US (1953) Dir. William Wyler
Another Oscar winning classic from a highly esteemed director which is getting its first watch to mark the birthday of its leading lady, Audrey Hepburn!
This breezy rom com takes us to the architectural wonder that is Rome where the crowned Princess Ann (Hepburn) is in the middle of a tiring European goodwill tour. After being given a sedative to help her sleep, Ann instead gets dressed and decides to go out sightseeing. Meanwhile American journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) gambles away most of his money and takes a walk home, finding an unconscious Ann on the sidewalk, the sedative having now kicked in.
Joe takes Ann home, unaware that she is the same woman he has an interview with the next morning, for which he oversleeps and gets a dressing down from his Mr. Hennessy (Hartley Power) for lying about it. Upon learning of her true identity when news of her illness is reported, Joe shows Ann around Rome while his friend Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) takes clandestine photos of her to get an exclusive story for his paper.
It’s always a little disorientating to go back and watch a film with a story that has been re-told many times and having to find the appeal and magic that made the original so special in the first place. Some films are good enough to maintain that magic, others not so. Roman Holiday, largely by dint of its now legendary cast, is one that still has the power to charm.
One thing this film has going for it is that it was shot entirely on location in Rome, a rarity in the day of huge studio back-lots or disguised substitutes being the norm. As well as an aura of authenticity, this also gives the audience that sense of wonder and discovery that Ann experiences when she is taken round Italy’s capital. There may be one or two scenes designed purely to show off the local landmarks but the context in this instance is perfectly valid.
Beneath this airy travelogue however is a cautionary tale of stifling one’s character and worldliness in the name of royal protocol. For all those little girls who dreamt of being a princess, the opening scene at a formal ball will assuredly disappoint, revealing Ann as hardly the best advocate for this role. Like the analogous swan, Ann greets her guest with a polite smile while beneath her flowing dress a bare foot is rubbing its ache against the other!
In the space of five minutes, Ann goes from a graceful porcelain doll to a spoiled brat as she explodes in a petulant rage against her tireless schedule, brought on by her own her fatigue. Ann’s shocked lady-in-waiting (Margaret Rawlings – a member of nobility in real life) doesn’t know how to react at this behaviour unbecoming of a princess, when all Ann wants is to be treated like a human being for once.
Joe Bradley may be a journalist but he isn’t a bad person – after all he was prepared to use up his remaining money to have a taxi take Ann home. He graciously and discreetly puts her to bed where she sleeps until mid-afternoon, taking the couch and braves an earful from his editor. Like all good romances, he is at first not interested in Ann but the chance of redemption an exclusive interview, as well as the financial reward is too good to give up.
That he and Ann – or Anya Smith as she coyly introduces herself as – enjoy a romantic interlude or two is inevitable but the script keeps things on the right side of teasing to avoid the now established clichés. Ann’s transformation into liberated tourist is completed by the now traditional haircut in a humorous scene that sees a barber (Paolo Carlini) begrudgingly cut off her gorgeous mane. I’m sure I was not alone to see those luscious locks hit the floor but Hepburn pulled off the short and stylish cut too.
Despite a long and varied career, this is my first William Wyler film, which may seem remiss to many cinephiles. Already an Oscar winner for Mrs. Miniver in 1942 and The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, this film saw Wyler return to the romantic comedy genre which he had rarely troubled before. I felt I could detect some touches akin to those of Billy Wilder, but it is more likely that Wyler would have influenced Wilder.
The story – co-written by Dalton Trumbo (who was blacklisted at the time so his credit didn’t appear until many years later) – may be by the numbers for the most part but the ending is surprisingly downbeat and ambiguous. While it may eschew the saccharine denouement many would be expecting, it is in stark contrast with the joyous whimsy of the previous hour, leaving things on a slightly sombre note.
After years of small parts in British films and stage work, this was Hepburn’s first Hollywood role and it earned her an Oscar. As Ann she arrives on the screen like a flower on a gentle breeze, exuding an innocence and fragrance hitherto unseen. Gregory Peck may have been the star at the time (and reportedly unsure about being second to a female newcomer) but this was Hepburn’s film. Together they created a believable chemistry which carries the film and provides its intrinsic charm.
Certainly in the wake of the many imitators and duplicates, Roman Holiday may not stand up to close scrutiny from modern eyes, but the inherent effervescence of the film, the radiance of Audrey Hepburn and the blissful simplicity of the narrative are difficult to ignore. It’s a light but endearing film designed to keep you warm on a cold day.