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A Year with Kate: Summertime (1955)

Episode 29 of 52: In which David Lean's beautiful romantic classic gives Katharine Hepburn an eye infection and me a headache

I admit it. The spinster movies confuse me. When Nick and Nathaniel invited me on the podcast (Have you listened to the podcast? Go listen to the podcast), I stated outright that I don’t like Summertime. As a fan, I take almost personal offense hearing my idol continuously called “plain” or (at best) “interesting-looking.”

But as a cinephile, David Lean’s 1955 love letter to Venice engages me. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for a scopophilic travelogue cinematography. And trains. And Technicolor films that overuse the color red. And judging from last year's Hit Me With Your Best Shot submissions for Summertime, many of you share my inner conflict.

Summertime is more a mood piece than a plot-driven story. David Lean exorcised most of the third act from Arthur Laurents’ original play, Time of the Cuckoo, in order to create a sweetly romantic view of Venice, love, and September romance. Kate plays Jane Hudson, a secretary from Akron, Ohio who comes to Venice for… something. Adventure, maybe? Hanging out the window of the train to the city with her 8mm camera rolling, Jane proves herself immediately to be a curious and active observer.

Red goblets be damned; that 8mm camera is most important object in David Lean's movie. [More...]

The camera is the physical manifestation of Jane’s curiosity and excitement. As Jane travels through the city, camera in hand, cinematographer Jack Hildyard will often use her camera’s point of view--though not actual 8mm film--to show the audience exactly what Jane sees. In a sensitively introspective performance, Kate makes each lingering look Jane takes at the city an active, emotional observation. Venice remains beautiful in any mood, but Kate's small shifts in mood signal whether she sees company or solitude when she watches strolling couples or paired stone lions. (Lean would later use this intimate point of view trick to equal effect in Doctor Zhivago.) It turns out that the camera lens is as much a shield against the world as it is a way to examine it.

Observing but not yet observed. Notice the camera in arm's reach.

Then the shopkeeper Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi) enters Jane's life, and she ditches the camera for a red goblet and a pair of heels. de Rossi is introduced with his own POV shot as he stares at Jane's shapely legs a table away from him, uniting de Rossi and Jane as two people who see beauty in overlooked places. After a quick courtship, de Rossi and Jane engage in some Code-dodging love scenes among (literal) fireworks. But even then, the camera continues to be as interested in the city as it is in its lovers. I get that temptation. Venice is gorgeous. Plus, de Rossi is basically a Bruno Mars song in Italian, giving Jane external validation and crooning, "Girl, you're amazing/così come sei."


And here’s my problem: what does Jane gain from this? The film ends and Jane hops on the train before we can get any clear idea of what life-affirming possibilities de Rossi’s magic penis and her Character Development Deflowering may have opened for her. It's clearly supposed to be something big. Will Jane return to Akron with the desire to explore life more thoroughly? Will she replay her Venetian love affair on lonely winter nights? Or will she file this away as just a moment in the woods? The ending is ambiguous but elated. Jane leaves Venice as she entered it, hanging out the window, but this time there is no 8mm camera between her and the world.

Kate was starting a new adventure in her career as well. After Summertime wrapped, Kate signed with the Old Vic Company to tour Australia in three Shakespearean comedies. This despite an infamous recurring staph infection in her eye caused by falling into the canals in Summertime. Even at 47, Kate was pushing herself to get better! Keep that in mind. Maybe it’ll help us forgive her for next week's movie.

Previous Week: Pat and Mike (1952) - In which Katharine Hepburn proves hitting like a girl is a good thing.

Next Week: The Iron Petticoat (1956) - In which you’d think Katharine Hepburn would have learned to stay away from accents by now.

Tuesday 8/12: Hit Me With Your Best Shot crossover - Suddenly, Last Summer

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Reader Comments (18)

But why is that a problem? This is what is beautiful about this movie. We just don't know. The fact that there is no camera is enough. She can see now. She can see a lot of things with her own eyes, without any filter. Isn't that enough?

