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Lean’s Venice, in all its glory

Special to The Times

It’s common practice for hot, current, unreleased titles to open and close major film festivals. But this year, in a departure from custom, the 60th Venice Film Festival, which opens this week, has chosen a print of a restored movie almost half a century old for its final-night gala.

The film is “Summertime,” directed by David Lean, which first opened in 1955; the festival’s accolade is an homage both to its star, Katharine Hepburn, who died in June and to the city of Venice. “Summertime” is about Jane Hudson (Hepburn), a middle-aged, single secretary from Akron, Ohio, who is realizing her dream of taking a vacation in Venice. She describes herself as “an independent type,” a phrase that masks her frustrated loneliness. Wandering around the city, shooting its sights with her 16-millimeter movie camera, she has a brief encounter with a suave, younger Italian antiques dealer (Rossano Brazzi) and the two embark on a romance.

Compared with “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Great Expectations,” “Summertime” may seem a minor work in Lean’s canon. But, according to Kevin Brownlow, author of “David Lean: A Biography,” it was the director’s favorite film, starring his favorite actress. Lean told a friend: “I’ve put more of myself in that film than in any other I’ve ever made.”

He also remarked during the shooting of the film: “I want Venice to be the star of this picture.” The general consensus was that he achieved his ambition. Though Lean and Hepburn were the film’s only Academy Award nominees, many reviewers singled out cinematographer Jack Hildyard’s skill in capturing Venice’s stunning beauty on film. The British critic Dilys Powell wrote at the time: “The eye is constantly ravished.”

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It’s logical, then, that major efforts have been made to bring “Summertime” back to its original glory. The British Film Institute’s National Film and Television Archive and the American Motion Picture Academy have restored the film in a joint venture partly subsidized by the David Lean Foundation.

A British Film Institute spokesman noted: “Although the original Eastman color negative had seriously faded, the color has been fully restored and the soundtrack digitally remastered.” The new edition of “Summertime,” which will be shown Sept. 6, also has been scheduled for the London Film Festival in November.

For all these homages, the making of “Summertime” in 1954 was difficult and sometimes ill-tempered. Its problems began with the script. The film is based on Arthur Laurents’ play, “The Time of the Cuckoo,” which was a Broadway hit. But when Laurents tried to adapt the play to film, he stuck too rigidly to his original text, and Lean terminated their partnership. Donald Ogden Stewart, author of “The Philadelphia Story” (which starred Hepburn and won him an Oscar), also tried to adapt Laurents’ play and failed.

Finally, Lean invited the English novelist H.E. Bates (“The Darling Buds of May”) to lunch, and the two men began to collaborate on a script that worked.

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Lean adored Hepburn, but his feelings were not shared by all his crew, many of whom found her bossy and too talkative. Reportedly she would even show up on set on her days off and interfere with shooting.

In one scene in “Summertime,” Hepburn stands beside Venice’s Grand Canal, takes a step back to obtain a wider angle for her camera and falls into its polluted waters. She contracted an eye infection that plagued her for months and blamed it on this scene. But Brownlow says Hepburn often swam in the canal at dusk, when the day’s shooting was over; her attempt to blame the film company for her ailment was just a bluff.

Lean fell out with Robert Dowling, one of the film’s American producers, over a line of dialogue Dowling found too sexually suggestive. When Hepburn shows her reluctance to succumb to Brazzi’s Latin-lover charms, he tells her: “You are like a hungry child who is given ravioli to eat. ‘No,’ you say, ‘I want beefsteak.’ My dear girl, you are hungry. Eat the ravioli.” To Lean’s displeasure, Dowling insisted that even if the sequence survived in the film’s British version, it would be cut for U.S. audiences.

Lean worked slowly, taking great care to make Venice look ravishing. Because the city is built on a system of canals, movement between locations was extremely slow, and the film went over budget. Another producer, Ilya Lopert, ordered Lean to wrap as swiftly as possible. Suspecting Lean would ignore his orders and continue shooting, he concocted a plan with Italian police to have the director deported from the country.

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Despite all these problems, “Summertime” opened successfully to positive reviews. It was highly praised by the Venetians, who felt it showed their city in a favorable light.

Viewed today, it is a period piece; sexual attitudes have radically changed, and Hepburn (who was 47 at the time) is rather glamorous for a supposedly sex-starved spinster. Yet hers is a fine performance; justifiably the Venice Film Festival tribute describes her as “this great protagonist of the history of cinema.” And as for Venice, it has never looked better on the big screen.


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