By Cleaver Patterson.
Some films are almost as famous for their advertising posters or specific scenes, as they are for the production as a whole. Director William Wyler’s Roman Holiday–the romantic comedy which created cinematic magic by pairing the elfin Audrey Hepburn (in her only Oscar winning role) and debonair Gregory Peck–goes one better by combining both these factors (the film’s most iconic one-sheet depicts its two central characters astride a scooter as they take in the sights of the Italian capital) in a snapshot that perfectly captures the carefree essence of this timeless classic.
Anne (Hepburn) is the princess of an obscure European country, currently undertaking a highly publicized tour of European capitals. Frustrated by the strict regulations and protocol of royal life, Anne gives her courtiers the slip one night whilst staying in Rome. Hiding her true identity, she embarks on her own tour of the city where she soon falls in with an American newspaper journalist Joe Bradley (Peck). Realizing who she is, and saying nothing of his true intentions, Joe accompanies Anne on her sightseeing trip in the hope that he can land the interview of the century.
With most films there is often one thing which works to the detriment of everything else–be that cast, locations, story or costumes. Less frequently do all these aspects come together, but when they do the result is a film like Roman Holiday. Restored by Park Circus to mark its sixtieth anniversary, this piece of cinematic whimsy encapsulates a period of filmmaking which unfortunately no longer exists. In a modern era where much produced, by Hollywood in particular, appears to depend increasingly on spectacle to create impact, films which are memorable for their simplicity and the connection between their central cast members are significant by their sparsity.
This pared back quality was an element present in the films of William Wyler, who had a particular knack for spinning dramatic tension around strong female roles, as when he directed Bette Davis to an Oscar nomination in The Little Foxes (1941) and later guided Greer Garson to a win for Mrs. Miniver (1942). Not so readily associated with comedy, he still managed to bring Hepburn and Peck’s continental romance an air of dry humor, which perfectly suited the vibrant setting of Rome in the early post-war years.
That Roman Holiday‘s end can be seen long before it arrives is never in question. Instead it is the sheer fun that Hepburn’s beguiling princess and Peck’s scheming newspaper hack have getting there, which makes the film zip along like the scooter the two commandeer to transport themselves around The Eternal City. What could easily appear as a twee forerunner to the modern vogue for feisty female centered rom-coms, works in the end because duty comes before apparent personal happiness–a refreshing alternative to the ‘suit-yourself’ attitude prevalent amongst today’s younger generation. A marvelous array of supporting talent, including the regal Margaret Rawlings as Anne’s lady-in-waiting Countess Vereberg and Eddie Albert as Joe’s put-upon friend Irving, are perfect foils to the fun-loving duo at the center of the story, bringing added color to the film’s stylishly understated chic.
Made in an era when the big studios still ruled Hollywood and its stars, carefully controlling the public’s access to the likes of Hepburn and Peck, the films they produced, epitomized by Roman Holiday, had a certain magic, unobtainable quality, missing from today’s colorless, identikit potboilers. The fact that not an awful lot happens in the film–the majority of the time is taken up with Hepburn (in her beautifully tailored couture by Hollywood costume doyenne Edith Head) and Peck careering round Rome avoiding one misunderstanding induced near-miss after another–hardly matters. What the viewer really wants, and gets, from this type of film is the interaction and repartee between the central protagonists (clearly evident here in the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter and John Dighton, based on a story by Trumbo)–a sophistication all too often lacking in modern crass and innuendo strewn comedies.
On closer inspection, the film can be seen as a reverse mirror image of one of Hepburn’s biggest hits, My Fair Lady (1964), which came almost exactly a decade later. Though here her character of Anne, a princess by birth, wants to experience the life of a commoner, whereas Eliza in the later film was a poor girl who was transformed into a society beauty, both films perfectly captured the air of vulnerability which became Hepburn’s trademark in such films as Funny Face (1957) and Charade (1963). As for Peck, well he simply does what is required in the older, fatherlike, role of Joe–a character which the generation of suave, matinee idol actors from which Peck came, could have done in their sleep.
Roman Holiday’s innocence may seem dated to contemporary audiences. However, as a glimpse of a bygone period in which duty still held meaning, this is a film whose freshness and appeal will never age.
Cleaver Patterson is film critic and writer based in London.
Roman Holiday will be released in selected cinemas in the UK on the 19th of July, 2013.