“All my life, I’ve stayed at parties too long because I didn’t know when to go.”
In David Lean’s “Summertime” (1955), there’s a moment that captures for those who’ve been there, and for those who haven’t yet experienced it, the exhilaration of the moment you walk into Piazza San Marco in Venice. It’s got to be one of my favorite moments in cinema. The bells are tolling and Jane, the spinster from Akron, is being lured by them. At first she steps lightly through the alleyways and the camera angles up to see the narrow view, anxiously looking for where the sound is coming from. From the street Ramo del Salvadego, she hurriedly turns left onto the Piazza. The frame is contained by the two walls on either side, opening up and taking in all the splendor as it tilts up to the Basilica. Doves lead our sights to the top of the tower and up to the sky. Did I just gasp? I do it every time I see this passage.
Venice is my favorite city in Italy, and I’ve visited it many times. It’s a romantic and seductive place with its winding, maze-like streets, bridges, canals, and gondolas. Time has stopped in La Serenisima, and you’re intoxicated by its beauty. During the day the bustle of the tourists and locals going about their business is stimulating, especially if you stop at an outdoor café nursing a drink watching it all unfold. At night, the dark narrow passageways and the faint sound of footsteps on cobblestones make it all mysterious and inviting.
It’s Jane’s first time and David Lean starts the film with her on a train crossing the causeway over the lagoon with a film camera in hand (I’ve always loved this touch, for I see the director identifying with her and the artifact). She’s an executive secretary who’s saved all her life for this trip and is looking to soak up all the culture she can. During the opening credits we get a frenzied montage of watercolors depicting her European tour. The fellow traveler she’s sharing her cabin with tells her that he hopes she likes the city. “I’ve got to!” she exclaims excitedly, breathlessly. “I’ve come such a long way!” She smiles with anticipation and a slight touch of desperation.
The film is an adaptation of playwright Arthur Laurents’ play “The Time of The Cuckoo” which was produced on Broadway in 1952 and starred Shirley Booth in a Tony Award-winning performance. Laurents is most famous for writing the book to classic American musicals “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.” He wrote Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948), and was Oscar-nominated for the screenplays for “The Way We Were” (1973) and “The Turning Point” (1977). He also directed the 1983 premiere of the musical “La Cage Aux Folles” which garnered him a Tony for Best Director.
“Summertime” can be seen as a companion film to Lean’s earlier film “Brief Encounter” (1954), for both share an adulterous dalliance, albeit this one has a more joyous quality. The master director (he remains one of my favorites) that gave us “Lawrence of Arabia” (1963) and “The Bridge over the River Kwai” (1957) mentioned this film to be his treasured one. In the main role he cast Katherine Hepburn (she was deservedly nominated for the Oscar), and she’s in top form as the lonely woman who melts to the city’s magnetism and to the advances of an Italian married man. Despite her impractical morality, she falls in love. “Relax and the world is beautiful,” says Renato, the man she meets when she least expects it and when she’s about to give up all hope. He’s played by an ultra sexy Rossano Brazzi.
The story is simple and Lean doesn’t overplay his hand. He lets the setting, gorgeously photographed by Jack Hildyard (he won an Academy Award for his work on “River Kwai”) to take center stage. There’s a bittersweet aspect to it all as we understand Jane’s need to escape the trappings of her everyday life. There are moments that are just stunning. Lean decided to shoot it all on location and at the height of the tourist season. The scenes of the lovers meeting at the Piazza’s cafe are sublime and there’s also the heartbreaking one in which the gardenia that Renato gifted Jane drifts down a canal. He tries to reach for it and we see their reflections on the water as they both watch in vain as it floats away.
Who knows when will be able to get on a plane and visit Venice again. But in the meantime, you can join Jane on her vacation. And that’s why I love the movies so much.
Renato: “The most beautiful things in life we don’t understand.”
