at Edwards who really flew their test aircraft and the new breed of astronauts who, by necessarily relinquishing much of their capsule control to on-board computers, were derogatively viewed as “spam in a can” by some of the old-school test pilots. The primary impetus for such competition was, of course, publicity/recognition/ego and the attendant moneys such public awareness – or lack thereof – brought to the respective programs. The Mercury program, in stark contrast to the heroic efforts at Edwards AFB, was constantly before the eyes of the general public and the budget-boys in Washington. The credo became, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers!”

Who’s the Best Pilot You Ever Saw?

 In the film, Gordo Cooper is fond of asking anyone who will pay heed, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?” Recall that all the astronauts were trained fighter pilots in their respective services before being chosen for the space program. The answer in Gordo’s mind is obvious to anyone in earshot who can also see his broad grin. In case the listener doesn’t get it, Gordo cheerfully informs, “You’re looking at him!”

 In one of my favorite scenes, well into the movie, Gordo, by now well aware of Chuck Yeager’s test pilot skills at Edwards, is asked by a circle of un-initiated reporters, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw, Gordo?” His ever-present broad grin surprisingly melts into serious contemplation as he starts to say in a slow, subdued voice, “Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? Well….there is this pilot …” at which point someone interrupts the quiet air of expectation surrounding Cooper and the circle of reporters, prompting the sudden return of Cooper’s smug smile and the blurted-out rejoinder, “Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? Why, you’re looking at him!” Yeager, himself, has a very brief cameo role in the film – a nice touch! Many aspects of the film reflect his presence on the set. 

If you have not seen “The Right Stuff,” I heartily recommend it for its overall entertainment value and its historical significance – a great real-life adventure, perhaps the greatest ever.

“Summertime”

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Filmed in 1955 on location in Venice, Italy, and starring Katherine Hepburn. The color-restored DVD from the Criterion Collection offers the most beautiful, engaging scenes of magical Venice ever filmed. No travelogue can match it. Hepburn plays an uptight spinster-teacher on the mid-life vacation trip of a lifetime. It takes her a while to shed her mid-west prejudices and inhibitions before she begins to really “feel” Venice in the company of the thoroughly Italian Rosanno Brazzi.

The screenplay, direction (David Lean) and acting offer a wonderful depiction of human emotions as she initially feels alone and unconnected amidst the age-old splendor of Venice even though immersed in bustling crowds of tourists. Yes, it is very possible to feel all alone in a crowd, and the film displays this beautifully. Brazzi’s character notices her dining alone among the throngs at Piazza San Marco one sunny afternoon and, despite a clumsy first encounter, everything changes.

As events unfold, the viewer, too, begins to “feel” Venice thanks to the magnificent photography and the beautiful and breezy theme, aptly titled “Summertime,” which beautifully entwines the story.

The music and the photography alone are worth the price of admission. Only the second Hollywood film to be shot on a European location, the unique magic of “Summertime” literally transports you to the Venice of the 1950’s – a place and a time when such a trip might truly be the experience of a lifetime and not just a stop on one’s world itinerary.

“The Sound of Music”

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Most of you have seen it; what more can I say? I will say this: First rate throughout! It will be a long time before we again see the likes of a Julie Andrews, an admirable real-life persona combining an unbelievable voice with formidable acting skills. Her “Maria” challenges Al Pacino’s “Michael” for top characterization honors in my book. No one else comes to mind who could have carried that role as she did.

Linda and I made a special effort to watch this film with our two young granddaughters – with a very distinct agenda in mind! We wanted them to see and appreciate the truly fine art and talent this film represents. Most of today’s “music stars” who are so highly publicized and popular with youngsters are minor league talents compared to the likes of Ms. Andrews. And where are the songwriters? Will we ever again see the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein who composed the music in the film?

The girls were totally immersed in the movie – they loved it; we like to think they were beginning to understand the meaning of true talent and excellence.

“A Summer Story”

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Winner of my “greatest emotional impact” award: A little-known British film from 1989. Linda and I saw it at a small local arts theatre years ago. When we left the theatre, we were uncharacteristically silent for some time afterward. Finally, we both began to discuss the film and we agreed that we had never felt such an emotional impact after seeing a movie.

The story is one of lost love and opportunity. Beautifully filmed in color, with a fine musical score, this film has to be in a class by itself – so powerful a movie, yet so underpublicized at the time. After many years, I recently found it available on DVD – from Korea, but in English. I ordered it through Amazon and found it to be of fine quality, with the original brilliant colors. We are planning to watch it again after all these years during the next available movie “time-slot” here at home.

Postscript: I noticed at the time that Amazon’s user-review of the film posted 24 entries, and every single one gave it five stars and rave reviews. I have never seen such a unanimous endorsement of any product before on Amazon! I am not surprised, but I think many who recently saw the film for the first time were.

My Favorite Movie Scene of All Time?

Check next week’s post to find out! The subject will not be movies, but my favorite movie scene perfectly illuminates next week’s more serious theme.

 To My Readers: What are your favorite movies and movie scenes? Please         comment and share them with the rest of us!