One of the most vapid films ever to be nominated for Best Picture, Three Coins in the Fountain is nonetheless a watchable movie. Fox slathered it with production values, making it the first big CinemaScope, Technicolor and StereoPhonic So-ound film to feature Rome as its setting. The three romances that form the plot are substance-free twaddle, and the glossy, highly successful film has a lot to say about 1954 values.
The "U.S. Office of Disbursement" is apparently the place where our hard-earned tax dollars are frittered away in Italy, thereby justifying the attitude in Three Coins in the Fountain that Rome should be a home away from home for lovesick Americans to wear designer clothes and forever visit picturesque settings with the right people - none of those shabby, butt-pinching street Eye-Ties need apply. For that matter, the streets of Rome are unusually de-populated.
Rome is a fantasy city all the way. Our three secretaries can live in fabulous view apartments and afford maids and cooks; they tour Rome in last year's Ford but can park anywhere they please. There's no traffic on the streets and those pesky locals keep a discreet distance. All of the sights are like their personal property - seemingly existing for their pleasure alone. "It's the favorable exchange rate," says Dorothy McGuire, cheerfully annexing all of Europe as American vacation property. Viewers in 2004 will have to realize that with our economy rapidly sinking into foreign debt, soon it will be the Continentals with their rising Euros who will be able to come to America, snap their fingers and watch us running to get their breakfasts and carry their bags.
Three Coins in the Fountain never gets down to realities, but it does skirt the edges of what was considered moral behavior. The three girls are invited to swank cocktail parties but are forbidden to date attractive men in their agencies. The 'right' Italians won't take them out, and the rest are middle or lower-class locals that aren't acceptable. So we see our American babes making out the best they can (sniff) going to lush restaurants and allowing jet-setting noblemen (Jourdan's handmade car is pretty cool) fly them to Venice for the day. But no nights - just being out of chaperone reach with 'the Prince' or even a lowly translator will result in getting a big 'tramp' sign hung around one's neck.
Dorothy McGuire's Miss Frances has been in Rome fifteen years; she breaks her romantic silence with snooty author Clifton Webb by simply indicating a desire to return to the states. A proposal follows in about five seconds, even though complications set in to give the final act a semblance of suspense. Young Maggie MacNamara (billed as "the wise little girl from The Moon Is Blue") is an inconsistent little drip, alternately sabotaging her roommate by blabbing foolishly to her boss, and going after her Italian Prince with a calculation that shouldn't result in the happy ending she gets. 1 Jean Peters (wow - Fox's most luscious dish of the early 50s, bar none) acts tough but falls for honest Giorgio with little encouragement. She's the only one really risking anything, and although her Anita gets the least screen time, it's easily surmised that she moves in with him for at least two days, although we don't see any of it.
Otherwise, the girls are in a bind. One indiscretion and you're no longer fit for polite society, at least not the type that wears gloves like Clifton Webb. How that differs from the repression back home in the states, I don't know. When her whereabouts are unaccounted for for one evening, Jean Peters' Anita is sanctimoniously offered the services of her employer's doctor. With every change of scenery or wardrobe, someone is threatening to go back to the states as a romantic failure. The fatuous ending with all three couples coming together at the fountain of Trevi is a low for Hollywood movies of the fifties. It took Marcello Mastroianni & Anita Ekberg five minutes in the fountain to blow away the memory of all this pap. Does perky little Maria seriously think that her skirt-chasing Louis Jourdan is going to be faithful?
What Three Coins in the Fountain is noted for is its beauty; American audiences went to it to savor the Technicolor scenery splattered across their CinemaScope screens and hear directional stereo sound, and they got what they paid for, with Frank Sinatra singing the radio-bait title tune over a four minute plotless prologue of Roman waterworks.
Viewers will instantly recognize Norma Varden as a ditzy partygoer who wishes Clifton Webb would pretend to strangle her like Robert Walker did in Strangers on a Train. Merry Anders is said to be in there somewhere, but we can't help but spot the attractive Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball's fabulous Fiona) as Rossano Brazzi's shy sister.
Fox's Studio Classics DVD of Three Coins in the Fountain is a beauty that comes with a restoration demo showing how remastering has improved on earlier blah transfers. The enhanced widescreen image is listed as 2:55-1 but the transfer looks like the readjusted 2:35 standard that CinemaScope found the next year. Unlike earlier 'Scope pix, the elements were in fine shape and the picture looks gorgeous. Nostalgia fans will have no problem with this disc at all. The film had plenty of shooting in Rome but also a lot of studio work with rear-projected backgrounds. Many setups feature only squarish parts of the background showing through, indicating that flat rear-projection was used, and rephotographed in 'Scope.
Jeanine Basinger's commentary covers most of the bases but sounds a bit padded and doesn't analyze the picture much beyond providing career histories for the principal actors. The newsreel on Oscar night shows Grace Kelly and Marlon Brando getting their awards. A nice historical touch is an original teaser touting the CinemaScope process and using only stills, followed by identical trailers in flat and 'Scope formats.
Three Coins in the Fountain has glitz, stars and some undeserved nominations - the Fox publicity guys must have earned their salaries that year. I hope Fox opens its classy 'Studio Classics' brand line to more deserving films ... they don't have to be Savant genre faves like Garden of Evil; what's wrong with The Girl in The Red Velvet Swing, Warlock or Bigger Than Life?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Three Coins in the Fountain rates:
1. This isn't exactly news,
but The Moon Is Blue was a scandalous film of 1953 in which MacNamara's young woman in New York
actually spoke of the possibility of sex before marriage; the word 'virgin' was used and the
Catholic Legion of Decency was outraged. Made
by Otto Preminger, it was a key film in the breakdown of the puritanical production code that
insured that sexual reality never got near a movie screen.