Royalty slumming it with commoners remains a perpetually popular theme in American movies, perhaps because at some base level we all secretly long either to fall in love with a prince/princess or aspire to the throne ourselves; loins girded, just a little bit of luck and wish fulfillment tucked firmly between our heart’s desires. The other reason is not all that much more altruistic, although tapping into Charles Perrault’s Cinderella fable, always soothing to such silly daydreams. Perhaps no greater princess – imagined or real – ever existed than Audrey Hepburn; the exalted gamin/pixie of the movie screen who, in her youth, during those terrible years of war, became a courier, smuggling Allied messages right under the noses of the Nazis, before effortlessly segueing from aspirations as a ballerina to become movie-land’s most beloved and benevolent spokeswoman for UNICEF. Hepburn’s charm has never been equaled; chiefly, I suspect, because it was never affected, but as genuine as the woman herself. Had she been born several centuries earlier, I have no doubt Audrey would have been the inspiration as well as the template for Perrault’s fairytale innocent. She just exudes that regal air without ever suggesting ego or stuffiness; a woman first and foremost, yet somehow, a princess always.
Even today, some twenty-three years after her passing, it is still difficult, if not impossible to quantify exactly what makes Audrey Hepburn the fairest of all the fair ladies. Prior to her big screen debut, women in Hollywood fell into two categories; the former, typified by inexperience; the ‘gosh and golly, I never even kissed a boy’ school girl nonsense, the latter a self-assured voluptuary, usually trademarked in bleached blonde tresses, blood red lipstick and form-fitting accoutrements to accentuate the hips, thighs and, of course, that perennial prerequisite - the heaving and fulsome cleavage. But when Audrey Hepburn stepped before the cameras in William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) she effectively took a wrecking ball to these imaginary perimeters (some would suggest, barriers) for women on film; touching off a spark of vitality and freshness to redefine Hollywood’s ideal of femininity. Hepburn’s intuitiveness and humanity went far beyond a mere bridging of the chasm between these polar opposites. Yet, she was attractive and sexual in an unconventional way. With her short hair, expressively large eyes and curiously thin, though never wraith-like body, exquisitely sheathed in gowns by Givenchy, Audrey Hepburn exuded the seamless and stately virtues of the ruling class while, in tandem, remaining as accessible to the guy next door. Women as well as men continue to adore Audrey and mimic – mostly in vane – her inimitable grace and flair; our perennial ‘huckleberry friend’ destined to remain ageless among film goddesses.
In Roman Holiday Audrey is the Princess Ann, a disillusioned and slightly anxious ingénue about to assume her position as an aristocrat, but given free reign for a few glorious days while on a goodwill tour, after she escapes the constraints of her duty-bound itinerary; exploring the breezy lifestyle the rest of us take for granted; roaming the old world byways and modo-hip nightclubs of post-war Italy (ravishingly photographed by Henry Alekan and Franz Planer). Happy chance for Hepburn – both in real life and in the movie – that her guide into this experimental debut is none other than Gregory Peck, Hollywood’s man of integrity. After viewing the dailies Peck rather magnanimously insisted Audrey receive equal billing alongside his own name preceding the titles. In fact, he predicted she would become a star. But Peck is the pluperfect example of what every star should be; contented in his work and secure within himself, enough to share the spotlight with another performer, worthy of the honor. The rank of stardom has often cast a rather perplexing and hypnotic spell on mere mortals, warping their self-image and level of self-importance. But Gregory Peck remains that rare and unspoiled figure among the legendary talents from Hollywood’s golden era, anchored in a sort of awe-inspiring personal veracity that served him extremely well throughout his lifetime and career.
In Roman Holiday, Peck is newshound Joe Bradley. He approaches his discovery - that of the sleepy and slightly intoxicated princess lying on a bench near the Coliseum in the dead of night - with less than selfless motives. After all, it is a hell of a story: royalty out on a lark. Tabloid sensationalism briefly rears its ugly head after Joe elects to keep the princess’ whereabouts to himself, instead introducing her to the unprepossessing freedoms of a commoner – tooling around on a Vespa, enjoying gelato in the market square, moonlit dances on the plaza, wearing pajamas to bed, etc. et al - yet all the while pretending he does not know who she really is. But then an unlikely friendship ensues; one utterly destined to alter the course of reality for both of them. Joe begins to understand Ann as a person first, a woman second and a princess only when he briefly contemplates taking romantic liberties with this sumptuous sprite who has so obviously charmed him to distraction. At the crux of Roman Holiday is a modern day flip on the tried and true Cinderella fairy tale; the prince from the lower strata, the princess surrendering true love and the proverbial ‘happy ending’ - her obvious reciprocation of feelings for this man she has come to respect, admire and yes – even love, because she has finally matured into her recognition and acceptance of those ‘born to privilege’ constraints that now dictate her moral responsibilities to the crown.
