Roman Holiday (1953) Review

Roman Holiday (1953) Director: William Wyler


Roman Holiday was Audrey Hepburn’s breakout film (even though William Wyler initially considered Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons for the part). For her performance, Audrey Hepburn won a very well deserved Academy Award for Best Actress. Upon receiving the award from the revered President of the Academy, Jean Hersholt, she surprisingly kissed him square on the mouth. It was surely a night to remember!

Roman Holiday was shot on location in Rome, Italy (the first such Hollywood film to be filmed on location in Rome). Wyler insisted that the film be shot in Italy so he was given a smaller budget (the film was shot in black and white, not technicolor) and he would need to choose a relatively unknown woman to play the role of the princess. The script was written by British screenwriter, John Dighton and Dalton Trumbo (Trumbo was blacklisted as a result of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s paranoid red scare at the time and thus he did not credit on the film). Sadly, Dalton Trumbo was not even permitted to attend the Oscars ceremony when the film won Best Story. Roman Holiday was also nominated for several other Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.

Roman Holiday is a really wonderful little film -innocent, funny, charming, heart-warming. It is one of my favorite Hepburn films. Audrey Hepburn plays Ann, a princess of an unnamed European nation on a goodwill trip to Italy. Frustrated by her endlessly busy schedule she grows angry with her family and a doctor is called to give her a sedative. Nevertheless, she sneaks out onto the streets of Rome one night and falls asleep on a bench near the ancient Roman ruins. A reporter for the “American News Service” named Joe Bradley happens to walk by (played by Gregory Peck -the role was initially offered to Cary Grant but he turned it down thinking he was too old to play opposite Hepburn even though he did so ten years later in Charade). In her drowsy state she amusingly recites a poem for which Bradley calls her “well-read” -the poem was actually written by Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted scriptwriter for the film. Thinking she is intoxicated, Bradley honorably takes her back to his flat so she can rest. A short while later he realizes she is the princess and he decides to create a ruse in order to create a good news story. They wander around the city together, traveling via vespa scooter, open air markets, a visit to the Spanish Steps, the Mouth of Truth, the Colosseum, and Ann cuts her hair short. Bradley and Ann end up at an outdoor dance party only to fall into the hands of the royal guard but Bradley fights them off while he promptly falls in love with Ann.

In the end, she is forced to return to her role as princess and they exchange a tearful goodbye knowing it will be their last moments together. The next morning, the princess holds a press conference (her initial press conference was delayed amidst public declarations that she was feeling “ill”). Bradley shows up and the two exchange vague and veiled reassurances to one another that her secret night out will not be revealed. She greets the press and receives private photos of their adventures from Bradley’s associate as a gesture that they will not be leaked to the press. She smiles and says a heartfelt goodbye. Bradley is left alone in the press room and he walks away -it is a bittersweet, affectionate, a-typical Hollywood ending.

Roman Holiday reminded me a great deal of Ernst Lubitch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (feel free to read my review of the film here). Gregory Peck grew quite fond of Audrey Hepburn as they worked together on this film and their partnership developed into a lifelong friendship. During filming, he suggested to Wyler that Hepburn’s name be advertised with equal billing credit as his own -an unprecedented gesture in Hollywood at the time. At the time, Gregory Peck was severely depress about his divorce from his first wife, Greta Kukkonen. When he arrived in Italy he met a Frenchwoman named Veronique Passani. They fell in love, got married and remained together the rest of their lives (she became Veronique Peck). Audrey Hepburn also met her first husband while working on this film (they were introduced at a party hosted by Gregory Peck). In a way, both Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn had their own “Roman Holiday” while making this eminently delightful classic.

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