Available to stream on HBO, HBO Max, The Criterion Channel and Kanopy. Available to rent on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Apple TV+,
Screenplay by H.E. Bates and David Lean
Based on the play by Arthur Laurents
Directed by David Lean
Starring Katharine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi, Isa Miranda, Darren McGavin, Mari Aldon
Bringing “Summertime” to the Screen
“The Time of the Cuckoo” was written by Arthur Laurents for Shirley Booth but despite the lead character being a woman, was based on Laurents himself and his time in Venice. In his own words, from his memoir, “Original Story,” “the central character, a woman, is based on me. Not on what I did during those six days – except for the sightseeing – but on what was going on inside me. I realized that as I wrote the play.” Shirley Booth had been persuaded by Katharine Hepburn herself that a film version of the play would not work but later the actress asked Booth for her permission to do the film. Why Hepburn changed her mind about a movie version of the play was easy to answer in two words: David Lean. Hepburn later wrote, “They called me and said that David Lean was going to direct it. Would I be … They didn’t need to finish that sentence. I certainly would be interested in anything that David Lean was going to direct.” Despite winning an Oscar® for “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1952), Shirley Booth didn’t carry the same box office clout as Katharine Hepburn and, besides, the producers felt she was too old for the part, a part she had originated only a year earlier and for which she was awarded a Tony. Nonetheless, Hepburn won the part and David Lean couldn’t have been happier. “David Lean was morose, cold, detached; much more interested in Katharine Hepburn than in The Time of the Cuckoo,” wrote Arthur Laurents. Laurents went to London in December, 1954 to meet with Lean and producers Alexander Korda and Ilya Lopert about the screenplay for the filmed version. The first thing to go was the title. “What was that damn fool author thinking of? Not the public,” Korda said, just as Laurents entered the room at the hotel where they were doing the prep work. Of course, what the author had been thinking was outlined on the first page of the play: “The cuckoo is a summer visitant to the whole of Europe. It proclaims its arrival by a cry heralding the season of love.” Lean agreed with Korda that most people wouldn’t know that and since movies don’t have programs handed out to attending audience members, the title would be confusing and meaningless. Lopert suggested the title “Summertime.”
The Making of “Summertime”
Once the script of “Summertime” was in hand, the cast and crew made its way to Venice to begin prepping the locations. Lean had accepted the job of directing it in part because of a desire to no longer do soundstage work but work on locations outside. He remarked that working on a soundstage made it feel as though one was working in a “pitch-black mine… I prefer the sun.” He set out about Venice, picking out locations and taking pictures. Lean would fall in love with Venice and later live there part of every year. Once location scouting was completed, Lean and his cast and crew were ready to begin work. The filming of “Summertime” was one without any behind-the-scenes acrimony. Katharine Hepburn expressed how, early on, everything seemed right, “Constance Collier, my friend, and Phyllis Wilbourn, her secretary, were going to go with me. Spencer was going to do The Mountain  in the French Alps, so everything was perfect. He was busy – I was busy.” After a brief mix-up, in which Hepburn put her two friends up in a house far from Venice, she got them an apartment on the Grand Canal and never had to suffer for loneliness while filming. That didn’t mean she didn’t have to suffer other things. Shooting schedules for Hepburn often ran from morning to night, giving her, on average, twelve hours of shooting per day. The hot sun of Venice caused Hepburn to remark on more than one occasion that it was hotter than her shoots in Africa for John Huston’s “The African Queen” (1951)…As for the production schedule, David Lean encountered problems with the locals and had to donate money for the restoration of a local church to break the deadlock. It was the height of tourist season and several merchants and gondoliers claimed that filming was disrupting their business. Lean paid for lost income as well as work on the church…In the end, Katharine Hepburn was more than impressed with her experience working with Lean. She even asked to sit in on the editing sessions with him to watch him at work. In her autobiography, she wrote, “[Summertime] was told with great simplicity in the streets, in the Piazza San Marco. We would shoot in tiny streets only a few feet wide. The sun would come and go in a matter of minutes. It was a very emotional part, and I tell you I had to be on my toes to give David enough of what he wanted practically on call. But it was thrilling… He seemed to me to simply absorb Venice. It was his. He had a real photographic gift. He thought in a descriptive way. His shots tell the story. He was capable of a sort of super concentration. It made a very deep and definite impression on me, and he was one of the most interesting directors I ever worked with. Wasn’t I lucky to work with him?”
