Roman Holiday (1953)
“Romance in romantic Rome!”
Director: William Wyler
Cast: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert
Synopsis: A bored and sheltered princess escapes her guardians and falls in love with an American newsman in Rome.
Considering that Roman Holiday’s plot is based upon lies, it’s perhaps appropriate that this is one of those movies which required its true author to employ the services of a front in order to get his work on the screen and receive payment. Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the screenplay for Roman Holiday upon his release from prison, was one of the original ‘Hollywood Ten’ who found themselves blacklisted and unable to work in Hollywood after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the mid-1940s. It would be nearly fifty years before Trumbo’s name was installed as writer on the credits following the film’s restoration, and Trumbo’s widow was presented with a new Oscar to replace the one awarded to Ian McLellan Hunter, the originally credited writer, after Hunter’s son refused to relinquish ownership of the original.
Director William Wyler cast the movie entirely on location in Rome — in fact most of the story seems to be played out against the backdrop of some Roman landmark — and he cast in the key role of Princess Ann a young unknown named Audrey Hepburn (Funny Face, The Unforgiven). Although the credits ‘introduce’ the 22-year-old actress to its audience (thanks to co-star Gregory Peck’s insistence that she share pre-title billing), Hepburn had in fact appeared in small parts in a number of British movies before this one. Nevertheless, she remained completely unknown to most moviegoers until the release of Roman Holiday, in which she made an immediate impact.
Hepburn plays Princess Ann, the heir to the throne of an undisclosed country. Our initial impression of Ann is of a woman utterly alone, despite the attendance of numerous courtiers, who observes the world through a succession of windows. Unable to bear the regimented schedule which rules her life any longer, Ann slips away to sample the night life of Rome, but the sleeping pills given to her by her doctor just before escaping take their toll not long after she makes it onto the street. Mistaking her for a tipsy partygoer, impoverished reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck — Duel in the Sun, On the Beach) reluctantly takes her back to his cramped one-room apartment. When Bradley eventually realises just who he has sleeping in his bed, he sees her as nothing more than a means of obtaining the $5,000 he needs to return to the States and, with the help of friend and press photographer Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert), hatches a plan to get an exclusive interview with the unwitting princess while Irving takes some candid snaps. However, as the couple’s day in Rome goes on, Bradley finds himself unexpectedly falling in love with the undercover princess.
Regular readers will know that this reviewer is not a great fan of Gregory Peck; his delivery was too often wooden and strained. Naturally, a frothy romantic comedy like Roman Holiday makes negligible demands of Peck’s talents, but he struggles to convince as a hungry reporter simply because he lacks the common touch; he looks too sleek and well-groomed — even when he allows a five o’clock shadow to shade his jaw. Of course, that’s not Peck’s fault — it’s a question of miscasting — and he actually acquits himself quite well in the part of Bradley. Unfortunately, Eddie Albert is also miscast as Bradley’s bohemian/beatnik sidekick, so it’s to the movie’s benefit that Hepburn is well and truly its focus. Heavier than at any other time on screen — there were minor doubts about her winning the part because of her weight! — she looks every inch the princess, and delivers a natural and captivating performance. Hepburn was one of those rare actors who had no need to project herself on screen simply because the camera captured her character so succinctly, and she was perhaps the last of Hollywood’s actors to possess that glamour associated more with stars of the 1930s and ‘40s. Certainly, without her Roman Holiday would be nowhere near as successful.
Roman Holiday is one of those movies which transcend the narrow confines of its genre to appeal to a universal audience simply because of its sweet nature, its charm and a total lack of pretension. Wyler makes good use of the Rome location, taking his camera onto the noisy, cluttered streets of Rome which are as unfamiliar to the audience as they are to the princess as she wanders around them, thereby allowing us to see things from her perspective. This mixture of fairy tale and realism should be an unpalatable mix, but somehow it works, right through to the bittersweet ending which is both unusual for its era and a huge point in its favour. Eschewing the formulaic happy Hollywood ending, it follows Bradley and Ann’s impossible romance to its only logical conclusion, and provides us with one of Hollywood’s most memorable closing shots by doing so.
(Reviewed 4th August 2014)