Roman Holiday (1953) (poster excerpt / IMDB)

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Roman Holiday
William Wyler
15 September 2020

“And Introducing Audrey Hepburn”. With that credit, William Wyler‘s Roman Holiday set off a special bombshell in the world of Hollywood stardom, one that announced a major film personality and instantly showered her with an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and a New York Film Critics Circle Award. On this side of the Audrey legend, nearly 70 years later, we can perceive that the hubbub was justified.

As issued on Blu-ray in a remastered 4K transfer for the Paramount Presents line, the film is clearly a showcase for two elements of grace, class, and beauty: Hepburn and Rome. Aside from introducing Hepburn, the credits declare proudly that the film was entirely shot and recorded in Rome.

This sign of Hollywood’s postwar internationalism also signals a revolution in travel brought about by a burgeoning airline industry, which began promoting the possibility of far-flung vacations to middle-class Americans. Hollywood created many tourist or vacation movies, as it was still cheaper for most audiences to travel by cinema. For example,
Jean Negulesco‘s Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) and David Lean‘s Summertime (1955) were both shot in Italy soon after Roman Holiday, this time in glorious Technicolor. There were even films implying that pilots and stewardesses (today called flight attendants) lived a glamorous life among the “jet set”.

Roman Holiday crosses this new postcard genre with a hardy trope: the idea of Old World royalty who seek to escape their stuffy, ritual-bound, politically threatened life for a fling with the modern world, the New World, and especially Americans. This kind of fairy tale had been told in such charmers as Norman Krasna’s Princess O’Rourke (1943) with Olivia de Havilland and Robert Cummings, and Richard Thorpe’s Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945), with Hedy Lamarr and Robert Walker.

The script of
Roman Holiday feels like the set-up of Princess O’Rourke combined with the resolution of Her Highness and the Bellboy. Those earlier films were set in America during wartime, and it was explained that the royal women were living in New York because things weren’t safe in their European countries. Roman Holiday is set firmly in a safe postwar world where the life of Princess Ann (Hepburn), of an unnamed country, is threatened only by the boring diplomatic constrictions of her title.


Image by Ilya Deryabin from Pixabay

She’s presented in a fabulous setting, wearing a fabulous ballgown, standing in high heels for what seems like hours greeting dignitaries from many nations, whom she tends to salute in their own languages like a well-bred performing robot. What’s going on “inside” her is presented by glimpses of concealed feet within the floor-length skirt, as she slips off her right shoe and massages one foot against the other. This action leads to a mini-drama when she finds herself unable to slip the shoe back on her foot in time to sit down.

If this shoe business reminds the viewer of Cinderella, it’s no accident. Ann will later remark that she’ll “turn into a pumpkin and drive away in a glass slipper.” The story is Cinderella in reverse, as the poor little rich girl runs away from home to sample life as an ordinary peasant for 24 hours. She flees impulsively after breaking down in a state of childish hysteria, sounding like the spoiled unhappy creature she is, and after a doctor has given her a shot of “a new drug” to make her sleep.

The drug takes effect after she has sneaked out of the palace or wherever she’s staying, and that’s why American journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) finds her passed out on a public bench. Deeming her too young to get arrested for drunkenness and unable to get a straight word out of the virtual sleepwalker, he reluctantly takes her to sleep it off at his cozy bohemian apartment, so that the colorful Italian locals can assume (sly approval from the landlord, outrage from the cleaning lady) that something more must be going on.

When Ann realizes she’s in strange pajamas in a strange bed, she hastily feels under the covers for the pajama bottoms, for she’d earlier told her lady in waiting that just once she wanted to sleep in ordinary pajama tops only. “Lose something?” asks Joe, and she’s relieved to realize she hasn’t. This is the sauciest this charmingly chaste and discreet movie will get, unless we count the cleaning lady finding Ann in the tub and having a conniption.

This whole development is uncannily like Princess O’Rourke, which also explains that its royal heroine unwittingly spends the night at the hero’s apartment because she’s been drugged off her feet and is incapable of explaining anything or knowing what’s going on. Memo to writers: Drugging your characters is a handy way of getting them into a strange or ambiguous situation.