About Cinematographer Jack Hildyard
Starting as a clapper boy at Elstree Studios in 1932, by 1934 Jack was a focus-puller on “Freedom of the Seas” (Directed by Marcel Varney, photographed by Otto Kanturek). By 1938 he was working as camera operator on films for Leslie Howard and others, including “Pygmalion” (1938 directed by Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard, photographed by Harry Stradling Snr), “The Divorce of Lady X” (1938 Directed by Tom Whelan, photographed by Harry Stradling Snr)and Pimpernel Smith (1941 Directed by Leslie Howard, photographed by Mutz Greenbaum (Max Greene BSC). He also operated on Laurence Olivier’s seminal work, “Henry V” (1944 photographed by Robert Krasker BSC in Technicolor). This gave him invaluable experience of colour cinematography and his subsequent films made him one of the most sought after cameramen in England. He was one of several DPs attached to the troubled Caesar and Cleopatra (1945 Directed by Gabriel Pascal) but his first solo credit as cinematographer was, “While the Sun Shines” (1947 directed by Anthony Asquith). His other films included “Anastasia” (1956 directed by Anatole Litvak), “The Sundowners” (1960 Directed by Fred Zinneman), “Suddenly Last Summer” (1959 Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz), “55 Days at Peking” (1963 Directed by Nicolas Ray). He was also the DP on the aborted “Cleopatra” (1963 directed by Rouben Mamoulian) which was forced to close down after the illness of its star, Elizabeth Taylor whilst at Pinewood. Other credits include “Battle of the Bulge” (1965 Directed by Ken Annakin), “Casino Royale” (1967 Directed by Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish and Richard Talmadge), “The Beast Must Die” (1974 Directed by Paul Annett) and “The Wild Geese” (1978 Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen). He also photographed both of producer-director “Moustaph” Akkad’s films on Islamic history, “The Message” (1976) and “Lion of the Desert” (1981) and in 1983, director Mohamed Shukri Jameel’s film, produced by Saddam Hussain, Al-Mas’ “Ala Al-Kubra,” which was nominated for the Golden Prize at the 1983 Moscow International Film Festival. He was also nominated for BAFTA Awards for his work on “The V.I.P.s” (1963), “The Yellow Rolls-Royce” (1964 both directed by Anthony Asquith) and “Modesty Blaise” (1966 Directed by Joseph Losey)…He made several films with David Lean including “The Sound Barrier” (1952) and “Hobson’s Choice” (1954), “Summertime” (1955), as well as “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), for which he won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography and the British Society of Cinematographers Award… He was a founding member of the British Society of Cinematographer and awarded the BSC Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990. (bscine.com)
About Co-Screenwriter H. E. Bates
H. E. Bates was born in 1905 in the shoe-making town of Rushden, Northamptonshire, and educated at Kettering Grammar School. After leaving school, he worked as a reporter and as a clerk in a leather warehouse. Many of his stories depict life in the rural Midlands, particularly his native Northamptonshire, where he spent many hours wandering the countryside. His first novel, “The Two Sisters” (1926) was published by Jonathan Cape when he was just twenty. Many critically acclaimed novels and collections of short stories followed. During WWII he was commissioned into the RAF solely to write short stories, which were published under the pseudonym “Flying Officer X”. His first financial success was “Fair Stood the Wind for France” (1944), followed by two novels about “Burma,” “The Purple Plain” (1947) and “The Jacaranda Tree” (1949) and one set in India, “The Scarlet Sword” (1950). Other well-known novels include “Love for Lydia” (1952) and “The Feast of July” (1954). His most popular creation was the Larkin family which featured in five novels beginning with “The Darling Buds of May” in 1958. The later television adaptation was a huge success. Many other stories were adapted for the screen, the most renowned being “The Purple Plain” (1947) starring Gregory Peck, and “The Triple Echo” (1970) with Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed. H. E. Bates married in 1931, had four children and lived most of his life in a converted granary near Charing in Kent. He was awarded the CBE in 1973, and died in 1974. (bloomsbury.com)
About Playwright Arthur Laurents
