THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1954) Twilight Time
Conceived, rather blatantly, to do the Cinerama travelogue spectacles (then, raking in the big bucks at the box office) one better, by adding plot and ‘stars’ to the heft of its utterly gorgeous location cinematography; director, Jean Negulesco’s Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) remains the quintessential plush and padded Cinemascope romance, teeming in the glories of Rome, with a masterful TripTik of a prologue, exploring the sumptuous ornamental pools at Tivoli’s Villa d'Este, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Rome’s Piazza Navona, and, most notably, architect, Nicola Salvi’s renown Trevi Fountain; all of it, set to the romantic strains of Jule Stein and Sammy Cahn’s title tune, sung with crooner/swooner finesse by an unseen Frank Sinatra. Three Coins in the Fountain is a rom/com potboiler. Its rather predictable story nimbly follows three entrepreneurial gals out for a lark and a spree while working for the American Consulate in Rome. At intervals, they discover passion, heartbreak, and, rhapsodic joys galore, predictably, with paragons of varying size and ambition. Make no mistake: the real star of this movie is Italy, seen mostly in rear projection and establishing long-shots, after the meandering preamble to the main titles, with all interiors lensed at Cinecitta, during the industry’s now famed ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ period – an era that saw the resurgence of the Bible/fiction epic, ideally suited for these Italian locales. Still, Three Coins in the Fountain proved a contemporary movie could also benefit from the Eternal City’s proto-hip scene; its post-war resurgence, later capitalized on by Federico Fellini in his 1960 masterpiece, La Dolce Vita.
Immediately following WWII, two things happened to American movies: first, they became ‘bigger’ if not actually ‘better’, thanks to the widescreen revolution, kick-started by the induction of Cinerama, and then, Cinemascope (with the likes of VistaVision, Todd A-O, Superscope, Technirama and the rest, shortly to follow the trend). In truth, Hollywood had tried its hand at widescreen as early as 1930; Fox, leading the charge with a 70mm process dubbed ‘Grandeur’. It proved a disaster. However, after the war, production costs skyrocketed. Simultaneously, there began a mass exodus from metropolis into the suburbs as baby boomers, with good jobs and a sudden influx of disposable capital, planned their growing families away from the hustle and bustle of cramped city centers, once the hub of North American civilization. And then, of course, there was television – the ‘little black box’ bringing entertainment into everyone’s living room for free, putting a genuine crimp in movie theater attendance and steadily eating away at ticket sales. The second seismic shift in the movies occurred almost by happenstance. The government’s investigation of Hollywood’s creative personnel by HUAC (House Un-American Activities Commission), to weed out communists and communist sympathizers, was extended into an anti-trust legislation, designed to splinter what Washington perceived as the industry’s monopoly on mass entertainment. In the midst of this chaos, Fox’s mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck bid farewell to the studio he had single-handedly shaped into a powerhouse, moving on to produce indie films abroad that the studio agreed to distribute on his behalf. But before departing, Zanuck’s great gift – both, to the studio, and moviegoers everywhere – was his backing of Cinemascope, conceived (under another name) in 1926 by French inventor, Henri Chrétien.
Three Coins in the Fountain is a production tailor-made for Cinemascope; Rome’s intimate cobblestone and marble byways stunningly represented in true travelogue style. Given the production value – and expense – of shooting on location, it remains something of an oddity Fox did not put forth a cast of its A-grade superstars to frontline this picture. No Tyrone Power or Susan Hayward here. Not even a Gene Tierney or George Sanders. In their stead, we get Clifton Webb as haughty executive ‘type’, John Frederick Shadwell. Webb was certainly no slouch when it came to acting skill, though he could hardly be considered ‘leading man’ material. His paramour is Dorothy McGuire (a last-ditch effort to turn McGuire’s ailing popularity around) as his private secretary, Miss Frances. Aside: what Fox could not for Dot’ do, Walt Disney later did! Shimmying down the actor’s equity pay scale, we come to winsome Jean Peters in her second to last movie, as comely Anita Hutchins, who falls for Italian Lochinvar, Georgio Bianchi (Rossano Brazzi), and finally, the elegant and uber-suave, Louis Jourdan as playboy/prince Dino di Cessi, who develops an unlikely fairy-tale crush on mousy Maggie McNamara (as new arrival Maria Williams, the most unprepossessing contract player in this mixed lot). It should be pointed out that while all except for Peters and McNamara went on to have semi-lucrative careers – with Jourdan, arguably attaining the greatest longevity (thanks to such high-profile appearances in Gigi, 1958, The V.I.P.’s, 1963 and Octopussy, 1983), none ever broke through the invisible ceiling to become truly ‘big’ stars, entrusted with ‘carrying’ an entire movie on their own. Aside: I absolutely adore Jean Peters. But does anyone outside of the die-hard fan-based community of classic movie buffs even remember her today?