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

So I am all done with this spinster label and I urge you to stop using it even as we go through the next three movies.
Stop calling her a spinster and start looking at the societal breakthroughs. THIS WAS the 50’s, Women were either married………..looking to be married ( Doris Day , Or How to Marry a Millionaire ) or whores or demented horrors . The fact that there is an independent Kate even OUT there with magic penisses and fireworks is RADICAL for the time. AND as a slightly under 50 actress, she was working without being someone’s dutiful mother or mourning widow and when she does…..Violet is over the top. This was the era when the studios lost their distribution, had to battle TV (with air-conditioning and Cinemascope) and even Jimmy Stewart was making westerns because the studios thought they would sell. She found good parts to play and parts that in view of the time were not demeaning. If the genre had been there she may have tried being an action hero, (compare Rose Sayer to Gail Hartman). Instead she toured in Shakespeare.
In their own way, these are FEMINIST Movies and code pushing love affairs. Eye infection aside, Jane wasn’t punished for her tryst. And no there is no resolution to the affair. How grown up of David Lean not to resolve this slightly soapy love story with even more soap. That last train shot is enough for me.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Huh, what? I've read this twice and looked at all the Best Shots and I don't get it. What does Kate get out of this? Well, everything.

Maybe it lives on incorrectly in my memory but I had no problem with people thinking Kate was "plain." Today we'd use other words but they all mean the same thing: simple, athletic, of a certain age, fortysomething, weathered, finely aged, etc. This particularly doesn't bother me in the 50s when women were often all washed up in Hollywood (and the world at large) by the time they were 30. (My Mom got married in 1953 and was already 20 years old. She thought all her chances had passed her by).

I think maybe it's the word "spinster" that is causing the problem. Kate reminds me of many people I know (myself included) who aren't exactly spinsters but who are so involved with everything else in their lives that they wake up one day and see that most of life has passed them by.

I guess I need to see it again, because I think of this as Kate's finest showing in years. Certainly one of the few movies that really concentrates on her and her story. She's not the Supporting Actress in the movie of her own life in this one.

PS it's the attention not the penis that Kate/Jane craves and gets.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Leslie19 -- I don't know how I'm going to avoid the word "spinster" since it's a common label for this phase of her career, but you make a great point about Kate retaining her agency in these films. You're right, she absolutely could have been sidelined as a supporting character, but Summertime especially is pretty forward-thinking for its time. Thanks for the perspective.

To clarify: I actually like the ambiguous ending very much, I just don't see the usefulness of de Rossi as a character. This idea that Jane's not whole until she has a love affair really irks me, although I respect her decision to leave before the affair sours.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

David Lean makes a beautiful damn movie. Glacially paced, often, but SOOOOPRETTTYYYYY

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

I love SUMMERTIME, sometimes I think it might even be my favourite Lean film even though (because of) it's his smallest in scope but still manages to pack a punch with such a small, human tale. Like Dave, the film always stands out for me as one of the few Kate-being-front-and-centre films.

Her effect is so great I always focus on her whatever she's in, but she's leading in this in a way she hasn't been since ALICE ADAMS (decades before). Nick in his profile on this performances touches on the dichotomy of Kate as we know her being so unlike Jane and yet it's why the performance - and film - works. She doesn't get a make-over or anything, she looks as fresh and simple before and after she meets Renato but it's less about his magic penis and just the realisation that she's enough to matter.

Sure, it's coming from a romantic dalliance, but I don't think that makes it any less legitimate or makes it something necessarily bad. And, at the end, she knows it cannot last and he may have - in the most technical terms - "used her" for an extramarital affair, but she's also used him to realise that SHE matters, and through that knowledge know enough to know that she must go at the end.

Like with Rose in '51, Kate is playing a model of what constitutes spinster in a negative way - unyielding, unsullied - and ultimately subverts by deigning to get dirty, to get sexual which is why when people call it her "spinster" period, I don't mind. At 47, I really do think this is one of the films where she's at her most beautiful.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

Here is the thing about a Summertime for me, it is a David Lean film.

