One of the best things about my trip to Italy this summer was being introduced to the Aperol spritz. Three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol (an orange-hued bittersweet aperitif), and a splash of club soda. It’s a perfect libation for that golden time of day when life slows down and people start to fill the piazzas.
With the long days of summer fading fast, it seemed like a good idea to enjoy a double feature of Italian romances, reflect a bit on my travels, and serve up the last of my Aperol stash. (I had discovered that I could buy it stateside at my local Binny’s.)
Our night was off to a great start with ROMAN HOLIDAY, the 1953 William Wyler classic starring Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert, and “introducing” Audrey Hepburn. (Her first film role for which she also won an Academy Award.)
This stunning black-and-white film, shot entirely on location, gives Rome itself a grayscale, velvety role. In a nutshell, this film is perfection — and Hepburn brings absolute magic to the screen. From the moment she appears, you cannot keep your eyes off of her. You witness a star being born.
The pseudo fairy tale tells the story of Hepburn’s bored but dutiful Princess Ann, who escapes her daily grind and hits the streets of Rome with reporter Gregory Peck and his sidekick photographer, played by Eddie Albert, who, by the way, steals the scenes playing this renegade character. Trouble ensues because Princess Ann doesn’t know that her newfound “friends” are just trying to get a big story about the missing princess and give their careers — and their wallets — a big boost.
But, of course, how could Mr. Peck not fall for Hepburn’s sheer loveliness, openness, vulnerability, and strength?
There’s a bit of an “ewwww” factor in the fact that Gregory Peck is too old for our sunny and beaming princess, but we can overlook that little matter. The two are delightful together, and there is impeccable honesty in their performances.
Unfortunately, this charming romantic comedy ends badly, and the princess chooses to head back to the castle. Love with a commoner is not to be. In the heart-breaking closing scene, Hepburn is all ceremony and steel as she says good bye, and she and Peck share looks that speak volumes of I-will-treasure-the memory-of-you-always sentiments. You keep thinking there will be a happy, fairy tale ending. You will be thinking wrong.
(It’s interesting to note that when ROMAN HOLIDAY was released, Britain’s Princess Margaret was facing the same royal dilemma of having to end her love affair with a member of the common class. What a brilliant bit of serendipity to tie a movie promotion on!)
After we dried our eyes and refilled the spritz glasses, we looked forward to the second film in our lineup, ROME ADVENTURE (1962), starring Suzanne Pleshette (in her first film role too), Troy Donahue, Angie Dickinson, and Rossano Brassi. I remembered seeing this film as a young girl and I thought it was the most romantic movie ever. Sometimes memories don’t hold up.
Pleshette’s Prudence, a librarian at a girls’ school, starts out strong and compelling. After being reprimanded for lending a student a book that the administration considers obscene, Prudence resigns in that singular husky voice of hers and says, “I’m going to Italy where they know what love is about.”
So off she goes across the sea seeking an understanding of what it means to surrender to love and passion. Before she even gets to Rome, Prudence attracts two suitors, a young American and a middle-aged Italian, who present extreme options — one is too immature and inexperienced and the other is too old and uninspiring. She’s looking for someone who is “just right.” Enter the brooding Troy Donahue who looks cute in his red sweater and matching red Vespa (just like a Ken doll), but he certainly is dull and clueless. And as we say now, he is strikingly “emotionally unavailable.” Poor Prudence.
In spite of an intriguing setup — and a heavy dose of Technicolor glamor that especially suits a slutty and manipulative Angie Dickinson — writer and director Delmer Davis (of SUMMER PLACE fame) somehow loses focus. Prudence devolves from being a confident and curious young woman to being an unsure and silly girl. Her quest to understand lust and love goes flat.
It soon became apparent to us that this was going to be one of those film-watching experiences where there would be some wisecracking and collective groaning going on. About the same time we realized that the film was leaning more toward campy than classic, we also starting noticing interesting touches of the color orange appearing on the sets. An orange pillow here, an orange scarf there, an orange plate, an orange vase — the same striking color of our Aperol spritzes.
How could we not have a movie drinking game? So it was agreed: Every time there was a splash of the color orange on the screen, it was time to savor your spritz.
It was a great way to pass the time as Prudence and Don (the Donahue character) go off on a journey to tour the stunning Italian countryside. As Prudence wrestles with her carnal desires and her need to protect her virtue, the film becomes more of a travelogue. And what great fun for me to see so many of the places I had just visited — Orvieto, Lake Maggiore, the Dolomite Mountains. There is even big drama at the Piazza Erbe in Verona, which was the exact place I encountered my first Aperol spritz. What a coincidence!
One of the oddest scenes is a creepy cameo by trumpet player Al Hirt who has his date parade her stuff in a tight dress for the benefit(?) of Prudence and Don. An ensuing bar fight is priceless in its inanity.
But there is a lovely score by Max Steiner, and one of the most romantic songs in the world, Al Di La.
In both films, the young women learn about the trials and tribulations of love, and serious mistakes area made. In ROMAN HOLIDAY, Hepburn probably shouldn’t have forsaken Gregory Peck for her royal duties. Ditto in ROME ADVENTURE. By the time Pleshette’s Prudence gets the guy she thinks she wants, you know she’ll eventually realize that she’s making one of the worst choices of her life. (In a case of life imitating art, Pleshette and Donahue married after making this film, and the marriage lasted about a month.)
What we learned during this double feature is that romantic miscalculations can be made a little easier to bear with a few Aperol spritzes.