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  • From Kankakee to Venice:Postwar American Travel Consumerism in David Lean's Summertime (1955)
  • Peter S. McInnis

David Lean's Summertime (1955) marks a notable departure from his earlier study in conflicted romance, Brief Encounter (1945), for that black-and-white film, with its grimy wartime atmosphere and claustrophobic camera angles, contrasts with the evocative location work in Venice and vivid Technicolor cinematography.1 Summertime is also significant for the substitution of Lean's distinctly English characters with candidly American personalities who evince typical directness while navigating their Italian vacations. Two such Americans are Lloyd and Edith McIIhenny of Kankakee, Illinois, whom we first encounter on a vaporetto water taxi exchanging pleasantries with the film's protagonist, Jane Hudson. All three have travelled by ocean liner or aircraft to partake in the splendor of Venice. Their shared experiences, the similarities and marked differences, offer clues to postwar travel consumerism. As historian Jan Morris notes, Americans emerged from the Second World War with a new sense of optimism and purpose.2 Gone were the economic tribulations and self-doubt of the Great Depression as wartime investments had rejuvenated the nation and bolstered confidence. For many Americans, the defeat of the Axis powers had reinforced the preeminence of their way of life, a model premised on consumerism–the liberty to purchase both material goods and, to a larger extent, life experiences. For all the outward superiority of the American way of life, this film reveals the cultural and emotional shallowness that undermines assumptions of superpower status. On a personal level, the tourists must individually address the torment with loneliness for lives that, in many respects, remain unfulfilled. The question would be if this European adventure would help assuage a persistent and shared sense of regret.

In Search of Fulfillment

Lean's leitmotiv of loneliness, so obvious with Jane Hudson, the spinster "fancy secretary" in search of love and intellectual stimulation, is also present in the other tourists.3 The McIlhennys may serve as bumbling comic counterpoints to Jane, yet the couple immediately make clear that [End Page 47] more is involved: "You see, Miss Hudson," Edith confesses, "this is our first trip abroad. Mr. McIlhenny retired this year, and, well, we don't have any children, so we just decided to have our little fling." The implication is that the McIlhennys are perhaps substituting the frenetic bustle of travel for the unhappiness of a barren marriage. Lloyd's frequent utterances of displeasure at his wife's indiscretions—"for Pete's sake, Edith!"—are met with her placations of "now, Daddy." This childless state, whether by choice or circumstance, leaves Lloyd and Edith, like Jane, awkwardly estranged from the single most fecund demographic period in North American history–the postwar 'baby boom."4 As such, their respective lives seem to require the potential prospects or distractions of a foreign locale. The question is whether any of them will be sufficiently receptive to the cultural glories of their vacations.

Unlike Miss Hudson, who prides herself as a sophisticate and as broadly receptive towards Italian culture, the McIIhennys epitomize stereotypical ugly Americans with their tactless appraisals of the foreign locale.5 Jane feels obliged to extend a measure of collegiality towards her fellow citizens but sees little need to fraternize further despite news that they will share the same tourist accommodations. For his part, Lloyd McIIhenny may care little for the history of the Doge's Palace or the architectural genius of the Piazza San Marco, and notoriously complains that "this wop food is ruining my digestion", but to categorize his tourist gaze as merely philistine obscures an underlying yearning to extract something more from this European sojourn. The trio subsequently meet up with painter Eddie Yaeger and his wife Phyl, who are residing in Venice for an extended period.

All of the Americans have come to Italy in search of tangible benefits: the McIIhennys to return stateside and boast of a trophy vacation replete with a suitcase of souvenirs, the Yaegers ostensibly to further Eddie's sputtering artistic career, and Jane Hudson to assuage a longing for spiritual (and potentially carnal) fulfillment. As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that none of the tourists...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9922
Print ISSN
0360-3695
Pages
pp. 47-59
Launched on MUSE
2021-01-23
Open Access
No
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