Wednesday, July 6, 2016

SUMMERTIME: Blu-ray (United Artists 1955) Twin/Paramount Home Video: Japan Import

David Lean’s intermediate film, that is, the one that straddles the chasm between his ‘little gem’ phase of intimate English dramas and drawing room comedies, and his later period as the purveyor of peerless epics built on a gargantuan scale, was Summertime (1955). With Venice’s timeless allure, sumptuously photographed by the great cinematographer, Jack Hildyard, the cloying tale of a spinsterish secretary on her first big holiday away from home, who finds unlikely and oft bittersweet romance with an aging Lothario, became the stuff of richly rewarding, if slightly travelogue-heavy escapism. Venice is undeniably the interloper into this middle-aged love affair without the traditional happy ending; Lean, perhaps, drawing on his own Brief Encounter (1945) for inspiration, and, of course, Arthur Laurents’ 1952 Broadway show, The Time of the Cuckoo, specifically written for Shirley Booth, who actually won a Tony for it. Alas, in adapting the play for the screen, Lean was to quickly become dissatisfied with the material as written; his complicity on the project assured after producer, Hal B. Wallis’ ambitions to acquire the rights fell through and Ilya Lopert instead became the custodian of the material with sincere plans to hire Booth and director, Anatole Litvak to partake of the exercise.  Wallis had wanted Katharine Hepburn, and indeed, Lean would concur with this casting choice later on, replacing Ezio Pinza with Rossano Brazzi as his male lead. “They called and said that David Lean was going to direct it,” Hepburn would later reminisce, “…and 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.” Even then, there were rocky bumps to overcome in Summertime’s gestation, Lean feverishly working with associate producer, Norman Spencer and writers, Donald Ogden Stewart and S.N. Behrman to improve upon the material. Ultimately, novelist H.E. Bates would be brought in to polish the script and, along with Lean, receive sole writing credit on a story that bore no earthly resemblance to the Broadway show, though arguably improved upon Laurents’ usually immaculate prose.
Summertime is a deliciously uncompromising parable for those enduring the absence of love in youth, the unanticipated discovery of it in middle-age, and the friction that occurs when aged prejudices collide with that unquenchable romantic yearning in us all to uncover something miraculous in the every day. And Lean is unabashedly sentimental, imbued with his newfound and encapsulating romance of celluloid for the city itself; lingering along its claustrophobic alleys and taking long photographic respites to show off Venice to its most sublimely gorgeous effect; becoming deeply involved with every sensualist moment as only a rank tourist, intoxicated by first impressions, can experience any foreign port of call. But Lean’s impressions of Venice remain uniquely satisfying, only partly because of his ability to make us see it through his hawk-eyed camera lens; supplanted by Hepburn’s willingness to be immersed in the queer amalgam of grit and glamour on display; lavishly appointed piazzas contrasted with half-lit, cobble-stoned byways, cluttered in clothes lines lazily dangling overhead. At the start of Jane Hudson’s vacation, Lean lays these merry contradictions at Hepburn’s feet - literally; Jane’s dewy-eyed gazes into the canal suddenly interrupted by layers of rubbish raining down from an upstairs window, unceremoniously dumped into the waters just ahead. Equally, the Pensione Fiorini is a fascinating blend of shadow and light; its’ heavily draped lobby and shuttered sitting rooms giving way to golden sun-lit balconies and bridges overlooking water-lined arteries, teeming with taxis and gondolas.    
Summertime would be nothing at all without Katharine Hepburn who, by 1955 was finely honed in her exemplary gallery of seemingly tough-as-nails heroines, stricken with an air of vulnerability, gradually unearthed from a hidden wellspring where still waters invariably run much deeper than anticipated.  I have often viewed Summertime as the quintessential Hepburn performance, perhaps because it shies away from the austere confidence Hepburn so capably exuded in practically every other role. The tears just seem real; the wounded heart, yearning for something more resilient, yet unable to entirely commit to the spirit of true love; or in Summertime’s case – love on its own terms, as it comes; frankly imperfect, ethereally fleeting and ultimately, heartrending. It is Hepburn’s own tangible loneliness, rather than that of her alter ego, Jane Hudson, that lends genuine ballast to this unapologetically adult and unvarnished grand amour. Summertime’s notions of courting protocol may have considerably dated since, but as a character study in the reawakening of a woman’s heart – too long lain dormant and buried beneath her sense of pride, it remains genuinely affecting and effective. As a vehicle for Hepburn, it is perfection par excellence. Summertime is the perfect movie for…well…summer time; Lean’s notions of Italy, or rather, a stodgy American’s open-hearted unwillingness to entirely let loose of her clichéd Technicolor impressions of it, develops with a lithe flair for the tenderness, rather than the melodrama: all to the good, as Hepburn occasionally is prone to gilding the lily.
