“Roman Holiday” - William Wyler (1953)

Roman Holiday (1953) was the Hollywood romantic comedy that introduced Audrey Hepburn in a leading role and immediately established her as a star – she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. The film also received an Oscar for Best Story, which was written by Dalton Trumbo, although because of Hollywood’s disgraceful blacklisting period of the 1950s, Trumbo was not fully credited for his work until 2011. 

Hepburn’s co-star, Gregory Peck, was the film’s box-office big name at the time, and Peck was thought to have been amazingly humble for allowing Hepburn to promoted to equal billing. But looking at the film today, I would say that this is entirely Hepburn’s film. Peck here is little more than the male accessory to Hepburn that George Peppard was in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).             

The story of Roman Holiday concerns a crown princess from an unnamed European country on a visit to Rome who manages to escape the bureaucratic rigors of her regal life by sneaking out on the town for a day.  She wants, for once, to have fun and engage with ordinary life in Rome.  But she has more than just a little fun – during that 24-hour period, she has a romantic encounter with an American expatriate that she meets.

It seems to me that there are two primary themes to the film. One concerns the roles and responsibilities that are placed on us all – even the royalty – and how they can imprison people, especially women.  The other theme is a more playful one and concerns the willful deceptions and misperceptions that can enable us to escape those roles (for awhile, anyway).  Incidentally, deception would also play a major role in a later Hepburn film, Charade (1963).

The story goes through four sections that feature the progressive unraveling and “re-raveling” of those roles.

1.  Princess Ann Arrives in Rome
In the first section the youthful and glamorous Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) arrives in Rome with her royal retinue and attends to a tightly-packed succession of official functions. Fed up with the rigamarole, she finally throws a tantrum and is given a sedative by the royal physician to quiet her down. After the attendants leave her room, the now-sleepy princess sneaks out of the embassy to see what real life in Rome is like. Her sneaking out on the town is the first act of deception and/or misperception – let’s call it Deception #1.

2.  Ann Meets a Stranger
We are introduced to an American expatriate newspaperman, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), who is perpetually borrowing money from and playing poker with fellow American pals in Rome. Departing from a poker party, he encounters Ann now overcome by the sedative and sleeping on a park bench. Bradley simply assumes that the girl is a drunk, and possibly a trollop. This is another misperception that persists for the rest of the evening (Deception #2). Feeling responsible for leaving a vulnerable woman in such a condition, Bradley takes the girl back to his apartment to sober up. He soon finds himself amused that such a presumably dissolute woman should act as if she is accustomed to being served by anyone around her.

3.  A Day on the Town
The next morning Bradley wakes up and realizes he has overslept a scheduled assignment – to attend a royal press conference held for Princess Ann. He rushes off to his news office and pretends to his boss, the English-language paper’s editor, to have attended the press conference (Deception #3), but his lie is soon exposed. Then when Bradley sees a photograph of the princess, he suddenly realizes that the sleeping girl back in his apartment is actually Princess Ann. So he sees a chance to seize an opportunity, and he gets back in graces with his boss by promising to secure an exclusive interview with the princess for the paper.

Bradley gets back to his apartment just as Ann is leaving.  She wants to walk around town on her own, so Bradley secretly follows his precious find in the background.  Wanting to break away from her social confines, Ann walks into a hair salon and has her long hair shorn off so that she can have a “cool” new perm.  We could call this Deception #4, because Ann now looks rather different and is less recognizable to people. 

Bradley, though, has been following her and is not thrown off track. He now “accidentally” runs into Ann, and they go off to a café and chat, where Bradley presents himself, not as a potentially off-putting newshound, but instead as a successful businessman (Deception  #5). Then Bradley’s American photographer pal, Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert), shows up to join them. Irving seems to recognize the princess, and Bradley, wanting to maintain the relative anonymity of their socializing, gives him nudges and kicks in order that he not spill the beans.  This all-too-obvious winking and nudging between the two friends continues throughout the story and is one of the more hilarious elements of the film.  Eventually Bradley convinces Irving that with candid pictures taken, their exclusive story about the princess will make a financial killing for both of them.

