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A lovely romance with pragmatic undertones, Light in the Piazza (1962) gracefully handles the complex issues of disability, motherhood, and love. Based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer that first appeared in The New Yorker magazine, Olivia de Havilland stars as Margaret Johnson, an American woman who takes her mentally challenged adult daughter Clara (Yvette Mimieux) on a grand tour of Italy, hoping to enliven her life. Naive, beautiful Clara enters a romance with a cultivated Florentine, (George Hamilton), and de Havilland must weigh her feelings against her husband's and decide whether to let their grown daughter live her life without meddling in it.
Shooting on location in Rome and Florence with interiors at Boreham Wood studios in England, director Guy Green and producer Arthur Freed enjoyed exceptional cooperation from Italian authorities. According to some sources, Light in the Piazza was the first film to shoot in the astounding Uffizi Gallery in Florence, allowing art lovers access to historic treasures such as Michelangelo's David and Cellini's Perseus that could never be imitated by a studio props department. In addition, the famously snarled motor traffic on Rome's Via Venetto was diverted for three shooting days to accommodate the production schedule.
Light in the Piazza was the first movie for producer Arthur Freed under his new contact with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and he took great care in selecting the cast and crew. Guy Green, who had recently reaped critical acclaim for his films The Angry Silence (1960) and The Mark (1961), was tapped as director and scenarist Julius J. Epstein (Casablanca, 1942) was hired to adapt Spencer's story (winner of the McGraw-Hill Fiction award), toning down Clara's disability from the book to make her more charmingly child-like. The movie also marked Olivia de Havilland's return to filmmaking after a four year hiatus (her last picture was the British courtroom drama Libel in 1959). Yvette Mimieux had already been signed when Green joined the production and he wasn't happy about that. However, the situation improved once George Hamilton was cast as Fabrizio, Clara's Italian suitor. Green later said, "I was very disappointed with what she [Mimieux] did alone, but when she played with Hamilton he kind of inspired her and she sparked."
One of the more challenging scenes to be shot was filmed at the Ostiense Railroad Station and featured Mimieux's impending departure by train with Hamilton racing to stop her from boarding. "Sand was sprinkled across the tracks to safeguard Hamilton as he rushed across the railway ties to catch Mimieux before she departed," according to biographer Hugh Fordin (in The World of Entertainment: The Freed Unit at MGM). "Green had his second train racing in the opposite direction for the hazardous scene in which the actor disregards the oncoming train, dashes across the tracks, slips and comes within inches of being caught under the grinding wheels."
Light in the Piazza was released on February 9, 1961 and was well received by most critics. The Hollywood Reporter wrote, "Truly an uncommon love story, and one told with rare delicacy and force, Arthur Freed's Light in the Piazza is mature in the correct sense of that term, dealing with adult problems only adults are equipped to solve..." Variety concurred, adding that the movie "achieves the rare and delicate balance of artistic beauty, romantic substance, dramatic novelty and commercial appeal." One audience member was especially moved by the picture, and made her feelings known in a remarkable, unsolicited gesture. That movie-goer was author Elizabeth Spencer, who sent a letter to Olin Clark, the MGM story editor who initially handled the literary property, saying, "I have seen Light in the Piazza twice now, and I want to express my thanks through you to everyone responsible for making the picture. An author approaches this experience fearfully. So much has been seen to happen when books are transferred to film. The range is a wide one, but would seem often to include murder in every degree along with lots of plain bad taste. Still, one has to go and see: no power on earth could keep us away; so imagine my relief to find the movie Messrs. Freed, Epstein, Green, etc. have actually done sincere, sweet, moving, and as kindly attentive to the pages as I wrote them as one's own friends might be."
Although Light in the Piazza wasn't nominated for any Academy Awards®, it did garner a nomination for George Hamilton as Best Foreign Actor by the BAFTA (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts).
Director: Guy Green
Producer: Arthur Freed
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein; based on the story by Elizabeth Spencer
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Editor: Frank Clarke
Art Direction: Frank White
Music: Mario Nascimbene
Costume Design: Christian Dior
Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Mrs. Johnson), Yvette Mimieux (Clara Johnson), George Hamilton (Fabrizio Naccarelli), Rossano Brazzi (Signor Naccarelli), Barry Sullivan (Noel Johnson).
C-102m. Closed Captioning. Letterboxed.
by Jessica Handler
The World of Entertainment: The Freed Unit at MGM by Hugh Fordin
The Films of Olivia de Havilland by Tony Thomas