In the turmoil that was to become Summertime behind the scenes, many names were bandied about for the much sought after starring roles; including Ingrid Bergman, presumably to be reunited with Roberto Rossellini, then Olivia De Havilland and actor/director, Vittorio De Sica as the swarthy Italian lover, Renato de Rossi (the part ultimately going to Rossano Brazzi instead). Summertime is duly noted as one of the first major films to be shot entirely on location; Venice’s government officials, with undue pressure applied by the local gondolieri, resisting Lean’s request to immortalize the city on celluloid, as the unique requirements of catering to a movie crew would necessitate whole portions of its waterlogged byways and bridges shut down during the peak tourist season. Ultimately, United Artists agreed to a generous stipend to help fund the restoration of St. Mark's Basilica; prominently featured in the film. Lean was also ordered by the Patriarch of Venice to refrain from photographing shorts skirts, strapless dresses and bare arms in and around the city’s holy sites; a prelude to his battles he would face with the Catholic League of Decency.
Lean, who could be rather exacting and precise in his level of expectation, was also to encounter minor opposition from Katharine Hepburn regarding one of the more light-hearted scenes in the film in which Jane Hudson takes an unexpected tumble into the canal. Hepburn, a stickler where her own health was concerned, at first refused to perform the stunt herself; Lean, imploring her to reconsider, as, at such close range, it would be virtually impossible to successfully mask a double. Hepburn eventually relented and took every precaution to guard against infection from the notoriously polluted waterways, applying protective lotions all over her body and even antiseptic unguents on a small cut on one of her fingers; afterward, immediately bathing and gargling with disinfectant. Nevertheless, Hepburn would forever rue the hour she had given in to this request; contracting a rare form of conjunctivitis that would continue to plague her for the remainder of her life. As production wrapped, Lean elected to rent a summer house, having fallen in love with the culture and the city in tandem. He was not altogether impressed by boycotts imposed by both Production Code Administration head, Geoffrey Shurlock, who ordered trims made – approximately eighteen feet of film – to distill the more obvious implications of adultery, nor The National Catholic Legion of Decency’s demand to excise a line of telling dialogue after Jane and Renato ostensibly consummate their affair. Nevertheless, Lean complied. There was little else he could do. Even so, Summertime was given a B-rating, a designation ascribed to movies considered ‘morally objectionable in part’; in today’s rating system where anything pretty much goes, a thoroughly laughable ascription to say the least.
Summertime is arguably tame; Hepburn’s nervous forty-year old virgin brought to heel at the altar of her more sensual and worldly man of sophistication she can only guess at. However, maturing Jane Hudson’s outlook comes with unanticipated reprisals on both sides of the sex/morality continuum; her lover, presumably well-versed in his proclivity for wooing wealthy tourists, himself swayed by Jane’s captivating, if transparent naiveté. Ironically, it is Jane’s unanticipated surrender to these raptures of love-making that both liberate and cut short the burgeoning affair. At precisely the moment when it appears at least probable for Jane to reconcile her prudish sense of straight-laced propriety with Renato’s matter-of-fact approach to love and love-making, her desires to throw caution to the wind are changed and crumble; her resolve hardening, or rather, detoured into an inescapable retreat from the fray. Jane will leave Venice with her memories preserved; though, ostensibly, stirred by the yoke of fear (i.e. Catholic guilt) to deny herself that singular moment of distinctly adult happiness. In some ways, Summertime is conspicuously more about the quixotic misfortune that derives from discovering a great winter passion too late to make a difference; the light touches of comedy, particularly in scenes between Jane and the irrepressible urchin, Mauro (Gaetano Autiero), and feathered in ‘serious’ melodrama,(e.g. landlady, Signora Fiorini (Isa Miranda) is having a tryst with American painter, Eddie Yaeger (Darrin McGavin) right under his wife, Phyl’s (Mari Aldon) nose), taking a backseat to the Teutonic determination of this dyed in the wool spinster, invariably leading to a lot of midlife crises of conscience and grave disappointments on both sides.
