Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 10, 2004)
After World War II, Americans found that their dollars could go a long way in the recovering nations of Europe. Hollywood did nothing to discourage American tourism, and indeed aided that cause, as seen via escapist fantasy such as 1954’s Three Coins in the Fountain.
Following a musical interlude that introduces us to the beauty of Rome, we see the arrival of American Maria Williams (Maggie McNamara). She comes to Italy to work as a secretary at the US Distribution Agency, where she’ll replace Anita Hutchins (Jean Peters) as the assistant to Mr. Burgoyne (Howard St. John). We also meet another secretary, “Miss Frances” (Dorothy McGuire), who works for noted writer John Frederick Shadwell (Clifton Webb).
The trio get to know each other, and Frances and Maria throw coins into the Fountain of Trevi. You’re supposed to do this to get your wish - as long as you wish to return to Rome. Anita declines to participate because she says she’ll return home to America to get married; she doesn’t want to come back to Italy.
From there the movie follows three separate romances. First we see that Anita has the hots for Agency translator Georgio Bianchi (Rossano Brazzi). He feels the same way, but Burgoyne doesn’t allow secretaries to date local employees. They hang out and fall in love anyway, which causes some work-related problems.
Maggie meets local playboy and womanizer Prince Dino Dessi (Louis Jourdan) and hones in on him. She plays some games with him to circumvent his wolfish measures but then plots to win him. Maggie pretends to be his ideal woman and enacts her scheme.
Finally, we watch the slow-simmering romance between Frances and Shadwell. She worries she’ll become an old maid and Shadwell proposes - in a rather pragmatic, unromantic way - that they marry. She agrees, but when he learns that he’ll soon die of illness, he retracts his offer to protect her. The rest of the movie follows the ups and downs of the different relationships and how they pan out in the end.
When I read the DVD’s synopsis for Fountain, I thought it sounded suspiciously similar to the story for 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire. The package claims that “three American women decide it’s time to end their single status in romantic Italy. So they whimsically toss coins into Rome’s spectacular Trevi Fountain for luck in romance.” This summary messes up most of the movie’s details, as really only Maggie actively pursues a husband. Besides, only two of them throw coins into the fountain - Anita declines - and the Trevi’s rules don’t allow them to wish for anything other than to return to Rome!
So maybe Fountain wouldn’t be a Roman remake of Millionaire after all, though other factors raised my suspicions. Some superficial similarities occurred, such as the fact that both flicks were Cinemascope productions from Fox. A more telling commonality came from behind the camera: perhaps not coincidentally, Jean Negulesco directed both movies.
While the ladies of Fountain lack the mercenary overtones of the wealth-seekers in Millionaire, they also fail to deliver the same level of distinctiveness and entertainment. I thought Millionaire lacked consistent pleasures, but it mostly came across as enjoyable and amusing. I can’t say the same for the limp Fountain.
One massive problem with Fountain stems from its exceedingly weak storytelling. It seeks to tell three stories, and that’s what it does - one at a time. We see Anita/Georgio, then they disappear so we can focus on Maggie/Dino. From there we leap to Frances and Shadwell, and rarely the twain shall meet. This structure seems very awkward and artificial, and it keeps us at a distance from the action.
Not that the characters ever threaten to endear themselves to us strongly enough to make us care. The men never remotely begin to rise above the level of one-dimensionality. They’re thin stereotypes, with the struggling student, the crusty older writer, and the slick playboy. The various actors add a little spark to their roles, except perhaps for the bland Brazzi, but they don’t get much meat into which they can sink their teeth.
The female parts offer greater potential substance, but not by much. As with the men, they’re stuck with narrowly defined characters and don’t receive many opportunities to broaden things. All play their roles professionally but without much spark.
Essentially, Fountain acts as little more than a promotional reel for Rome. It features lots of lovely photography and makes the area look terrific; I’m sure many folks hopped planes to Europe once they saw the flick.
Unfortunately, Three Coins in the Fountain fails to turn into a good movie. It lacks a substantial plot or meaningful characters, and it blends its different elements poorly. Add to that a clumsy, stilted ending and Fountain doesn’t go much of anywhere.