For David Lean, it was his favorite film starring his favorite actress. In her autobiography, Me, Katherine Hepburn remarked, “they called me and said that David Lean was going to direct it. ‘Would I be…’ they didn’t need to finish that sentence.” Hepburn said she first lived on the island of Murano, where the famous Murano glass is made, not Venice proper with its maze of narrow streets and bridges. Together with her entourage, she quickly moved into an apartment near the Grand Canale, the major water route, opposite the famous Gritti hotel where David Lean camped. (She even had her own gondola.) One of the most sought after Venetian tourist items is of course Murano glass: “glass, glass and more glass,” according to the dialogue. Given that Venice footed the entire bill of $36,000 for the film, Summertime is seen as pure tourist promotion.
Summertime is about Jane Hudson (Hepburn), a middle-aged “fancy secretary” from Akron, Ohio who saves up for a three-week dream vacation in Venice. Arriving by train to Piazza Roma via the Orient Express, Paris-Venice, complete with a hand-wound 8-mm camera, she takes the vaporetto, the public water bus rather than a gondola or water taxi. An American couple on board happens to be staying at the same boarding house, Pensioni Fiorini ( a set construction) on the Accademia vaporetta - water bus stop (the Peggy Guggenheim Museum is located here). Jane coyly indicates to the pensioni proprietress that she, like most girls under 50, is searching for something. On her first day out on the Piazza San Marco Jane meets a handsome middle aged man, Renato Di Rossi (Rossano Brazzi), an antique dealer, and enters into a romance which becomes all the more passionate because he is married although separated.
Lean had six shades of red goblets blown especially for the film. In one scene, Jane discovers Renato charged almost the same amount for 18th century glass as fresh imitations, a discovery that produces rage. It becomes quite clear that Jane is losing her rocker, displaying a passion that eclipses the bravura of Brazzi. She is hysterical, insisting people drink with her to quiet her loneliness, and has flash floods of intermittent tears. Hepburn actually had problems with Spencer Tracy and the film crew, despite the glass commercials, and she was considered an irritating obstacle to tourism.
Lean’s intention with the film was to capture a child at play: Jane’s awe of Venice and the excitement of new love. An Italian child becomes her escort, one that she at first rebukes — she is not that desperate, but she and Renato later play with wind up toys at a café. “You are like a hungry child that only wants beefsteak not ravioli. Please take the ravioli,” says Renato when she starts to question the affair. “I’m not that hungry,” says Jane. But Renato convinces her of the need for a Latin approach, “the ravioli approach” to love and sexuality. Her red goblets transform to a pair of sparkling red shoes, noticeably evocative of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, as fireworks fills the sky. The charm of Venice and typical Italian love songs give the film the aura of a melodrama, a woman’s weepie, but the storyline is too thin. The film also prods American and Italian stereotypes, such as the shock of promiscuous Italians to the more pristine Americans. (Keep in mind the film has a British director.) The travelogue veneer and the superficial story make Summertime a corny gem.
Hepburn claims Lean absorbed the city and had a photographic gift for conveying his impressions. Indeed, after every minute of dialogue a breathtaking view of the city is displayed, drawing inspiration from the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents, which is made to fit his pictures.
In one memorable scene Hepburn falls into the Venetian canal, an action that would be repugnant today in the foul water, filled with industrial pollution from neighboring Mestre. Reportedly, the water temporarily blinded Katherine and today anyone who falls into the canal is advised to take antibiotics. (An urban legend about the incident claims that the fall contributed to Hepburn's Parkinsons illness). Medieval Venice was built on pilings and dead bodies were dropped into the canal to rot. A foreshadowing of the duplicity of the canal occurs when Jane first sets eyes on a gondola floating by, a view tainted by the dumping of sewage from an apartment. It is the also the water that carries her first flower from Renato, a flower that never quite stays in her possession even as she pulls away from the city. “Please help me Renato,” she begs, “let me go.” She has grown up, and if she stays a second longer she will never go. Brazzi actually first interpreted his role as a gigolo, (“another girl will arrive tomorrow”), a portrayal Lean thought too grim.
In the UK, the film was called Summer Madness, a far more appropriate title.