Summertime begins with Jane Hudson’s arrival by train to Venice; accompanied by an unnamed Englishman (André Morell) who has been sharing her compartment. He admits to Jane Venice is many things to many people; some, finding it oppressively crowded and noisy, while most immediately fall under its romantic spell. Jane, an unprepossessing middle-aged elementary school secretary from Akron, Ohio will not be disappointed; inundated by the cluttered sights and sounds of this chaotic port; bustled onto a waiting vaporetto (water taxi) traversing the narrow canals en route to the Pensione Fiorini. Jane is invigorated by her first impressions of the city; also, in her luck of chance meeting fellow Americans, Lloyd (MacDonald Parke) and Edith (Jane Rose) McIlhenny. At the hotel, Jane is taken under the wing of Signora Fiorini (Isa Miranda), a widow who has transformed her late husband’s manor home into a profitable pensione since World War II. Also on the property are painter, Eddie Yaeger (Darren McGavin) and his wife, Phyl (Mari Aldon). Almost immediately, Jane realizes she is the oddball of the group; the couples going off together to partake of Venice’s pleasures, leaving Jane to wallop mostly in self-pity and mounting despair. Her grief is interrupted by an unlikely friendship with Mauro, a ten year old street urchin who cajoles Jane into offering him one of her American cigarettes. When all else fails, Jane relies on Mauro to show her the sights.
Later in the evening, Jane explores the Piazza San Marco in all its flourish of tourists and regulars, tasting the wine and taking in the atmosphere of this spectacular outdoor venue. Alas, the sight of so many couples gingerly locked in each other’s embrace leaves Jane slightly depressed. Nerves get the better of her after she realizes she is being watched by a man seated only a few tables away. Unable to acknowledge his presence in any meaningful way, Jane hurriedly returns to the pensione and cries into her pillow. It seems she has come a long way for nothing. Venice is for lovers – not loners. The following afternoon, with Mauro’s help, Jane stumbles upon the same man again. This time he introduces himself as Renato de Rossi – the proprietor of a shop selling vintage glassware. De Rossi reminds Jane of their previous night’s unrequited introduction and is even bold enough to suggest she has come to his shop today in search of him. Jane rectifies these misguided notions by pointing out to de Rossi she has merely been drawn to a red glass goblet advertised in his window. She offers to purchase it for the full retail price. But de Rossi encourages Jane to reconsider and shows her how to employ various bartering techniques to enhance her shopping experiences elsewhere in the city and save some money besides. Jane is grateful for the information, but rather standoffish; Hoping to coax another rendezvous, Renato offers to go in search of another goblet to match the one she has just bought from him. It may be just a ruse to learn her address in town, but Jane willingly complies.
That evening, Jane waits in the Piazza San Marco, hoping to see Renato again. She turns up the chair next to her and sets out an extra cup to keep other potential suitors at bay. But the plan backfires when Renato sees the chair and believes he is not welcome to sit down either. The next day, Jane deliberately goes to the shop under the pretext of making another inquiry about the red goblet. Only this time the shop’s young assistant, Vito (Jeremy Spencer) is there. Disappointed, Jane decides to immortalize the location with her movie camera. Inadvertently, she stumbles and falls into the canal; her camera rescued at the last possible moment by Mauro’s quick thinking. Jane is humiliated and begs Mauro to accompany her back to the pensione. Learning of the incident, Renato attends Jane in the comfort of the pensione’s sitting room. But she is as aloof as before, and worse – quite unwilling to acknowledge the sparks of a mutual attraction brewing between them. Renato does everything to coax Jane from her homemade cocoon. Alas, her insular resolve is amplified when the McIlhennys return from a shopping expedition on the island of Murano where they have just purchased a matching set of red goblets virtually identical to the one Jane bought at Renato’s shop. Believing Renato lied to her about the authenticity of her own piece of glassware, perhaps a prelude to other lies yet to be told her, Jane becomes rather cruel in her admonishment of him after the McIlhennys have retired to their room.