I'm not going to give him the benefit of an ambiguous ending because it is lazy writing. If you make an effort in Scopophilic films like Lawrence and Zhivago to have some sort of message and resolution you don't get off that easy when you feel like vacationing in Venice and bringing Kate and some cameras with you.

There is a point to be made that, yes, a love story like this in the context of its era is revolutionary. However, with someone of Lean's stature and power he could have swung for the fences. Let her get on the train without her camera and have Kate smile to herself and not look back. Make it more obvious that she used him to free herself from her own insecurities. To me it seemed that Kate's transformation was caused by De Rossi's choice to have her rather than her choice to have him.

I liked the film, it was pretty but that only gets you so far. The Searchers was beautiful too but I'm not about to let John Ford show me mesa's for an hour and have Wayne spit and be done with it.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDrewH

Obvious? I am sorry that David Lean is not Bergman but this movie is as subtle as it gets for a star vehicle in the 50's. It is a very delicate movie.

And, although I don't think her transformation is about sex, the idea of a woman finding sex and being moved by this experience is much more complex than "magic penis" effects.

This movie is about female empowerment - the fact this empowerment comes from romance and sex (and she discovering herself being attractive and interesting) doesn't make it less important or subtle. That's the human experience in one of its main aspects.

And one more thing: this movie has fantastic dialogues without being too talky. They make very good observations about their differences, about beauty, love and things like that. It's not lazy writing in a million years.

As a matter of fact, I consider this to be an instant echo of Rosselini's Voyage to Italy in a travelogue romance package. It's all about being in a different place and feel it, and being moved by it. People don't recognize that, but the lineage of Summertime is a very noble one: from Rossellini to Antonioni to Sofia Coppola to Richard Linklater...

Let me say it: Summertime is a clear masterpiece in my opinion, and Kate is spectacular in it.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Cal - was it you who originally said we should do this for 'best shot', If so i thank you. I really like this movie. And it surprised me. I think i normally don't buy Kate as emotionally vulnerable (she just seems so strong to me) but with this film and Alice Adams she pulled it off beautifully.

Regarding Spinsters and Magic Penises. I wouldn't actually mind the Magic Penis trope at all if it didn't adhere and strengthen the whole patriarchy thing so much. Because in truth, new love and romance and surprising sex (re: physical connection) can really effect people in huge ways. But when it's paired with the whole "ewwww, an older single lady" judgment is where it gets complicated.

July 16, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

What a beautiful looking film and that shot of her waving as she leaves was my choice for best shot back when the film was selected. I wanted to jump on a plane for Venice the minute the film ended.

I really like this film even if it seems a bit silly that Kate is referred to as plain and interesting looking when she's clearly exquisitely striking but it is a Hollywood movie and often in those films women who would be a knockout anywhere else were often presented as plain.

One example: In Ziegfeld Girl particularly but in most of her films Judy Garland, at the height of her youthful loveliness, was reminded more than once she was no glamour girl and considered at best cute. It's true that she was competing against Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr and few were as gorgeous but come on she was a beautiful girl. The same standard seems to be the one applied to Hepburn in Summertime.

I think she is changed by her interlude with Brazzi, who is so incredibly handsome in this, where as when she arrived she's a watcher, chattering like a magpie and seeming to interact with people but actually keeping within herself. When she goes she has become aware of the importance of risking hurt and reaching out to feel others emotions and having discovered that she can open her own world in new ways. I don't think it's the sex that is key to her awakening but the emotional connection forged through it.

On a side note: Kate does well in the role but if Lean had held true to the spirit of the play he would have cast Shirley Booth who starred in the play. It's understandable that Hepburn was bigger box office but at the time this was made Shirley should have been a viable choice having won her Oscar a couple years before. She certainly would have fit the description of an ordinary looking woman more fully, I can see her giving an interesting interpretation to the role too. Having only been familiar with her by way of Hazel and Come Back Little Sheba I happened upon a small film she made called About Mrs. Leslie and it was a revelation. She was great in Sheba and fun as Hazel but in Mrs. Leslie she played a much more rounded character, she even sings!, and I could she her taking the nebulous Jane Hudson and exploring her blossoming with great skill.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

