Classic films present escapism in its purest form, and I can’t think of a better example than William Wyler’s romantic adventure, Roman Holiday. William Wyler, one of the masters of romance, creates a timeless time with more depth than its often given credit for. I was a late convert to this and rewatching it on the big screen courtesy of TCM and Fathom Events reminded me of the fun, romance, and freedom explored in the film’s near breathless runtime. If you want a pure encapsulation of studio filmmaking and a great gateway “drug” into classic cinema, you can’t do better than Roman Holiday.
Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) is sick of her regimented world of meet and greets and professional waving during a tour of Europe. When in Rome she decides to seek adventure for herself and along the way she meets a handsome American reporter named Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) who’s stumbled on the story of a lifetime.
Roman Holiday boasts the distinction of being Hepburn’s American début after several years of starring in European-based pictures. She’s perfectly suited to the role of Princess Ann, with her child-like naiveté and unvarnished appearance, it’s hard fathoming what 1950s audiences said or how they reacted to the first film of a woman who’s now so iconic to Hollywood. Interestingly, Hepburn’s persona as a fashion guru is thinly pronounced, reserved for the opening scenes where Ann is forced to do nothing but wave and stand. After her escape from the palace she’s wearing traditional 1950s attire, and even then Hepburn’s lithe frame wears clothes unlike normal women.
According to articles written about it, Roman Holiday is a Cinderella story in reverse and that’s true to a point. Ann turns back into a pumpkin by the end, but remains a princess; she’s inherited the fairy-tale with no other options. Her parents are never mentioned, but it’s revealed she’s the direct heir to the throne. Continually tested and judged, she tries to slyly stretch/itch her feet under her gown (a fun camera cut beneath Hepburn’s skirts) before eventually losing her high heel, Ann’s sick and tired of the regimented, dull world of “Thank you’s” and “No, thank you’s,” to the point of having a mental breakdown. The script, co-written by Ian McLellan Hunter and the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, calls out the fairy-tale world that infantilizes young women and prevents them from experiencing the world. “Happily ever after” becomes an omen for a meandering series of dull nothings controlled by a little girl not even trusted enough to tuck herself into bed. (It helps that Hepburn, when placed in a nightgown and a bed two sizes too big, sells the little girl image.) “Everything we do is so wholesome” and it’s from there that Ann decides to contaminate the waters.
Perceived as an act of liberation, Ann’s decision to run away is contradicted by her little white gloves. She soon meets Gregory Peck’s Joe, a down-on-his-luck reporter set to interview the princess the next day. Upon meeting the young woman, who he thinks is a drunk, he humorously tries to take her home as she fights against a tranquilizer. This comic series of events forces Joe to allow her stay with him, in an apartment looking eerily similar to Sabrina Fairchild’s house in another Hepburn starrer, Sabrina. (Anyone want to confirm that?) After meeting Ann, the plot could go into formulaic territory, with Joe falling in love with her while writing a libelous expose, and it does for a time. He keeps the knowledge about Ann being the princess under his hat, as she keeps it under hers in one of two instances where they don’t speak what’s common knowledge between them. Maybe it’s my age, but when Ann tells Joe her name is Anya, images of the Russian princess Anastasia and her imposter, Anna Anderson immediately pop up and are probably intentional.
It’s surprising realizing Roman Holiday is almost two-hours because the film moves as quickly as the scooter Joe and Ann ride on. The plot becomes a series of location excursions bound together by Joe and his photographer, Irving (Eddie Albert). The best remembered moment is Ann and Joe’s trip to the Mouth of Truth. As Joe tells Ann the story of this magical sculpture which bites hands off if you tell it a lie both characters become children, the camera cutting between the two, daring them. When it zooms in on Ann it’s a double dare for her to stick her hand in. Joe ends up doing it, only to start bellowing for help. For a fleeting moment, Ann, and the audience, believe the plot has turned into a horror film! Peck sells the fear of being in peril as much as Hepburn sells her expectation of the outcome.
Eventually their adventure turns into a romance strictly reserved between two ridiculously gorgeous actors. Normally I fail to trust in these types of relationships but, again, it’s both actors remarkable conviction that they are in love which sells you. Hepburn gets a lot of the credit for this movie, but imagine how hard it must have been for Peck playing the straight man forced to react to Ann’s adventures, and fall in love with her. Peck is suitably charming and protective. I’m not one with the fervent love for the man-he’s easy on the eyes, sure-but I could have fallen in love with him as easily as Ann does. It is worth questioning why Ann never calls Joe by his first name; he stays “Mr. Bradley” from beginning to end. It’s easy to assume it’s her upbringing, but maybe she still feels she needs a protector?
By the end, Ann returns home a changed person. The obvious realization that she’s pampered and prevented from thriving is evident, but there’s a subtle power shift upon her return. Ann realizes her country is bigger than the love between her and Joe. To steal from another movie, their problems are nothing but “a hill of beans.” Her country becomes her child and lover; they’re the sole reason for her return and her surrendering her freedom. The little girl is gone, and in her stead stands a powerful queen, a mother surrogate for the children of her country. The ending scene packs a punch for its lack of meaningful dialogue. Joe and Ann aren’t obligated to profess their love in a grand epiphany because so much is conveyed through silence. When Ann turns back for one final look at Joe, and the audience, it isn’t to say goodbye, but one final “Thank you.” Joe’s walk out of the palace closes the book on a fairy-tale mired in the realism fairy-tales refuse to entertain.
The real villain of Roman Holiday is the cruel passage of time itself — all holidays must come to an end — and growing up. Roman Holiday is a light comedy whose themes run deeper. It’s enchanting and sweet, mostly because of Audrey Hepburn’s sparkling character. William Wyler directs an anti-fairy-tale as hopeful and pleasant as any Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, without creating a character content to spend her life in a coma.