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OCCASIONAL NOTES ON FILM

I’ve long felt that I need to see more films by William Wyler. A prolific director who made more than thirty silent movies before switching to an even longer, more distinguished career with talkies, Wyler was nominated for an incredible 12 Best Director Oscars between 1935 and 1970, and won the award three times (for Mrs Miniver in 1942, The Best Years Of Our Lives in 1946 and Ben-Hur – the only film of Wyler’s I’d seen until a week ago – in 1959; only John Ford (4 wins) has been more successful).

A trio of Wyler’s films were also nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award: The Heiress (1949), Roman Holiday (1953) and Friendly Persuasion (1957), though none of the three actually won. He also made The Big Country, How To Steal A Million, The Children’s Hour and Dodsworth, among many others. And as for experience with actors, during his career he directed Humphrey Bogart, Laurence Olivier, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Simmons, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, Charlton Heston, Terence Stamp, Peter O’Toole, Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift and Barbara Streisand. In short, he is a Hollywood legend.

Roman Holiday is considered a romantic comedy classic today, and it holds an impressive 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which meant it looked on paper to me to be the “easiest” way in to Wyler’s back catalogue. Hepburn was given her first starring role in the film as Princess Ann, a member of the royal family of an unnamed country who touches down in Rome amid a hectic tour of European capitals. Ann is suffering from exhaustion, and sneaks off one night to escape the meet n’ greets and official photo-ops that are planned for the following day. After getting drunk she is discovered on a bench by newspaper reporter Joe Bradley (Peck), who takes her back to his apartment. Famously Wyler chose Hepburn for the role after instructing the cameraman filming her screen test to carry on after they had seemingly stopped, in order to see what she looked like when she was at ease.

Eventually Bradley realises who exactly he is sheltering, and – hiding the fact that he is a reporter – offers to show her around Rome so that he can write an exclusive interview for the paper, netting $5,000 in the process. Ann isn’t aware of his motives, but eventually agrees to accompany him, so Bradley enlists the help of photographer Irving Radovich (Eddie Alpert), who tags along as the couple explore the sights of the Italian capital. Meanwhile, the newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief, Mr Hennessey (Hartley Power, gnashing and frothing like all good editors should do) starts to suspect that the missing princess is with his young reporter, and tries to get Bradley to admit he knows where she is. As Bradley shows Princess Ann the sights of Rome and treats her to a night out, the couple gradually fall in love.

It’s easy to sneer today at Roman Holiday‘s simple, obvious shots of Rome’s well-visited tourist attractions; there are scenes at the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain and the Roman Forum, as you would expect. Yet when Roman Holiday was made it was still common for Hollywood studio backlots to be used when exotic locales were required, and Wyler became the first director to shoot entirely on location. Still, despite the unfamiliarity that existed with regard to Rome’s tourist sites, it’s very much (and understandably) an outsider’s view of the city, and it’s interesting to compare it to two Federico Fellini’s films that followed in its wake: the Rome of La Dolce Vita – granted a film set a little closer to the more liberated sixties – seems like a far more exciting place, with a verve and swagger that is lacking in the nightlife of Roman Holiday, whereas Roma offers a more honest, rounded portrait of a noisy, working city.

Unfortunately the natives in the film seem to be there just to play up to some kind of ill-thought out stereotype. All the Italian characters seem to have ridiculous bulging eyes and flaring nostrils when they converse with Bradley and Princess Ann, and, presumably for comic effect, the ‘hilarity’ of the language barrier is milked throughout as characters struggle to communicate with each other. It’s a little cringeworthy today to say the least, but it’s certainly easy to forgive – and understand – in a film that was made 60 years ago.