Roman Holiday’s success is primarily owed to Dalton Trumbo; the blacklisted writer, toiling secretively behind the nom de plume, Ian McLellan Hunter (actually a real person, though not the author of this work), plying the viewer with a fairly realistic ‘fish out of water’ premise, mildly subverted by the congenial byplay between Hepburn and Peck (and co-star Eddie Albert, herein cast as wily photographer Irving Radovitch). Trumbo’s efforts would win him an Oscar – one, alas, he could not claim for his own without exposing his insider’s secret to the rest of the world. But credit is also due to director, William Wyler; by 1953, a prominent fixture in American movies whose credits include at least one enduring cultural artifact made in virtually every genre. A quick Triptik through Wyler’s directorial credits reveals the breadth of his spellbinding versatility; intriguing melodramas like Dodsworth (1936), The Letter (1940) and, The Little Foxes (1941); wartime crowd-pleasers, Mrs. Miniver (1942) and, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); probing social dramas like, The Heiress (1949), The Big Country (1958) and The Children’s Hour (1961); the definitively Bible-fiction epic, Ben-Hur (1959), and, two frothy champagne cocktails – one a comedy, How To Steal a Million (1966), for which he re-teamed with Audrey; the other, a gorgeous musical, Funny Girl (1968), marking Barbra Streisand’s cinematic debut. Wyler could – and did – do it all; did it well, and arguably, did it better than almost any of his contemporaries. Roman Holiday is undeniably Wyler’s frothiest romantic/comedy; a lushly orchestrated affair of the heart with Wyler ever so cautiously plucking at our heartstrings, yet curiously without his Stradivarius succumbing to the maudlin chords. ‘The Wyler touch’ as it has come to be known, is not about hitting the high water marks in sentimentality, but rather presenting characters as real people and having the audience discover for themselves their variegated delicacies as human beings.
Immediately following the main titles, majestically photographed against a crane shot overlooking the plaza of Vatican City, Roman Holiday opens with some faux newsreel footage announcing the arrival of Princess Ann, royalty heralding from an undisclosed principality on a goodwill tour to cement trade relations. The newsreel stresses the pomp and circumstance of lavishly appointed parades and palace balls, highlighting the usual charitable acts we have come to expect (e.g. the christening of battleships and polite waves from various balconies to the thronging masses eagerly awaiting below). Awash in the banality of these duties and immaculately gilded by decorous trappings inherent in court life, Ann is on the verge of losing her sense of self. Her lady-in-waiting, the Countess Vereberg (Margaret Rawlings) is the wholly unsympathetic sort who cannot comprehend whatever is the matter with her young charge. It is pointless to debate the issue. Ann is a Royal Princess, not the scullery maid. But her curiosity about the tangible excitements the outside world offers is coaxed to wild distraction by the tinkling sounds of music and gaiety coming from a nearby outdoor trattoria. So, after Ann pretends to go to sleep, she instead decides to disguise herself in plain clothes and run away from home, taking a ‘holiday’ as it were.
Sneaking into the back of a waiting delivery truck and smuggled out of the palace before anyone is the wiser, Ann delights in the sights and sounds of a swinging post-war Italy. Alas, her newfound freedom leads to mild intoxication, ‘discovered’ while sleeping it off on a park bench by congenial newspaper hound, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). At first, Joe cannot believe his great luck. He has been struggling for a story idea to put his game back on top. And Ann is just the ticket: the inside scoop before any other paper is even made aware she has escaped and/or disappeared into the night. Over the next few days Joe exposes Ann to some of the joys of Italy; icy gelato on the Spanish steps, having her hair bobbed by a local stylist, riding a Vespa through the tight cobbled streets, and placing her hand in the famed ‘Mouth of Truth’. The legend is if one has told a lie the stone facade will sever the hand. In preparing this scene, director, William Wyler instructed Gregory Peck to fake a terrorized scream after having inserted his own hand into the mouth - without first telling Hepburn of their plan; then, have Peck tuck his fingers up his coat sleeve, thereby implying the prophecy had been fulfilled. Hepburn’s genuine reaction, first of surprise, then horror, and penultimate quaking fear turned to relief, was captured on film and used in the final edit.
