Summertime Sex

Old films can be problematic when they deal with the subject of sex. In the 1950’s the idea of a married man engaged in amorous conversation to someone other than his wife would have constituted a severe sanction from a leading clergyman of the age.

Even married couples had separate beds in many films.

It’s something you have to keep in mind when viewing David Lean’s old classic ‘Summertime’ which has been recently reissued by Criterion.


It stars Katherine Hepburn as an unmarried American primary school teacher visiting Venice for the first time.

She has gone alone and quickly meets an Italian antiques dealer, who outrages both her midwestern sensibility and her churning pheromones, by kissing her passionately.

This causes her to buy lots of red things and become in fifties terms, a loose woman for perhaps the first time in her life.


She’s clearly enjoying it until once more the ‘bringing in the sheaves’ puritan mentality takes hold and she retreats on learning that the Italian is (Gasp! Shock! Horror!) separated!

He even has children, the cad.

He, and we, don’t see the problem but Katherine has a hard time getting over it. Thankfully, because deep down she’s a good person, she allows her natural desires to win the day and beds him ( a reality that did gain her censure from the quite superbly named League of Decency. One immediately imagines a room of pursed lipped matrons and closeted clergyman grimly staring out from behind an oak pew. Or maybe that’s just me)


Of course, all good things must come to an end if you’re an American spinster and she finishes the affair and returns to marking books on Algebra and quilting or whatever they did for hobbies in the fifties.

Katherine Hepburn is excellent and it strikes me this film has been remade under different titles many times. The idea of the American woman finding her true personal happiness in the freer environment of the romance language-speaking nations is never going to get old.

I’m sure if China gets to rule the later apart of the 21st century, the way the Americans dominated the mid 20th we shall see plenty of films featuring ruthlessly efficient Beijing-ers finding true love in the Piazza San Marco and giving up a life of accountancy to sell blown glass.

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