Hepburn and Peck are both believable, and likable, as the young couple from different backgrounds that meet by chance and fall in love (a simple story that is still being used in many a film today). Peck’s part had initially been written for Cary Grant, but Grant declined the offer, feeling that the male lead in the film was playing second fiddle to the female lead (heaven forbid). (Interestingly, in the DVD extras, Peck suggests that at the time he felt every script that landed on his doormat had already been turned down by Grant. He comes across as being a very likable man, as it happens.) Hepburn, as mentioned earlier, was in her first major role, but was not considered to be the (or a) star of the film until midway through when Peck, realising just how good her performance was, lobbied the director and the studio to put Hepburn’s name above the title with his, where it deserved to be.

Though Peck was better known for his roles in serious dramas, he acquits himself well in Roman Holiday‘s gentle, occasionally farcical, comic moments, and his unthreatening presence adds to the film’s light, easy air. There is much reliance on Alpert for laughs, and he brings a real spark to his scenes, playing an effervescent and unpredictable photographer that leaves Bradley looking a little dull by comparison. But the film is rightly remembered as Hepburn’s breakthrough, and she gives an assured performance as the Princess. Despite some irksome faux-drunk overacting at the start of the movie, once things settle down she is very good. She has a hint of the tomboy about her, and a mischievous look in her eye throughout.

I have to admit my mind started to wander during the film, and throughout I had a strong sense of knowing what was about to happen next (having said that, the bittersweet ending came out of nowhere and left me shocked, though it’s a shame that the final scene was the first time that my interest was piqued). Perhaps it’s because I’m familiar with the locations used, and the class-mismatch love story, though it’s hardly Wyler’s fault that so much romantic pap has been made in the past five decades since that has liberally borrowed from films such as this (*cough, ahem, Notting Hill*). Though the years haven’t been particularly kind to certain aspects of Roman Holiday, it also has a hell of a lot of timeless charm, most notably thanks to Audrey Hepburn’s performance and many striking – if now familiar – scenes of Rome’s most glorious features. 

The Basics:

Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck
Certificate: U
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Year: 1953
Rating: 6.9

10 Responses to “0060 | Roman Holiday”

  1. Invisible Mikey

    Now get yourself a copy of his best film – The Best Years of Our Lives. It offers unblinking authenticity about the difficulties of adjusting to civilian life after combat, it was made when the subject was current, right after WW2, and I dare you not to cry over “Homer’s” story. It’s an astoundingly good movie, and I’m not prone to hyperbole.

    i enjoyed reading this.

    Reply
    • Popcorn Nights

      Thanks Mikey, and thanks for the recommendation. It sounds good and I’ll add it to my list of films to watch.

      Reply
  2. missellen

    Great review! A part from Hepburn and Peck’s inimitable charm and chemistry, Roman Holiday is a favourite of mine for the script – as you say the narrative tropes have now long been exhausted, but the banter and conversation is just beautiful. Trumbo’s Oscar winning script (albeit received posthumously and much too late as he wrote under a pseudonym after being blacklisted by McCarthy), has that beautiful, unadorned wit, minus the smugness of similar movies you’d see today. Definitely one of my favourites!

    Reply
    • Popcorn Nights

      Thanks very much. I agree, there are some smart lines in there (I particularly liked Ann asking if Joe’s pokey city centre bedsit was “the elevator” after she first saw it!)

      Reply
  3. keith7198

    Awesome review. I wrote about this film earlier this year and I have to say I absolutely love it. I’m always enthralled in the chapters and the direction is beautiful. It’s one of those movies I can watch anytime.

    Anyway, I appreciate your write-up. I always love seeing people talk about the classics.

    Reply
    • Popcorn Nights

      Thanks Keith. I will check out your review later, I’d be interested to read what you had to say about it!

      Reply
  4. Todd Benefiel

    Good work as always, Stu, BUT…I have to agree with Keith above: I absolutely love ‘Roman Holiday’, and it’s been in my Top 10 all-time favorites list for years. Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I consider every aspect of that film to be charming, magical, and fun, and I too could watch it a hundred times, and never be bored.

    With that said, at least I can say: Stu, we’ll always have ‘Them!’.

    Reply

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