After contacting his photographer buddy, Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) to take some candid photos of the princess and him enjoying the pleasures of Rome, Joe has a change of heart. In fact, he has become enamored with the girl who just wants to be like everybody else. So Joe, Ann and Irving embark on their whimsical Roman holiday – a playful frolic destined to end in quiet heartbreak when Ann realizes she must leave anonymity behind and return to the life she was born to lead. At the official press conference that concludes her trip to Rome, Ann is stunned to find Joe among the press corp. Briefly concerned Joe might expose her frolics for their ‘tabloid sensationalism’, Ann is instead moved when Joe quietly infers no such story will be published; his oath assured by Irving’s quiet confirmation all of the photographic evidence of her ‘escape’ has also been destroyed. Alas, their romanticized sabbatical together is at an end. Holiday or not, the fantastic promise of a burgeoning romance can never be. Princesses do not marry newspaper reporters, however handsome, noble and forthright they may be. In response to an inquiry made by another interviewer Ann departs from her usually scripted answers to inform the press that Rome will always remain dearest to her heart; the implication, of course, being she will treasure her brief respite with Joe for the rest of her life. The couple part without further acknowledgement of one another; each, seemingly and forever changed in their perspectives on life and love.
Roman Holiday is an effervescent and refreshing reworking of the Cinderella fable. William Wyler’s penultimate moment of truth between these two would-be lovers who can never consummate their affair – nor even continue on as friends – remains puzzlingly tragic, unaffectedly sad, and yet, in tandem, oddly hopeful and thoroughly satisfying. While Ann maintains her air of imperial poise throughout this very public exchange (the rest of the reporters and Ann’s own royal entourage oblivious to the double entendre at play), Joe appears genuinely moved by what is so transparently, if rather unexpectedly, become of their definitive farewell. Never again will Joe be allowed such unfettered access to the Princess. Wyler punctuates the moment by having Joe glance back for just a moment after Ann has already left the podium (perhaps, hoping against hope or merely unwilling to surrender the moment yet in its entirety). Wyler’s deft handling of this goodbye is void of the anticipated Hollywood-ized treacle. Yet, it lingers on in our hearts with tinges, both of remote sadness and infinite joy for having experienced the moment – in the moment. Roman Holiday remains one of the sheer joys in American cinema. Audrey Hepburn earned her only Best Actress Academy Award the first time out as this imaginary princess; her appeal as box office royalty forever cemented with the release of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina on year later. Viewing Roman Holiday today, one can still admire its slick and stylish escapist entertainment with two of Hollywood’s most ardently sincere and respected stars at the helm; the ‘Wyler touch’ – all pistons firing – generating intangible sparks of platonic love that equate to real ‘reel’ movie magic of the highest order.
To date fans have NO Blu-ray of Roman Holiday to adore. How Warner Home Video could have licensed an Audrey Hepburn Blu-ray Collection from Paramount and leave this title conspicuously MIA is frankly, beyond me. I would have settled for a reissue of that initial gift set with this movie included, or been infinitely satisfied to purchase a stand-alone disc release to compensate for this oversight and round out my collection of Audrey Hepburn classics. But no – as we near the last few months of 2016 Roman Holiday remains an elusive enigma on the hi-def horizon; the Warner Archive instead choosing to release 1993’s Body Snatchers – one of the worst horror remakes ever – as one of their ‘deep catalog’ releases in October. Oh, now I really do want to throw up! For now, we must continue to content ourselves with Paramount’s Centennial Collection DVD; not such a terrible prospect, if, as ever, a thoroughly unprepossessing one. Paramount has, in fact, painstakingly restored the original camera negative to its original brilliance; the B&W elements, sparkling and crisp. The gray scale exhibits superior detail and contrast. Blacks are velvety deep and solid. Whites are mostly pristine. Occasionally, we get a hint of pixelization and some extremely minor edge effects. Yuck…but not a deal breaker. The remastered 2.0 mono is adequately represented. Extras are limited to 3 featurettes on the ‘making of’ and restoration process. I can think of no better way to kick off 2017 than with WAC making an official announcement we are about to get this classy classic remastered in hi-def. As ever, I will sincerely wait in the hope of better things. But for now, the DVD is recommended, if for no other reason, than it remains the only option available to movie lovers and fans of Audrey Hepburn. How depressing!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)