“I don't know what your experience has been with American tourists,” Jane insists, in a deliberate attempt to humiliate Renato. He is unshaken by her inference he is something of a roving gigolo, trolling for easy marks, replying “My experience has been that tourists have more experience than I.” One of the most astute and rewarding aspects of Summertime is its clear-eyed dialogue on the topic of sex; generally taboo and thus ignored or playfully skirted around with elements of the screwball comedy thrown in to lighten the severity in its address. Summertime resists humor here, however, and Rossano Brazzi’s delivery of the following lines is tinged with an air of masculine pride, ego and sexual frustration; “I am a man and you are a woman. But you say, ‘It's wrong...’ You are like a hungry child who's been given ravioli to eat. ‘No,’ you say, ‘I want beefsteak.’ My dear girl, you are hungry. Eat the ravioli.” “I'm not that hungry,” Jane admits. “You Americans get so disturbed about sex,” Renato sternly suggests.  “We don't take it lightly,” Jane admits with steeliness. “Take it. Don't talk it!” Renato swats back.
Unable to reason her way out of the obvious attraction between them, Jane reluctantly agrees to attend an outdoor concert in the piazza.  Renato is amused when she selects a gardenia from among the flowers offered to her by a local seller. She confides to him the blossom has sentimental value, a glowing reminder of a long-ago love affair that, for reasons never entirely disclosed, ended uneventfully. Renato escorts Jane back to the pensione. She resists his gentle advances, but suddenly – and rather unexpectedly – kisses him full on the mouth, whispering “I love you” before rushing off to bed alone. To inaugurate her newfound independence as a woman in love, the next day Jane treats herself to a local spa; gets her hair done and buying a new, and rather un-anticipatedly racy strapless black dress with red shoes and gossamer shawl to match. Having agreed to meet Renato at the piazza at eight, Jane’s initial excitement to show off her ‘new look’ is thwarted when Vito arrives in his place to suggest Renato will be a little late, owing to the fact Vito’s younger sister has taken ill with heat exhaustion. Assuming the children are Renato’s niece and nephew, Jane is stunned when Vito unintentionally informs her he is Renato’s son; and furthermore, that Renato already has a wife. Believing herself to have been a fool for lesser things, Jane tells Vito to tell his father she will not be waiting for him any longer. She then, retreats to a nearby bar to drown her sorrows. There, Jane is surprised to encounter a tearful Phyl, who confides her own marriage is on the rocks.   
Upon returning to the pensione, still disillusioned by what she perceives as Renato’s betrayal, Jane stumbles upon Eddie and Signora Fiorini – the other woman in Phyl’s lover’s triangle. Deeply upset to think she might equally have played a similar role in Renato’s marriage, Jane is uncompromising when Renato unexpectedly shows up to offer his own defense; that his marriage is an unhappy one – and has been for some time; that he no longer lives at home with his wife, and that both he and his estranged mate have elected to go their separate ways without actually getting a divorce. When Jane draws a parallel between their amorous misbehavior she has already judged as a sin, and those indiscretions indulged by Eddie and Signora Fiorini, Renato suggests their relationship is no one’s business but their own. Renato accuses Jane of being prudish about sex. She desires love as much as he does. If only she would admit as much – at least, to herself – and get on with the business of living, instead of judging everyone else as illicit and cheap, she too might discover the happiness she seeks. Unable to debate her way out of this logic, Jane allows Renato to steer them both through a romantic dinner; playfully indulging in the animated wind-up toys being sold by a local vendor. Afterward, Renato casually lures Jane to his apartment, the inference of their consummated affair reflected in a display of fireworks (in what is perhaps a case of ‘great minds thinking alike’, Lean either borrows or blatantly rips off this moment from Hitchcock’s superbly staged seduction between Cary Grant’s suave jewel thief and Grace Kelly’s glacial ice princess in To Catch a Thief, released earlier this same year).
For the briefest of wrinkles in time, Jane is over the moon in love. She allows Renato to plan the rest of her vacation. He charters a boat and takes Jane to Burano, the island where the rainbow fell; a colorful hamlet where they can be quietly alone and passionate together; lying in the tall grasses, enjoying majestic sunsets and daydreaming of a life Jane suddenly realizes can never be. Her sense of propriety supersedes the passion she has given into and known only too briefly. Thus, Jane elects to cut her vacation short; quietly packing her things and preparing for what will be her last rendezvous with Renato at the piazza the next morning. He is stunned by her decision to go away just as things were beginning to look promising. But Jane is resolute, telling Renato all her life she has never known when to leave a party. It is time to leave this one before each of them realize she has outstayed her welcome and the intensity of their passion has cooled, or even morphed into inevitable regrets. Jane begs Renato not to accompany her to the train depot, but secretly longs for him to see her off. At first, it appears as though Renato has obliged this request. But then, as the train pulls out of station, Jane sees Renato racing toward the open window of her car with a gardenia. Regrettably, the train is moving too fast for Renato to catch up, and the last impression of the only man Jane Hudson has ever genuinely loved is that of a heroic Lochinvar, proudly holding up this flower she can cherish and remember as a symbol of their blissful moment in time.
