“You’re not Going to Let Some Silly Old Rule Stand in Your Way!” Alternative Visions of the Modern in Mid-Century American-Women-in-Italy Films


  • Debra Bernardi




US popular culture was especially fascinated by the idea of visiting Italy during the post-World War II years, with numerous films of the period featuring American visitors to the peninsula. Playing off long-standing British and US images of Italy, such films frequently tout modern masculine American know-how aiding a primitive, if beautiful, nation. Thus, such narratives support US aid to defeated Italy during the years of the Marshall Plan. Think, for example, of It Started in Naples (1960), where Philadelphia businessman Clark Gable visits Capri and ultimately takes charge of gorgeous, if disheveled, Sophia Loren and his loveable “street urchin” nephew. Yes, Gable is seduced by the beautiful, if disorderly, place, but in the end his manly American savvy gives both his nephew and Loren a better life: the nephew will attend school regularly and Loren will stop dancing in nightclubs. Gable becomes the icon of the modern world: the 1950s “Organization Man,” who saves the day for poor old-world Italians in films like this.
But this essay finds another strain of films that competes with this vision of a modern masculine American world. In a genre of US films I term “American-women-in-Italy films,” produced from 1953 until the early 1960s, travel to the Italian peninsula inspires white middle-class US women to rebel against the rigid structures, rules, and rationality of the modern “organization man” – a symbol of the patriarchy. “You’re not going to let some silly old rule stand in your way!” one young secretary in Rome urges another in Three Coins in the Fountain (1954). The genre also includes the famous Roman Holiday (1953), Summertime (1955), The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), Gidget Goes to Rome (1961), Rome Adventure (1962), and Light in the Piazza (1962). While there are some differences in the post-1960s films discussed here, on the whole these films establish white middle-class US women in Italy as icons of an alternate modernity: one that is chaotic, rather than orderly; free, rather than rule bound; and feminine, rather than masculine. Taken together these films reveal a surprising anticolonial, feminist strain in 1950s/early 1960s popular culture.


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