So off they all go about Rome, with Irving surreptitiously taking pictures of Ann with his micro-camera inside his cigarette lighter. They visit famous monuments, idle in the local street bazaars, and cruise through the city on a motor scooter. Along the way, Ann’s spontaneous delight in all these activities gradually charm Bradley and divert him from his goal of making a journalistic  killing.  The two of them are falling in love.

In the evening the three of them head off to a river boat where Ann would like to go dancing.  On the dance-boat she runs into her coiffeur, who earlier had sported a mustache but is now clean-shaven.  Apparently he had earlier had a mustache at the hair salon in order appear more of an artiste (Deception #6). 

Their festivities proceed splendidly on the boat until a gang of secret service “black hat” (literally!) agents from Ann’s home country show up searching for the missing princess and, recognizing her, attempt her capture. A wild brawl breaks out, during which Bradley and Ann manage to escape by jumping into the river and swimming to safety. Still soaking wet when ashore, they embrace and share a kiss.

4.  Return to “Normalcy”
The next day back in Joe Bradley’s apartment, Ann and Joe look at each other uneasily.  Joe says, “There’s something I want to tell you.”  But Ann only responds with, “No, please, nothing”.  Ann is responding to the call of duty and ready to resume her royal responsibilities.  They exchange one final kiss, and then Ann is swallowed back up in her world of officialdom.  At a royal press conference the next day, the two of them see each other in their proper roles, and now all the previous misperceptions are cancelled.  They can only stare at each other wistfully from afar in the closing shots.
Roman Holiday was served up by producer-director William Wyler as a rich Italian confection for the American viewing public. The film was shot entirely in studios and locations in Rome and seems to feature a famous monument or ancient site in the background of almost every outdoor shot. Oddly, although Wyler was a long-standing veteran who was nominated for more Best Director Oscars than anyone else, this film does has some technical oddities. One peculiarity is the surprising number of on-axis jump cuts (action cuts with only minimal changes in perspective) throughout the film, which jar the viewer throughout.  Some of these appear to be shots that were stuck on at the ends of moving-camera shots in order to extend the duration of the overall shot. There is also a noticeable discontinuity in the background of one sequence between Hepburn and Peck, when an action cut reveals distinctly different times on a building clock in the background.

But there are some nice touches, too.  I liked the none-too-subtle signals Joe was trying to send to Irving when they were interacting with the princess.  Another delightful scheme was in Joe’s apartment when he awkwardly tries to lift the sleeping Ann and deposit her in another bed.  He tries to do this twice and makes a mess of things on both occasions – awkward on Joe’s part, but artful on Wyler’s.

And the presentation of Audrey Hepburn is superb. Wyler managed to capture the inimitable charm that was peculiar to Hepburn.  Hepburn, herself, was somewhat mystified why people found her so attractive – she thought she was too skinny and that her feet were too big and her nose was not pretty. But you had to see her in action, her spontaneous delight in little things, in order to appreciate her magic. Wyler did manage to capture that particular Hepburn magnetism, and that ultimately was his most important contribution.

On the other hand, I thought Gregory Peck was not quite right for the role of Joe Bradley. He is too stiff, and he doesn’t project the kind of reflective character that the Bradley role would have seemed to demand. We need a better window on the inner turmoil that Joe Bradley must have experienced in the story.
Overall, I would say that Roman Holiday’s inner theme of deception/misperception is an intriguing angle.  We suspect that the deceptions here are not so deceitful as they might appear to the others.  After all, though they cloud an external truth, they help uncover something more real and authentic about the characters engaged in them.  Sometimes a little deception is necessary in order to get at the things that count and have meaning.  The key thing is that I should only tell you what I want you to know about myself in the present context. And that’s an important positive to take away from this film.

Of course, the film’s outer theme is about a romantic relationship that never took flight. It was rumored, by the way, that Peck and Hepburn had their own offscreen amorous relationship during the shooting. However, since Peck was a married man with children, they apparently mutually agreed to terminate the affair. In any case, what does it all amount to? Was it just a one-day flirtation, a momentary fantasy that merely created a nice memory? Perhaps. But the story here uncovers the kind of crucial-to-life opportunity that rarely comes along – true love. In this film’s case, that opportunity was abandoned in favor of attendance to mundane responsibilities. That crucial opportunity should not have been lost.

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