The 1954 Best Picture nominee, Three Coins In The Fountain, tells the story of three American women living in Rome. They’re all employed by the same secretarial agency. Maria Williams (Maggie McNamara) is young and hoping that she’ll stay in Rome for at least a year and that she’ll meet her future husband. Anita Hutchins (Jean Peters) is not-so-young and is planning on returning to America so that she can meet her own future husband. Miss Frances (Dorothy McGuire) is middle-aged and has spent the last 15 years working for the man that she wishes could be her future husband.
If you’re getting the feeling that there’s not much to our leads beyond a desire to get married, you’re not wrong. However, Anita swears that it’s impossible to find a husband in Rome because the only Italians who are interested in “secretaries” are too poor to be good husbands which …. well, like I mentioned before, this film is from 1954. Just the fact that the film featured three single women living together in a foreign country was probably considered to be daring back in 1954.
The three women eventually end up at the Trevi Fountain, where Maria and Frances throw in their coins and make their wishes. Anita, however, does not toss in a coin because apparently, she’s not scared of offending God. No sooner have the three women visited the fountain than things begin to happen. Soon, all three of them are in love but each has to deal with a compliction.
Miss Frances may have finally convinced her employer, writer John Frederick Shadwell (Clifton Webb), to marry her but when he discovers that he’s terminally ill, he tries to call off the engagment.
Maria meets Prince Dino di Cessi (Louis Jourdan) but will the Prince still want to be with her after he discovers that she’s been lying about being interested in the same things that he’s interested in?
Anita falls for Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi) but he’s poor! Plus, he also works for the agency and apparently, there’s some sort of weird 1954 rule that forbids the American employees from fraternizing with the Italian employees. Is Anita willing to lose her job just so she can marry someone who doesn’t have any money?
That’s pretty much it. Other than John Shadwell wrestling with his own mortality, there’s really not a whole lot of drama to be found in Three Coins In The Fountain. This is a film about pleasant people doing pleasant things and having pleasant conversations. It’s a rather chaste romance, one of those films where you have no doubt that everyone involved will wait until marriage and that all of the women will quit their jobs and settle down as soon as the right ring gets put on their finger. In other words, this is very much a film of its time and watching it today can be bit of an odd experience. This is ultimately the type of film that works best as a travelogue. Rome looks beautiful. There’s a striking shot of the sunset reflected in the canals of Venice. The Trevi Fountain truly does look like it can grant wishes. (It’s amusing to compare the reverence that the American-made Three Coins In The Fountain shows towards The Trevi Fountain to the way that Rome-native Federico Fellini used the fountain in La Dolce Vita.) One gets the feeling that, even in 1954, people flocked to this film more to see Rome than to really worry about whether or not the Prince would eventually propose.
In fact, one of the main reasons why I watched this film tonight is because I spent one of the greatest summers of my life in Italy. I’ve been to Rome. I’ve thrown coins into the Trevi Fountain and I’ve made wishes. I loved Rome. I loved the people. I loved the culture. I loved the buildings. I loved the feeling of walking through history. I loved looking out at the horizon and feeling as if I was somehow in a living painting. (I actually went into a bit of daze when I was in Florence. Stendhal Syndrome is for real.) If you can’t find romance in Rome then you’re obviously not looking. For me, the main appeal of Three Coins In The Fountain was being able to watch it and say, “I’ve been there!” I imagine for audiences in 1954, the appeal was probably to be able to watch it and say, “I’m going to go there!”
How did this perfectly pleasant but otherwise unmemorable film end up as a best picture nominee? I imagine a lot of it had to do with the fact that the film was a box office success. It’s certainly not because it was a better film than either Rear Window or Sabrina, both of which were not nominated for Best Picture despite being nominated for Best Director. In the end, the 1954 Best Picture Oscar was won by On The Waterfront, a film that appears to be taking place in an entirely different universe than Three Coins In A Fountain.