Italy–1950’s Style

Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain

Destination: Italy

Movie: Three Coins in a Fountain (1954) Stars include Jean Peters, Dorothy McGuire, Maggie MacNamara, Clifton Webb, Rossano Brazzi and Louis Jourdan

If you want a look at a foreign culture, the original Three Coins in a Fountain movie will do it for you. Yes, there is a lot about Italian culture, but you also see another way of life that will be foreign to you–the culture of 1950’s America when women were girls, men wore suit jackets even at home, and the object of life was to get married.

P. della Republica, Naiad Fountain
P. della Republica, Naiad Fountain

When you see a movie for the 2nd time more than fifty years later (OUCH!) reality tinkers with your memory.  This ultimate travel movie was filmed just one year after the debut of Cinemascope with stereophonic sound, which was really amazing stuff back then. ( The trailer sells the film technique instead of the film). The use of Cinemascope presents panoramic shots of Rome, Venice and the Dolomite Mountains countryside that could  serve as a marketing tool for the Italian Tourism agency now as well as then.

For instance, the introductory sequence consists of a four-minute tour of Rome with Frank Sinatra singing the Oscar-winning Sammy song, Three Coins in a Fountain in the background, more like a low-key music video than any movie you’ll see today.

Trevi Fountain
Crowds at Trevi Fountain

I only wish that when we visited Rome, the fountains and parks had been so empty. In those lovely scene-setting scenes around Rome, there are almost NO people!

We had to wait eons to get close to the Fountain of Trevi so we could toss our coins.

And I wouldn’t mind an exchange rate that allowed me to live in a villa, either! But, this is fantasy Rome, not the one we walked through.


One lengthy segment takes place in Venice. Plotwise there is no concrete reason  for the actors to be in Venice–and in fact, I suspect the actors were in a studio somewhere. All of their swooping-over-Venice-in-a-plane and floating-down-the-canal scenes are courtesy of rear projections. There is no reason to believe they came within 175 kilometers of the city of canals.

Approaching Rialto Bridge
Approaching Rialto Bridge

Rear projection can be annoying to present-day audiences who are used to seeing live action shots, but rise above your annoyance, and you’ll get an excellent visit to Rome and Venice floating by in the background. Rural mountain scenery featured in one sequence, places actors in a more realistic outdoor dining scene in front of a real scene in the Dolomites whose beauty takes you breath away.

When I wasn’t being annoyed by rear projection in car travel shots, I found myself surprisingly aware of camera angles and editing in interior scenes. I’m no expert, so those details usually go right over my head, but when techniques have changed so radically, they become quite obvious. The director shot nearly all the interior scenes proscenium style–as though the camera has been plopped down in front of a stage. The actors face front, the camera stays static, there are no cuts from one person to another.

The benefit is you get a huge hunk of background to help set the scene, and the acting carries the scene rather than random edits providing the drama. The downside is that few of us carry on conversations facing a “fourth wall” instead of each other.

I became so aware of this, that I was amazed when one scene with Clifton Webb and Louis Jordan played more like the movies we are used to.  As in shooting over the back of one character as the other one talked. or having actors move away and toward the camera rather than just parallel to the “fourth wall”.

Someone with more technical knowledge of movie making than I have may drop in to explain the constant use of rear projection and the lack of camera interaction with characters in Cinemascope.

Piazza Navona, Four Rivers Fountain
Piazza Navona, Four Rivers Fountain

But despite the technical oddities, the acting was excellent, the three women were interesting and pretty, Jourdan and Brazzi were plain gorgeous, and Clifton Webb was quirky and charming. I found that the film still packs a bit of emotional wallop and as the ultimate travel movie definitely makes me want to return to Rome “presto!”

I watched the restored DVD version of the movie, rented from Netflix. The commentary told me a lot about the actors and production people, but not about the making of the film, unfortunately. Photos here all belong to Ken and me and we would appreciate your asking permission if you choose to use. I want to thank Jane Boursaw, of Reel Life With Jane. Her comment that a vastly inferior girls in a foreign place movie this summer reminded her of movies like 3 Coins in a Fountain. Jane is right about most things cinematic, but in this case, the resemblance is superficial at most. Appreciate the nudge, though.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

18 thoughts on “Italy–1950’s Style

  1. Italy is #1 on my list of places to have a vacation. I’m interested on how they give a huge importance on art and love. I wanna experience a life in the people of Italy. Thanks for this post, I haven’t seen the movie Three Coins in a Fountain.

    1. The comment from Claire came from a commercial site. I left the comment up, but want to warn anyone who tries to sneak in advertising. It doesn’t work. I remove the link to your website and the Comment Luv referral. Best wishes.

  2. I absolutely ADORE old movies…thus my collection of Audrey Hepburn films…I had never seen this one “3 coins in a fountain” so I definitely want to watch it!!! I wonder if it is also on Netflix streaming- I’ll check.

  3. I’ve never seen this movie, but certainly know the song! I quit Netflix but will look for it elsewhere.

    I’ll never forget my first view of Trevi Fountain … it was my friend’s and my first visit to Rome … we’d been walking from Piazza della Rotonda (Pantheon) and knew the fountain was nearby, but couldn’t quite get our bearings. Then we turned a corner and there it was! 3 or 4 stories tall and so impressive!

  4. Check out ‘Rome Adventure’ (1962) with Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donahue. There are quite a few scenes with Suzanne Pleshette strolling now very popular areas of the city that back then were absolutely desolate!

  5. Great photos! I loved this movie, and was thrilled to see the fountain in person in Rome. Now, I’ve got to get to Venice to see the rest…

    1. Thanks, Sheryl. We saw the big three–Rome, Venice and Florence. I’d go back to Florence for a month or more, to Rome for a few weeks, but not sure I care to return to Venice.

  6. I have a hard time watching older movies. The technicalities are different – even acting styles have changed. Oftentimes, all they do is make me feel old. However, itt’s the song that does it for me. I will never tire of Three Coins in the Fountain. To this day, I know most of the words.

    1. I’m fascinated by the way that we accept certain conventions in entertainment. At the time, I was swept away by the romance, and never thought of the technical things that bug me today. And definitely the acting styles change. I learned about that in studying theater in college. The famous actors and actresses of bygone days like Sarah Bernhardt? Would be laughed off the stage today.
      I’m with you on the theme song of this movie–after all, it’s Frankie–and he’ll NEVER grow old.

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