An American writer whose work dates back to radio and whose films and Broadway productions — many of which he has also directed — have included classic works such as “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” and such highly entertaining fare as “The Way We Were” and “The Turning Point.” Arthur Laurents was barely 21 when he wrote his first radio play “Now Playing Tomorrow” in 1939. He went on to write episodes of “Dr. Christian,” “The Thin Man,” and numerous originals. During W.W. II, he wrote “Armed Service Forces Present” as well as “This Is Your FBI.” Laurents’ first play, “Home of the Brave,” was a hard-hitting look at the plight of a Jewish GI during the War and opened on Broadway in 1945 and in London (as “The Way Back”) in 1946. “The Bird Cage” followed in 1950, then “The Time of the Cuckoo” (1952) and “A Clearing in the Woods” (1957). In 1957 also came “West Side Story,” with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Originally conceived by Jerome Robbins (who directed and choreographed) as a twist on “Romeo and Juliet” using Jews and Catholics (and called “East Side Story”), it was transformed by Laurents and Bernstein into the tale of Polish-American Romeo and Puerto Rican Juliet, while their respective gangs fight a street war. Laurents followed this with the book for “Gypsy” (1959), based on the memoirs by Gypsy Rose Lee. The show re-teamed Laurents, Robbins, and Sondheim (Jule Styne wrote the bouncy score) and gave Ethel Merman what was arguably her greatest stage triumph. Laurents began his directing career with his play “Invitation to a March” (1960), that featured incidental music by Sondheim. In 1962, Laurents directed (but did not write) the musical “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” about the garment district. The cast included Lillian Roth, Elliot Gould, and a newcomer, Barbra Streisand, who played the secretary Yetta Marmelstein and nightly stopped the show with her one number. Laurents wrote the book for and directed the Sondheim musical “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964), which has developed a cult following. It also marked the musical theater debut of Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury. He turned his own play “The Time of the Cuckoo” into the musical “Do I Hear A Waltz?” (1965), which set Sondheim’s lyrics to Rodgers’ music. Although he was nominated for Tony Awards for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” Laurents did not win until “Hallelujah, Baby!” in 1967.
His ongoing work in the theater tapered off slightly in the ’70s while he concentrated on features. He directed Lansbury in the 1974 London premiere of “Gypsy” (and its subsequent Broadway incarnation the following year) and, in 1979, he directed and co-wrote Phyllis Newman’s one-woman show, “The Madwoman of Central Park West.” Laurents did not direct again until he helmed the musical version of “La Cage aux Folles” (1983), which, unlike the film on which it was based, expressed the outrage of the Albin character when his lover’s son tries to cast him aside. (This development may be a reflection of the influence of Laurents, book writer Harvey Fierstein and others involved in the production who are openly gay.) Laurents won a Tony Award for his direction of the musical. In 1989, Laurents again oversaw a revival of “Gypsy,” headed by Tyne Daly. Two years later, he wrote the book and directed the ill-advised stage musical “Nick and Nora,” inspired by the characters featured in “The Thin Man.” Laurents’ career in Hollywood as a screenwriter has almost been separate from his career in the theater, although he has sometimes been involved in the adaptation of his plays and musicals. His first screen credit was a shared one on “The Snake Pit” (1948), a harrowing study of mental illness starring Olivia de Havilland. Laurents then adapted Patrick Hamilton’s play “Rope” (also 1948) for Alfred Hitchcock, which was loosely based on the Leopold-Loeb case. Other adaptations include “Anna Lucasta” (1949, with Philip Yordan), “Anastasia” (1956), based on the play about a woman who may or may not be the surviving daughter of the executed Russian Czar, and Laurents co-wrote most of the feature adaptations of his stage work, beginning with 1949’s “Home of the Brave,” which altered his original story that centered on a Jewish soldier to that of a black soldier. With Ernest Lehman, he adapted “West Side Story” (1961), with Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, and with Leonard Spigelgass, he wrote “Gypsy” (1962), that featured a non-singing Rosalind Russell and Wood. He also worked on the screen version of “The Time of the Cuckoo” which became David Lean’s “Summertime” (1965). In 1973, Laurents adapted his own novel, “The Way We Were,” the story of the romance between a Jewish woman and a WASP gent broken apart by cultural and political differences. The result, starring Streisand and Robert Redford, was a throw-back to the classic “women’s pictures” and was a huge box-office success. Laurents followed with “The Turning Point” (1977), which he also produced with its director Herbert Ross. Also a critical and commercial success, the film told the tale of two fortyish women, one an aging ballet star (Anne Bancroft), the other (Shirley MacLaine) who gave up dancing to raise a family and have a life of regrets. Laurents has merely dabbled in TV. He wrote the 1967 NBC special “The Light Fantastic; or, How to Tell Your Past, Present and Maybe Future Through Social Dancing,” and he oversaw the adaptation of “Gypsy” (CBS, 1993) for Bette Midler. (pbs.org)