So, arguably, Three Coins in the Fountain is suffering from a creative deficit here. Nevertheless, the picture proved popular with audiences – so much, that it was later ‘remade’ twice; first, as the 1964 musical, The Pleasure Seekers, and later, rebooted as a made-for-TV offering, pitched to launch a series. Again, this never happened. The best that can be said of the original movie – outside of the fact it is a beguiling way to casually pass the afternoon – is that its formulaic troika of lovelorn ladies (or gentlemen, as the case may be) out to discover life, love and the pursuit of happiness (while either doing the pursuing or being pursued), briefly became a modus operandi in ‘scope’ movies throughout the 1950’s. Herein, the nimbly stitched together plot is the work of screenwriter, John Patrick, adapted from John H. Secondari’s novel, ‘Coins in the Fountain’. The movie shares in two oddities: first, being Oscar-nominated for Best Picture in a year alongside such heavy hitters as On The Waterfront, The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, and, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: second, in the Styne/Cahn Oscar-winning ballad, written on the fly without the benefit of actually seeing the movie first, or even being allowed to read its script, recorded by Sinatra (reportedly as a demo) that ultimately stayed and served as the picture’s pre-title sequence. In the bizarre ‘last minute’ gathering of this post-production creative clan, Fox neglected to get Styne and Cahn’s signatures down on paper, affording the pair total rights to the song after it became a runaway smash hit – endlessly covered by other artists of its generation. Money, money, money!
Three Coins in the Fountain begins with ingenue, Maria Williams arrival in Rome, collected at the airport by Anita Hutchins, the woman she will be replacing at the United States Distribution Agency. Exchanging polite repartee, the pair drives to the Villa Eden where Anita presently shares rooms with Miss Frances, the longtime secretary to stodgy American ex-patriate author, John Frederick Shadwell. Picking up Frances, on their way into the city, the ladies pause at the basin of the famed Trevi Fountain, partaking of the age-old custom to make a wish to return and find true love there. As Maria and Frances are un-tethered, they pitch their coins into the fountain. Anita resists. She is planning to return to the United States and marry a high school sweetheart. Now, Anita takes Maria to the agency where she meets translator, Giorgio Bianchi (Rossano Brazzi). Almost immediately, Maria senses Anita and Giorgio are drawn to one another; a big ‘no-no’ as far as the agency is concerned. That evening, at an elegant cocktail party, Maria becomes enamored with jet-setting Prince Dino di Cessi. With his snazzy silver sports car, this year’s deluxe threads and a pate of raven dark hair, Dino is decidedly the dish du jour – and knows it too. Forewarned by Frances and Anita, Dino is a notorious womanizer – his many sexual conquests, unofficially known as ‘Venice girls’ as he enjoys taking them on gondola rides for casual trysts – Dino asks Maria to overlook what she has heard. After all, he is not such a bad lot…or is he?
Afterward, Anita and Maria walk home. Maybe it’s the moonlight. But Anita admits she has no fiancé waiting for her back home. Instead, she is leaving Rome in the hopes of finding a husband. After all, the sort of men they encounter here are wealthy and not interested in secretaries – except for…well…or men who are interested, but are just as poor. Maybe poorer still. Aside: that’s right, honey. You hold out for real love – and a thick wallet! As if to prove the point, the girls are rudely accosted by a by passer who pesters them until Giorgio comes to their aid. Grateful for his chivalry, as recompense Giorgio asks if Anita would like to go with him to his family's country farm to attend a celebration. Reluctantly, she agrees, but almost immediately fears she has made the wrong decision when Giorgio arrives in his cousin's dilapidated truck to collect her. Worse, on their way out of town, the pair is spotted by Anita’s boss, Burgoyne (Howard St. John). Arriving for the outdoor gathering, Giorgio confides in Anita his hopes of becoming a lawyer, despite his poverty. Anita climbs into the truck but is almost killed when its brake slips and it begins to roll downhill. Again, Giorgio comes to her rescue. Breathless, and stirred by his gallantry, Anita embraces Giorgio with a kiss. Back at the apartment, Dino calls for Maria, inviting her to accompany him to Venice. Desiring to see Venice, but not wanting to garner a ‘reputation’, Maria asks Frances to come along as chaperone, much to Dino’s chagrin.
At the agency, Burgoyne questions Maria about Anita’s weekend with Giorgio. Despite Maria’s protestations, that the couple are merely platonic, Burgoyne remains convinced. Anita has broken company policy. So, he fires Giorgio – who, presumably ought to have known better – instead. Turning on her friend, Anita blames Maria for betraying her confidence and insists on moving out of their apartment. However, when Anita rushes to comfort Giorgio, assured he will blame her for wrecking his chances to become a lawyer, she finds instead he has absolutely no regrets. Meanwhile, Maria plots to use her feminine wiles on Dino. She studies up on modern art – his passion – and also educates herself on his favorite foods and wine. She even pretends to play the piccolo (his favorite instrument). Finally, Maria lies she is three-quarters Italian. Beguiled by how much they apparently have in common, Dino introduces Maria to his mother, the Principessa (Cathleen Nesbitt), who expresses her approval. Dino confides in Maria. She is the only girl he has ever completely trusted. Riddled with guilt, Maria confesses her subterfuge. Wounded and angry, Dino takes her home. Now, Anita confides in Frances; she and Giorgio are desperately in love but cannot wed because he is so poor. Frances also serves as mother-confessor for Maria’s guilt and shame. Maria decides she will leave Rome too, and, at the earliest opportunity, having fouled things up with Dino, who has not called her since. On the surface, Frances feigns relief she is beyond the rigors of youthful heartache, and therefore, seemingly impervious to being wounded by love. However, the next morning, she informs Shadwell she too will be returning to the United States, as she does not want to end up an ‘old maid’ in a foreign country.
