Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)
I sound like a broken record, but I don’t like the majority of films Jean Negulesco directed. I can count the number of films of his I’ve liked on one hand, and I’ve seen a fair amount. What’s stranger is I can never properly articulate why the Romanian-born director and I don’t mix. Maybe it’s because his particular type of melodrama just comes off as old-fashioned – and this is saying something considering the number of old films I watch – or it’s possible that his background as a painter leaves his movies feeling vacuously beautiful. All of this is to say I wasn’t as enamored with Three Coins in the Fountain as I hoped to be. I love the film’s remake, 1964’s The Pleasure Seekers (one of the few Negulesco features I enjoy), but this one suffered from falling in love with its city and forsaking the plot.
Frances, Maria, and Anita (Dorothy McGuire, Maggie McNamara and Jean Peters, respectively) all live together as secretaries in Rome. Each comes with their own problems in love that they hope to overcome during their year there.
The minute the unmistakable croon of Frank Sinatra – who went uncredited for his work on the title song, which would later win the Academy Award – is heard it’s easily deduced what Three Coins is trying to accomplish. The song plays over beautiful images of the Roman landscape, and in fact the credits don’t even begin till after Frank is done. The film’s release coincided with the height of Hollywood’s gimmickry to entice people to leave their sofas and head to the theater, complete with 3D and Cinemascope. As Julie Kirgo says in her essay that accompanies this Twilight Time release, it’s unsurprising that the cinematographer would make a point of highlighting the city.
And, boy, is the city captured in all its magnificent glory. The script conjures up all manner of reasons for the characters to take it in, from the trio’s inaugural trip to the Trevi Fountain to make a wish, down to random walks with a processed background behind them. (I’m not sure how believable this was for audiences in 1954, but with the increases in picture clarity the fact the characters aren’t in certain locations is painfully evident.) The problem is the plot never rises to the heights of the city’s grandeur and it’s fascinating to say that considering Negulesco redid this plot a decade later. The Pleasure Seekers is the exact same movie but has the benefit of livelier stars, particularly Ann-Margret, and music. Maybe that’s it?
The trio of women here are far more mature than the spunkier trio of The Pleasure Seekers. Where that film was obviously aimed at the beach party crowd, this group is looking for the women who regularly ate up melodramas, either in film, television, or literary form. Maggie McNamara, best known for The Moon is Blue (1953), is somewhat similar to her character in Otto Preminger’s features, albeit less frank. Maria is hellbent on finding a man and soon sets herself on the town womanizer, Prince Dino di Cessi (Louis Jourdan looking glorious!) and attempts to engage with him by pretending to have the same interests.
She tells him she’s half Italian, enjoys the piccolo, and honestly it’s not that melodramatic of a plot. She soon confesses that she doesn’t like the same things as him (GASP) which causes him to get indignant. Sorry, but this is a man who has presumably ruined many a woman’s reputation and he’s upset that his girlfriend pretended to enjoy the piccolo. I don’t think he’d do well in the era of Facebook stalking. That being said, Jourdan is charming incarnate; he’d go on to do Gigi after this. McNamara is cute, but this is role isn’t partiuclarly taxing.
Jean Peters’ Anita is a bit more compelling, as she finds herself falling for her company’s interpreter, Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi). If this film came out about five years later it might have been a saucier plot, a la A Summer Place (1959). As it is the company has a policy against interoffice dating the two have to hide their burgeoning romance. I say the plot is too early because it never becomes as scandalous as it’s made out to be. The issue at the company is strictly between Americans dating Italians, as if it’s reliant on the stereotypes. Anita says Italian men are too poor and we already know Prince is a womanizer whom dating threatens to destroy a woman’s modesty. Later, her boss discovers she’s been seeing Giorgio, and even though nothing has happened he fires her. Is it saying something about the sexual double standards of women? It’s unclear.
Then you have Francis (Dorothy McGuire) and her unrequited relationship with ex-pat/author John Shadwell (Clifton Webb). This was easily the worst plot of the three since Webb and McGuire have zero chemistry together. For some reason poor Dorothy McGuire was always forced to play matronly characters, even when she wasn’t. McGuire was 38 at the time having to feign love for a man who was over 60! They attempt to give Webb some light hair coloring, but it doesn’t work, and Francis never has a compelling reason to love Shadwell short of him being a good writer. The old “woman loves your genius” trope. By the time she’s getting drunk and trying to help him get treatment for a mystery illness he gets in the final 20 minutes all hope is lost.
Three Coins in a Fountain is lovely to look at, and the new Twilight Time release does a fantastic job of showing off the film’s love of Rome. But the plot is so maudlin, the characters uninteresting and downright silly at times.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
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