Summertime is a quintessentially guileless meditation on middle-aged sexual relationships.  Moreover, it broke new ground in 1955, denying the governing boards of film censorship the usual satisfaction of having such ‘indiscretions’ punishable in the end. Arguably, Jane’s premature surrender of her own happiness is punishment enough – at least, for Lean, who had covered some of the same territory in the aforementioned Brief Encounter. Whereas that movie ends with a strained reconciliation of the marriage being tested renewed, Summertime’s finale involves no such contrition. Renato is not going back to his wife, even if he has lost the only woman to whom his heart belongs.  Perhaps the only person truly dissatisfied with these bittersweet results was playwright, Arthur Laurents who later confided, “David Lean was morose, cold, detached; much more interested in Katharine Hepburn than in The Time of the Cuckoo. The name of a character is very important to me. I go through endless candidates, searching for the one name that is the character; that suggests the character to a stranger. Now, the screenplay was credited to H. E. Bates, a first-rate English novelist…but it should have been credited to K. Hepburn and D. Lean; true believers that stars can do anything they want - even write. In this aspect of the movie business, they were unoriginal.”
Indeed, Lean and his producers, Michael Korda and Ilya Lopert were to have their way with Laurents’ prose; tearing into the structure and dialogue and greatly altering everything to suit their own agenda. Laurents had wittily titled his play to suggest a parallel between the cuckoo bird – a migratory visitant, proclaiming its summer time arrival as to mark the season of love – with Jane Hudson’s first appearance in this foreign setting. Korda reasoned the movie-going public would have little to zero knowledge of the cuckoo’s migration patterns and elected with Lopert to change the title to ‘Summertime’; in Britain, to Summertime Madness. Nevertheless, the end result affirmed the merits of all their meddling. Summertime was both a critical and box office success to the tune of a then impressive $2 million. Today, it survives as a lushly photographed, exquisitely acted and nostalgic testimony to love itself; imperfect and touching and thoroughly satisfying; plucking ever so gingerly at the life chords of all pining romantics seeking truth, perspective and meaning from the incongruities of love.
Summertime is notoriously absent on Blu-ray, except for this rather butchered release from Japanese distributor, Twin; curiously advertised as being distributed by Paramount Home Video. Aside: I find this rather hard to believe. We will stick to the info on the packaging, although exactly how Paramount might have acquired a United Artist picture is beyond me. This disc is region free, meaning it will play anywhere in the world. Small consolation, that. Right off the bat, I am going to suggest to Jon Mulvaney at the Criterion Collection to look into a possible restoration effort via another alliance with The Film Foundation; reacquiring this deep catalog title for redistribution in the United States and Canada; if for no other reason, then to fix all the regrettable sins committed herein, and also, on their own DVD release from 1999. Neither that disc nor this Blu-ray is properly framed in the film’s original 1.75:1 aspect ratio. While the open matte/full frame 1.33:1 image herein reveals considerably more of the luscious Venetian landscapes, it also contains a glaring amount of head room that continues to look rather unnatural.
Color fidelity on this Blu-ray is rather impressive on the whole; reds, rustic browns and sun-burnt oranges popping off the screen. But there are several glaring examples of misalignment of the 3-strip Technicolor negative, resulting in some fairly disturbing halos that wildly distract. Mercifully, these instances are few and far between. More disconcerting is the lack of cleanup applied to the image. Dot crawl, dirt, scratches, and even the occasionally color-timing blip are present. A few scenes appear to suffer from untoward digital tinkering; harsh edge effects cropping up now and then. Also, the film’s indigenous grain looks slightly digitized, particularly in scenes shot at night. There is also a considerable amount of gate weave and one overhead shot of the Piazza San Marco at night where the various elements used to assemble the matte are highly unstable and wobbling all over the place. Overall, this is a middling effort at best and a complete fail since it neither preserves nor even makes the effort to adhere to the original film maker’s intent in its mis-framing of the image. The audio is adequate, though just – occasionally sounding quite scratchy; particularly, Alessandro Cicognini’s score. Summertime has not been given its due in hi-def. The film deserves far better than this and we will sincerely champion it gets exactly what it needs in the near future. Bottom line: pass and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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