June 14, 2016
I marked the arrival of summer by watching one of Delmer Daves’ grandly romantic teen melodramas, Rome Adventure (1962). It is earnestly sweet travelogue about a 21-year-old ex-librarian who seeks her independence in Italy and falls for blonde bombshell Troy Donahue. Like the other films Daves made with Donahue (A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade), Rome Adventure is disarmingly frank about the desires of its randy young characters. Instead it revels in the unstable beauty of these kids and their still-forming moralities. Rome Adventure pairs teen idol Donahue with the plucky, world-weary Suzanne Pleshette, an immensely likable personality to follow for the two-hours of the film’s Roman tour. Much of the film’s pleasures derive from simply walking around Rome with two-good looking kids while admiring Charles Lawton’s Technicolor cinematography. Since I won’t be making any European vacations myself this summer, Rome Adventure will have to do.
Delmer Daves suffered a heart attack in 1958, and was instructed by his doctors to avoid physically taxing shoots like the Westerns he had become known for (3:10 to Yuma, The Hanging Tree). So he abruptly switched gears to melodrama, which necessitates less running around. This sunk his stock with critics, who have never come around to these films, but kept his commercial success rolling. In both his Westerns and his melodramas, he had an unerring eye for locations, able to build up detailed social milieus for his inevitably forthright and sincere characters. For Rome Adventure, Delmer Daves dusted off Irving Fineman’s 1932 novel Lovers Must Learn for his adapted screenplay, lending some of the film an anachronistic quality – like the transatlantic steamship that takes Prudence Bell (Pleshette) from New England to Italy. It’s appropriate for a girl with an old-fashioned name like Prudence, though she does her damndest to undercut it.
Prudence opens the movie by quitting her job. She is working as a librarian at a hoity-toity New England college, and the spinster professors disapprove of a novel she personally lent to a student: Lovers Must Learn, by Irving Fineman (!). So she read the book the movie she is appearing on is based on – and will go on to act it out. Before they can fire her she quits, calling it “my independence day.” Just like that she jumps aboard a ship to Rome by herself, hoping to experience the kind of passion she only had read in literature. She will go on to test herself in a variety of romantic entanglements to see what works for her temperament. The movie is focalized through her perspective, so the film’s gaze is pointed outward from her and towards the men in her life, wondering which one will really ring her bells.
The first men she meets are a mousy student named Albert Stillwell (Hampton Fancher, who would go on to write the Blade Runner screenplay) and Roberto (Rossano Brazzi), an older slick tongued Roman who continually tries and fails to win Prudence’s heart. Albert is her parents’ choice, a safe milquetoast type whose only topic of conversation is the Etruscans. Naturally Prudence gravitates towards the more dangerous Roberto, who at least offers the possibility of new experiences. Both men try to lead her around town, but once Prudence sets her sights on the baby-blue eyes of Don Porter (Donahue), no other man stands a chance. Daves said that Donahue “looks like Young America wants to look”, and he was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood in the early ’60s. This blonde-haired blue-eyed lunk was handsome but still retained some of his baby fat, giving him the unbeatable combination of beautiful and non-threatening.
What makes these films so pleasurable, though, are the characters that surround the main company, the little worlds that Daves is able to build. At her Rome home Prudence has the pensione owners and employees, a gaggle of sweet old Italian ladies who cluck over her every move. The most fascinating character is Daisy (Constance Ford), the owner of the “American Bookshop” where Prudence works. Daisy is a true independent spirit, a model, one would think, for what Prudence is trying to do in Rome. Daisy lives alone with her big English Sheepdog Mcguinness – having left her schoolteacher gig behind to follow her dreams of the romantic life in Italy. Introduced in yellow pajamas, thick glasses, and smoking a cigarette in an elegant holder, she is the vision of a self-made eccentric. Constance Ford is hilariously funny in the part, playing Daisy as a woman with no filter. I wish she was more of a central character, as the tidbits we do learn about her are so tantalizing. She mentions that she makes yearly vacations to Ischia on which she inevitably meets and loses a man in the same weekend. I would have loved to have seen a spinoff movie (directed by Rohmer, ideally), that followed Daisy on one of these amorous trips, to see more of what makes her tick.
But alas, the movie returns to Prudence and Don as they make their way across Italy, traveling to Lake Maggiore, where they stay in a tiny chalet by the water. Prudence is reluctant to sleep with Don, worried it would break the spell that they are weaving. Things start to unravel when Don’s ex-girlfriend Lyda (Angie Dickinson) returns to the scene. Something of a man-devourer, Lyda had dumped Don out of boredom, but has come back to toy with him some more. Gorgeous and imperious, she is the one thing more beautiful that Don. Dickinson is devilishly good in the part, chewing up the scenery just as she gnaws at Don’s ego.
The film ends on a disappointingly paternalistic note, one that undermines Prudence’s so-called “Independence Day”. Roberto, who early on promises to offer her a sexual education, later offers a narrow definition of a woman’s role – that of companion who is there to tame a man’s baser instincts. Essentially, to be a babysitter. Throughout the entire film Prudence has been the driving force of the plot, making her own romantic decisions, and then in the penultimate sequence Roberto swoops down like a mansplainer-ex-machina to throw the movie off balance. Prudence and Don are destined to be together, but it was a misstep to have their union decided not by Prudence, but by the kindly old Italian lech who lives around the corner. But this does not eliminate the multifarious pleasures of Rome Adventure, a relaxed, charming travelogue that I would have been happy to tag along on for many hours more.