ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953)

  • Director: William Wyler
  • Writers: Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter, and John Dighton
  • Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert, Hartley Power, Harcourt Williams, Margaret Rawling, Tullio Carminati, and Claudio Ernelli
  • Accolades: Shown at Venice International Film Festival, 3 Oscars (Best Actress – Audrey Hepburn, Best Story, Best Costumes), 7 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – William Wyler, Best Supporting Actor – Eddie Albert, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Pluto TV, stream with subscription on CBS All Access, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

One of the things I’ve found that I really enjoy about old movies is the way that they give a window, though sometimes a bit dirty and hard to see through, directly into the past. Those people actually stood there in front of a camera, whether in Los Angeles or in Rome, and did those things, read the lines from a script that, however tangentially, reflected concerns and issues that people at that time were thinking about. It’s the closest I can get to time travel, because I don’t own a Delorean or a bigger-on-the-inside police box. It can also show us how much either changes or stays the same over time, in a way that’s a lot more interesting and informative than just reading a history book. So that’s why I make an effort, especially in these single-subject festivals like we’re starting today, to cover movies from as many different historical periods as possible. I know that you all may have lots of more recent favorites, and that’s fine. But I hope that some of you find this time of “time travel” as interesting as I do.

Roman Holiday is a movie that both completely still works today in all the same ways it worked when it first came out in 1953, while also being very much of its time. The plot is straightforward: a European princess (Audrey Hepburn), feeling constricted by the position and responsibilities thrust upon her, runs away from her chaperones during a diplomatic mission to Rome. She meets an American reporter (Gregory Peck) and the two of them traipse around various Roman landmarks. She doesn’t tell him she’s a princess, and he doesn’t tell her he knows she’s a princess and is just hanging out with her for the story. As you have figured out already if you have ever seen a movie before, the two of them eventually fall for each other.

If this plot seems well-trodden, it’s because versions of it have been done many, many times since, sometimes with the twist that the genders are flipped and it’s a commoner girl dating a Prince, or that one of the romantic leads has traveled in time, or that the royal has switched places with a commoner who happens to look exactly like them, or that the commoner turns out to have secretly also been royalty the whole time, or that it’s Christmas. You get the idea. Roman Holiday came before most of these, and likely influenced a lot of them, but there are some key differences. For one, unlike pretty much every one of those other movies I just described (seventy-year-old spoilers incoming), Hepburn & Peck’s characters don’t end up together at the end. The movie feints briefly in the direction that she might actually run off with him, but after hearing that the people of her never-named home country are worried about her and need their princess, she returns to her duties. She sees Peck in the last scene, flashes him a smile, and walks off, the end. The movie never seems to have even considered that she could both date him and be a Princess. This is particularly interesting given that the movie was a big hit in the UK, a fact attributed by many to Princess Margaret’s romance with a commoner hitting the tabloids at the same time.

While technically not her first appearance in a movie, this was the first starring role for Audrey Hepburn, who went on to become one of the great Hollywood icons of the 20th Century. If some other big female stars known for their beauty were sometimes described as “buxom” or “curvy,” Hepburn would be described as “elfin” or “striking.” Those prior stars were usually seen as aspirational figures for the men in the audience (i.e. this is someone you could aspire to sleep with), and certainly there’s some of that with Hepburn, but she was also seen as an aspirational figure for women, who could aspire to be more like her. She is sometimes credited with popularizing being super-skinny as being attractive. Ironically, from a certain perspective, she came by her thin figure not through dieting or pure genetics but at least partly, it’s thought, because she had suffered malnutrition during her adolescence. Hepburn was born in Belgium and had lived in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation during World War II, spending much of the war with little to eat. Afterwards she was sent off to complete her education in England, where she broke first into West End theater and then into movies.

Hepburn’s star quality was immediately apparent even before the movie was finished. One later biographer would note that she might not have been that great an actress, but she was great at being a movie star. Under his contract with Paramount, Gregory Peck was entitled to star billing, with Hepburn originally billed well down the list as “and introducing Audrey Hepburn.” But Peck later took the unheard of (at that time) step of requesting that Hepburn be elevated to equal billing with him, on the grounds that he felt that after the movie came out she would become such a big star that he would seem like a jerk if he didn’t. He turned out to be right. For her portrayal of “Princess Anne,” Hepburn would become the first actor to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA award in the same year (a feat made slightly less impressive by the fact that the Golden Globes were only three years old at this point).

Another Oscar the movie won was for “Best Story” (a category that has since been folded into the Screenplay award). Left out of this award originally was Dalton Trumbo, who worked extensively on the screenplay but was, at the time, blacklisted from working under his own name in Hollywood. That was because he was a member of the “Hollywood Ten,” who in 1947 had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) regarding the “communist infiltration” of the movie business. All ten refused to answer questions regarding past and present political affiliations (“are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?”), but for this refusal were convicted of Contempt of Congress. Trumbo himself spent ten months in prison on this charge. Like many blacklisted writers, he kept working, but had to do so under pseudonyms for greatly reduced rates. Trumbo later estimated that he wrote or co-wrote about 30 movies while blacklisted, some of which we still don’t know about today.

Three years after Roman Holiday, another of Trumbo’s screenplays, for The Brave One, would receive an Oscar. Having completed the writing solo, Trumbo had been credited under a pseudonym, Robert Rich. After no one showed up to collect the award, the press started looking into what was going on and eventually discovered that blacklisted writers had more gone underground than stopped working. The Academy passed a rule saying that pseudonyms would not be allowed to win Oscars (a rule still on the books decades later when the Coen Brothers tried to use fake names for certain credits in their movies and ran into problems). However, the practice generally persisted, until in 1960 Trumbo received credit for his work on both Exodus and Spartacus. Kirk Douglas later claimed that he basically single-handedly ended the Hollywood Blacklist by insisting Trumbo get credit on Spartacus, leaving him a parking pass for the studio lot, and eating lunch with him in the studio commissary, leading You Must Remember This to memorably note that, “according to Douglas, the Blacklist ended, not with a bang, but with a parking pass.” The reality is obviously much more complicated. Anyway, though Trumbo died in 1976, his credit was reinstated when the DVD was released in 2003 and he would be posthumously awarded his Oscar for the movie in 2011.

But back to Roman Holiday, which I found very enjoyable. It was shot on location in Rome during the “Hollywood on the Tiber” decade or so, when studios found it more cost-effective to shoot some movies in Italy than at home, usually with American stars and directors and Italian supporting players and crew. As discussed briefly in the movie itself, this was less than a decade after the end of World War II and the Italian economy was far from completely recovered. As a result, you can’t beat some of the great location shooting in this movie. Perhaps more importantly, I found that nearly all the jokes still worked as jokes just as well today as they would have at the time. I would hesitate to say there’s some great, deep meaning here. It’s not as if the Princess thinks beforehand that the peasants are all worthless and learns her lesson by the end. Everyone here is nice at the beginning and nice at the end, and there’s never any real suspense that anyone will do any lasting damage to anyone else. But the people are attractive and enjoyable to hang out with, the locations are wonderful, and there are some funny jokes. I can’t really ask for a lot more than that.

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