(poster excerpt / IMDB)

The film’s long, languorous, vacation-like middle act consists of Ann and Joe spending the day together visiting famous locations, including the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, the Mouth of Truth, the Castel Sant’Angelo and the Trevi Fountain–the same fountain that will receive the Three Coins in the Fountain and where Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni get their feet wet in Federico Fellini‘s La Dolce Vita (1960). Ann and Joe even take a madcap ride upon a Vespa, getting themselves briefly arrested. More shenanigans at an outdoor dance will liven the proceedings.

Tension is generated by the fact that both characters are concealing their true identities from each other, and this must naturally complicate any potential romantic feelings that may arise. Joe has the upper hand in knowledge, for he has recognized Ann and is exploiting her for an exclusive scoop that will fetch him $5 thousand and a ticket to the big-time back in the USA. His partner in connivance is photographer Irving (Eddie Albert).

Even without this looming threat of having to face the music, the story constructs an impossible situation and takes the only reasonable way out of it by acknowledging the impossibility. Unlike its wartime counterparts, this film won’t end in the fairy tale of everyone getting what they want and being happy ever after. No matter how contrived the situation and its bits of slapstick, the story’s feet remain firmly on the ground, wearing shoes that will always pinch a little. Ann’s moral arc is less about romantic fulfillment than about her maturity or “coming of age” as she learns to grow into the power she never asked for. She begins as a puppet and ends as a star.

And as for Joe? Critic Roger Ebert was fond of complaining of the device whereby a reporter chooses to kill a scoop because it’s “the right thing to do”. Yes, we can see that decision coming by a Roman kilometer here, and it makes sense because of Joe’s personal involvement. He not only wishes to please Ann, but now that it’s become his own story as well, he has no desire to change its meaning or exploit it or expose himself. You could even call it a selfish decision, a self-preservation.

Hepburn had appeared in several films, including a brief role in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, Charles Crichton) and a starring role in a French-British co-production called Monte Carlo Baby (1952, Jean Boyer and Lester Fuller), but she was unknown in Hollywood before Roman Holiday announced her as virtual royalty. The trailers already use the word “pixie” to describe her persona, and an important scene in the film involves cutting off her long locks to adopt a pixie cut after a little shopping spree. As with other “fairy tales” like Garry Marshall‘s Pretty Woman (1990), this is not only a tourist movie but partly a movie about shopping.



The gorgeous black and white photography is courtesy of two masters. Franz Planer, who settled in Hollywood from Austria, shot Max Ophüls‘ incandescent Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and would work with Hepburn again in Blake EdwardsBreakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Henri Alekan’s ravishments include Jean Cocteau‘s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête, 1946) and Wim WendersWings of Desire (1987).

This print digitally restores the name of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, whose blacklisting caused him to work under the name of “beard” Ian McClellan Hunter, who picked up the Oscar. Trumbo’s co-writer was John Dighton, who’d been nominated for the Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit (1951, Alexander Mackendrick ). As a matter of curiosity, Norman Krasna had also won for Princess O’Rourke, proving that Hollywood really loved stories like this.

It’s slightly surprising that Wyler produced and directed this picture. Although romantic comedies weren’t entirely foreign to him (e.g. The Good Fairy in 1935), he made his name consistently with serious dramas. Perhaps that’s why, even with this film’s light vacation tone and slapstick antics, it sometimes feels more like a drama. Even the Golden Globes were confused enough to give Hepburn their award for Drama instead of Comedy or Musical. The film certainly reveals a serious depth at the resolution.

Hepburn moved on next to Billy Wilder‘s Sabrina (1954), which is simply one of the most shimmeringly sophisticated dazzlements ever constructed on this or any planet and, for my money, Hepburn’s greatest vehicle. While that means it outshines Roman Holiday (and just about anything else), that’s no disgrace for Wyler’s film, which has been drafted into the National Film Registry. With its charm, its classic structure, its physical beauty and its bittersweet emotional ride, Roman Holiday remains a perfect vacation movie, one whose giddy pleasures are balanced by morning-after sobriety.

Paramount’s Blu-ray includes a handful of extras. The longest is a half-hour overview of Hepburn’s Paramount films. Shorter pieces cover Trumbo, the Roman locations, the studio’s costume department (because Edith Head won one of her Oscars for this film), a bit of puffery on the studio’s 1950s hits, comments by critic Leonard Maltin, and personal recollections by Hepburn’s son and her final companion.