About Director David Lean
David Lean was born on March 25, 1908 in Croydon, Surrey, England. Lean was the son of strict Quaker parents and did not see his first film until age 17. He began his film career in 1928 as a teaboy for Gaumont-British studios, where he soon was promoted to clapboard boy, and finally to editor, a position at which he excelled. By the end of the 1930s Lean was the most highly-paid film editor working in British cinema and widely regarded as the best. Until the end of his career, Lean considered editing the most interesting step in the filmmaking process and always contracted with studios to cut his own films. Lean’s collaboration with playwright Noël Coward began in 1942 when they codirected the drama “In Which We Serve.” The success of this film allowed for the funding and formation of Cineguild, a production company helmed by Lean and co-founded by Coward, producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, and director-cinematographer Ronald Neame. The company’s initial productions—three adaptations of Coward’s stage plays—were Lean’s first solo efforts as a director. The first of these, the domestic drama “This Happy Breed” (1944), is today seen as hopelessly dated because of Coward’s patronizing treatment of the lower middle-class. The second was Coward’s classic supernatural comedy “Blithe Spirit” (1945), regarded as a good effort but little more than a stage play on celluloid. The last of the Coward vehicles, the romantic melodrama “Brief Encounter” (1945; based on Coward’s play “Still Life”), was a masterpiece and the first of many Lean films to employ the theme of private obsessions versus outward appearances. Two Charles Dickens classics served as source material for Lean’s next efforts. “Great Expectations” (1946), which garnered Academy Award nominations for best director, picture, and screenplay, is still considered by many to be the finest screen adaptation of a Dickens novel. “Oliver Twist” (1948) is also highly regarded and features a memorable performance by Alec Guinness as Fagin. In 1950 Cineguild disbanded, and Lean began working for British producer Alexander Korda at Shepperton Studios.
Lean’s films of the late 1940s and early ’50s are regarded as good but unremarkable, highlighted by the standout performances of Charles Laughton in “Hobson’s Choice” (1954) and Katharine Hepburn in “Summertime” (1955). He returned to prominence with the prisoner-of-war drama “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), a film noted for its psychological battles of will and taut action sequences. It won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and Lean’s first as best director, and has been named to the Library of Congress National Film Registry, a national honour given to films deemed culturally, historically, and artistically significant. Because the movie was funded by a major American studio (Columbia), Lean for the first time in his career had the luxury of an extended shooting schedule, a large crew, technical amenities, and a prestigious cast. Its success insured that, for the remainder of his career, Lean would devote himself exclusively to big-budget epics. The story of T.E. Lawrence, a controversial British officer who led an Arab revolt against the German invasion during World War I, became the basis for “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), often considered Lean’s finest film. The film won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and director, and made international stars of actors Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. Filming was arduous, conditions were hot and time-consuming, and production took 20 months to complete. The film is visually spectacular with grand expanses of textured, windblown sand, hundreds of charging camels shot by traveling dolly, and extreme close-ups of O’Toole’s piercing blue eyes. “Lawrence of Arabia” has been rereleased theatrically three times and was elected to the National Film Registry in 1991. “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), a love story set against a backdrop of the Russian Revolution, and the romantic “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970) followed, both exhibiting the grand scale, lush cinematography, and breathtaking landscapes that had become the hallmark of Lean’s work…Ryan’s Daughter was financially successful, but critics panned it…Lean was humiliated by the negative press and did not direct another film for 14 years. His last film, “A Passage to India” (1984), based on the E.M. Forster novel, was regarded as his best work since “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lean was knighted by Queen Elizabeth that year, and in 1990 he was awarded the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. At the time of his death, he was preparing a screen version of Joseph Conrad’s novel “Nostromo.” (britannica.com)