Apparently obtuse to the fact Frances has been wildly pining for him for fifteen long years, Shadwell sheepishly offers his hand, but only in a marriage of convenience based on mutual respect. Eager to be with him under any circumstances, Frances accepts. But the next day, Shadwell discovers during a routine doctor’s check-up he is terminally ill, with less than a year to live – unless he returns to America for experimental treatment. Rather cruelly breaking off his engagement to Frances without an explanation, she pieces together the clues and reason for his chivalry, trailing Shadwell to a nearby café where she proceeds to bicker and drink him under the table. Thoroughly intoxicated, Frances climbs into the Trevi fountain and sobs. Shadwell takes her home, reasoning there must be a great deal of good in a woman who so completely has his best interests at heart. Perhaps eager to pay this kindness forward, Shadwell goes to Dino at the di Cessi palace where he uses ‘reverse psychology’ to make the Prince see how much he still loves Maria. Frances telephones her two cohorts, asking them to meet her at the Trevi Fountain. When they arrive, they are disappointed the fountain has been drained for maintenance. However, as Frances’ taxi pulls up, the fountain springs to life; the trio again enchanted by its flowing waters. Better still, it seems all three of the ladies’ male suitors have had a change of heart. Maria and Anita are reunited with Dino and Giorgio, and Shadwell embraces Frances, certain the fountain’s history for granting lovers their secret wishes to return to Rome will come true for each of them in the future.
Three Coins in the Fountain is a lithe and lovely romantic fantasy – of a vintage and an ilk Hollywood does not even know how to make anymore, despite a rather feeble attempt in 2010 to resurrect a suspiciously similar plot with the clunky and forgettable, When in Rome costarring Josh Duhamel and Kristen Bell. ‘Coins’ is coy and calculated to fill the eye with a lot of lush and distracting scenery – enough to make us forget there is not much of a story here to begins with. Guess what? It succeeds! In hindsight, it narrowly matters Fox has populated this fanciful fraud with second-string contract players. The real star here is Cinemascope and Rome. Both are shown off to their very best advantage. Master builder, John DeCuir and Lyle Wheeler’s art direction adds ‘scope’ and ballast to the obviously built ‘interiors’ and Milton R. Krasner’s cinematography augments everything with plush padding in Color by DeLuxe. Dorothy Jeakin’s costuming is a pastiche of pure fifties, fun-and-frothy fashion. Sinatra’s ballad does more than merely set the tone for what follows. In retrospect, it highlights post-war Italy’s sublime standard as one of those European ports of call, trademarked in our memory as pure romantic escapism. And Rossano Brazzi – the only Italian in the cast – helps. In the final analysis, Three Coins in the Fountain is an enchanting and effervescent entertainment – fun in all its Roman-esque sun-splashed spectacle with a bevy of beauties to be had.
Three Coins in the Fountain gets its long overdue Blu-ray release via Twilight Time from a 4K remaster conducted in 2016. As with a good deal of these ‘restorations’, this one leans more heavily towards a blue bias. I sincerely wish someone at Fox (now, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co.) would address the issue Fox’s Cinemascope catalog has had when being remastered in hi-def. This one is not quite as awful as some come down the pike, but the color palette now decidedly favors a sort of azure and aqua color scheme, with reds turned to chalky, queer orange and whites decidedly adopting a faint hint of teal. This is not vintage color by DeLuxe, folks and it has ruined a good deal of Fox’s ‘scope’ movies on home video in the past. Again, Three Coins in the Fountain is watchable. But it does not resemble the color palette like anything in 1954. Contrast is solid and film grain is kept in check. The image has also been eradicated of its age-related artifacts. So, good stuff there, I suppose. The 5.1 DTS audio is a definite plus. Save TT’s usual commitment to offering an isolated score, the rest of the extras, including Jeanine Basinger’s audio commentary, a Fox Movietone Newsreel and original theatrical trailer, are all direct imports from the long defunct ‘Studio Classic’ DVD series from 2002. Finally, I usually do not comment on ‘cover art’ but this release has some of the ugliest yet. The airbrushed front jacket, with its backward written ‘N’s’ is a stock shot that could have come from a hundred vintage Fox movies, while the fatally airbrushed insert, illustrating Jean Peters and Rosanno Brazzi in the throes of passion, makes it appear as two cadavers about to expire. Yuck and uuuuuugly! Bottom line: a worthwhile and pleasure-inducing film given a flawed transfer that will leave some head scratching.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)