This film definitely played better for me, seeing again after so many years I was amazed at how much more I liked it. When I saw it years ago, I admired the scenery, David Lean does Venice,-it was beautiful, of course. I remembered that Kate finds love, falls into a canal, and leaves.
Anne Marie, I remember being insulted that somehow this woman had never been with a man, and suddenly after a brief fling, finds she understands life now. It seemed so reductive. No woman can truly live without a man. (thus the term Spinster Film)

But on re-watching I find myself in total agreement with Leslie19, this is a lovely departure from the 50's norms, Kate's character is not reduced to being some Aunt or Mother in the background. The film revolves around her and a rather sweet experience that is fully adult and there are no terrible consequences that befall her. It is lamentable that she is not allowed to have had affairs or love before this, but I have to admit the subtle pleasures of this film out way any regrets I have about that. It is a wonderful performance by Hepburn, and I nice period piece that is quite different from the melodrama forced on most older actresses of that time. (Dare I say that it seems a bit like Bridges of Madison County?)

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

If you want to see other classic Shirley Booth catch her as Dolly Levine in the movie version of The Matchmaker. She is charming and owns it.......... no matter how many times you saw Carol Channing or Barbra Streisand.
And Miss Kate seems to have watched Shirley on Broadway. Miss Booth starred as Bunny in The Desk Set

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Leslie19-Thanks for the suggestion. I've seen her in The Matchmaker and actually prefer it to the overblown dinosaur that is Hello, Dolly! Even though Streisand sings the bejesus out of the score she was ridiculously young to be playing a middle-aged widow, that and the fact that you can feel the loathing she and Matthau shared for each other and the overproduction swamping what is a simple little story. Besides Shirley the older film is better cast with Shirley MacLaine, Anthony Perkins, Robert Morse and Paul Ford all superior to their 60's counterparts I think.

Kate and Shirley were friends since their co-starring in the original Philadelphia Story on Broadway where Shirley played Elizabeth Imbrie and Booth being a major star of The Great White Way Hepburn probably kept her eye on what her old co-star was performing in. Shirley reportedly preferred live theatre to film so was probably glad when the plays were filmed that Kate got the roles she originated.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I don't think the movie judges her for being an "old single lady", not at all. Jane judges herself a lot, but the movie is pretty cool to her, adding a lot of layers yo this spinster archetype. And yes, I suggested this movie for Hit me... because it's Lean, and he shows he is an incredibly gifted director when it comes to visuals even in his most intimate movies.

That said, I have always loved this movie, so I can't really claim I'm being objective here in my defense of it.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Wow! Who knew 49 year old movies could elicit such strong reactions from people? I think Nathaniel elucidated my issues with the "S" word movies more clearly than I've been able to. I love that Kate keeps playing these strong, action-taking ladies, but it drives me nuts that the only way these women are truly changed is through their relationship with men.

cal roth -- I'm putting Voyage to Italy on my list of movies to watch. Never be objective about Summertime!

joel6 & AndrewK -- I read and re-read your HMWYBS entries, and I love what you wrote there and here. I think we chose the same shot last year.

LadyEdith -- Welcome to the party! We're all very opinionated, so I hope you continue to stick around to add to the discussion!

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

That gif of her falling in the canal resulted in a eye infection for KH that lasted for years. It was supposedly the cause of seeming to always have watery eyes. By the way I love SUMMERTIME every time I've seen it.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commentersissyinhwd

Well, it was shot 60 years ago so it might be a little dated, but Kate is right there filling all the plot holes. Superb performance. One of my favorites.

July 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

One of Kate's best! She revealed a beautiful fragility that u dun often see, except maybe in Alice Adams & The Philadelphia Story (Another 2 of her best). The gorgeous cinematography & scenery of Summertime almost chewed up the whole picture, but Kate manage to anchor the film with a subtle yet heartbreaking performance.

Kate was New York Film Critics' Best Actress runner-up in 1955, Anna Magnani swept all the awards that year for The Rose Tattoo. Compared to the OTT performance of the Italian Mama, Kate should have won the Oscar for this role.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

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