Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Make a Wish

Film: Three Coins in the Fountain
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on various players.

I have online office hours on Sundays and Tuesdays. It’s a rare event that someone actually shows up to them, but I have them anyway. On nights like these, I spend a couple of hours in my office and need to find something to watch to pass the time. I have a tendency to watch things on NetFlix in this situation, because I can use something other than the laptop, which I need for those office hours. Tonight, for no reason beyond whim, I decided on the oldest of the movies on my Oscar lists currently streaming: Three Coins in the Fountain. I expected something light and breezy. What I got was a film that never really figured out what it wanted to be.

The fountain in question here is Trevi Fountain in Rome. An American secretary named Maria (Maggie McNamara) arrives in Rome to begin working at a U.S. government agency. She is met at the airport by another secretary, Anita (Jean Peters). In fact, Maria is replacing Anita at her position; Anita is returning to the States to get married. The two head to Anita’s current and Maria’s new home, and apartment they share with Miss Frances (Dorothy McGuire), who is the private secretary for a well-known writer named John Frederick Shadwell (Clifton Webb).

As Maria is taken around Rome, one of the necessary stops is Trevi Fountain. The legend is that tossing a coin in over your shoulder will grant a wish, as long as the wish is always to return to Rome. Miss Frances claims that she has done this every year for the past 15 years she has lived in Rome as Shadwell’s secretary. Maria follows suit, but Anita does not toss in a coin—after all, she’s going home.

But hey, we need some romance here, so let’s get them set up. Maria meets Prince Dino di Cessi (Louis Jourdan) at a party and is immediately smitten with him despite his reputation as a playboy. Anita reveals that she’s not going to America to be married, but because of agency policy that prevents her from dating the local workers including Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi), with whom she has an obvious attraction. In fact, because she is leaving, she feels justified in breaking that office taboo and spends a weekend with Giorgio and his family where she discovers her attraction to him is heartily returned. Naturally this gets back to her boss and gets Giorgio fired, which all but destroys his dream of becoming a lawyer and sends him back to the family farm. It’s also worth noting that Anita didn’t toss a coin into Trevi Fountain; Giorgio did.

Maria’s romance with Dino is rocky, though, because rather than play a straight game with the prince, she hightails it around the city to his favorite spots and digs up information on him, and the pretends to share his favorite foods, wines, taste in art and opera, and even claims to be mostly Italian in heritage. It’s a big old bundle of lies meant to ensnare the man and it works, at least until she admits it all to him and sends him scurrying away, once again unable to trust women.

So our first two coins have ended badly at least at this point. What about the third? Miss Frances, of course, is desperately in love with John Shadwell. She decides never to act on this and to return to the States herself, since she doesn’t want to be an old maid in a foreign country. Shadwell, desperate to keep her services, proposes a marriage of convenience, and then when he receives some bad news, recants the offer and tells her to leave. It’s tragedy all around, and each of these tragedies is increasingly dark.

Of course, this is a romance from the 1950s, and while that doesn’t guarantee happiness for anyone, there are only a couple of ways that these different romances can end that will satisfy the audience of the time, so it’s no shock that we eventually get to where we get to, and it’s also no shock that Trevi Fountain plays a role in the closing minutes.

The largest single problem with Three Coins in the Fountain is that it has no idea what it’s supposed to be. Is this a drama? A trio of troubled romances? A travelogue film? A comedy? It seems to be all of these things. It doesn’t really blend all of these elements well. The tragedies are taken far too lightly, for starters. There are real tragedies here—real problems these people are facing—and everything about the film beyond that—the dialogue, the score—treats most of it as light comedy. It’s tonally strange all the way through.

I don’t mind films that cross or blend genres, but they need to do it effectively. I don’t mind romances that get dark, but if they’re going to go dark they should commit to it. There’s too much here that doesn’t work for me.

The scenery of Rome is perhaps the highlight of the film, but if you’re going to watch a film to see Rome and want something from this era, Roman Holiday is a better choice. The scenery of Rome is better, the movie has a consistent tone, and the plot is better. Plus you get Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.

Why to watch Three Coins in the Fountain: Rome is pretty.
Why not to watch: If you want to see Rome, watch Roman Holiday.


  1. I honestly don't remember much from watching this, so I had to check my rating on Letterboxd. I gave it 2.5 stars, which means "it was okay" to me - not good enough to recommend.

    1. I gave it 2, so I think we're in the same general area. It's not one I'd spend time on again.