Cinema Classics: “Roman Holiday” (1953)

William Wyler’s “Roman Holiday” is more than a romantic comedy; to watch it is to see a real-life fairytale unfold onscreen. The Cinderella-like plot involves Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn), the ruler of an unknown country, who embarks on a European tour. While in Rome, stifled by her sheltered life, Ann escapes the embassy for one day to do whatever she wants. She encounters Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a journalist who decides he can show the princess around for the day and turn it into the story of a lifetime. But after a series of escapades, by the day’s end they have fallen in love, although Ann has to return to her duties.

“Roman Holiday” is a magical film shot in one of the most magical locales in the world. The story is funny and sweet. It was cowritten by Dalton Trumbo, but he was uncredited due to being listed on Hollywood’s Blacklist. He didn’t even receive recognition when the screenplay won an Academy Award; his wife was given an Oscar on his behalf in 1993, and his name was finally later added to the film’s credits. William Wyler, despite not having really directed any pure comedies since the 30s, helmed this film perfectly, amply focusing both on the characters and the location.

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday”

The cast is great too; it’s always refreshing to see Peck in a comedy, and Eddie Albert, who plays Joe’s photographer friend, provides added hilarity. But Audrey Hepburn makes this movie. If anyone but her had played Princess Ann, it would have felt like a different movie entirely. She convincingly portrays Ann’s fascination with everything she sees and her eagerness to try new things. She’s charming and funny (particularly in the Mouth of Truth scene, in which Wyler and Peck got a lovely, candid reaction from her) but also embodies Ann’s admirable sense of duty, which prevents her from living the normal life she likely prefers. Audrey Hepburn is a princess, through and through.

The making of “Roman Holiday” was sort of like a Cinderella story for Audrey Hepburn in real life too. While she had appeared in a few films prior to this one, this was her first major Hollywood role. She nabbed it mainly in part because Wyler’s first choices, Jean Simmons and Elizabeth Taylor, were unavailable, and also because the expense of on-location filming in Rome caused costs to have to be cut elsewhere (for instance, the movie was initially going to be in Technicolor, but as a result had to be filmed in black-and-white). It was apparent during filming that the unknown Hepburn girl was pretty spectacular, as Peck, whose contract gave him solo star billing, told Wyler about halfway through filming to give her equal billing, because her performance was going to win an Oscar. Hepburn did receive equal billing, the film was a big hit, and she did win the Academy Award for Best Actress.

“Roman Holiday” is currently available to rent on all digital platforms and is streaming on Paramount+. Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated G.

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