Premiered August 27, 1953 (New York, New York)
Directed by William Wyler
Starring Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert and Tullio Carminati
Released by Paramount Pictures.
If you mention Roman Holiday to someone who has seen the film before, there’s a good chance his or her face will light up, and a smile appear. It’s that kind of movie — and such universally loved films are a rarity.
There have been a variety of opinions made as to why the film is such an enduring success, and most tend to credit then-newcomer Audrey Hepburn. It’s a fair assumption. Her portrayal of Princess Ann instantly won the hearts of movies goers when it was released in 1953. Within two weeks of its premiere Hepburn was on the cover of Time Magazine, accompanied by a four-page profile of her life and career thus far.
“This girl may make bosoms a thing of the past”
Time Magazine struggled to define what made Hepburn such a phenomenal presence, and this excerpt seems to best state its case:
The skies over Hollywood have exploded with new stars time and time again: heavily accented femmes fatales like Pola Negri, sturdy peasants like Anna Sten, indestructible waifs like Luise Rainer or Elisabeth Bergner, calendar girls like Marilyn Monroe, dignified stars from London’s West End like Deborah Kerr. Audrey Hepburn fits none of the clichés and none of the clichés fit her. Even hard-boiled Hollywood personages who have seen new dames come & go are hard put to find words to describe Audrey. Tough Guy Humphrey Bogart calls her “elfin” and “birdlike.” Director John Huston frankly moons: “Those thin gams, those thin arms and that wonderful face…” Director Billy Wilder, who is slated to direct Audrey’s second picture (Sabrina Fair), contents himself with a prophecy: “This girl, singlehandedly, may make bosoms a thing of the past.”
The truth is that the quality Audrey brings to the screen is not dependent on her figure, her face, her accent (which is neither quite British nor quite foreign) or even her talent. Belgian-born (of a Dutch mother and an Anglo-Irish father), she has, like all great actresses from Maude Adams to Greta Garbo, the magic ability to bridge the gap between herself and her audience, and to make her innermost feelings instantly known and shared.
Later, in the same article, director William Wyler is quoted as predicting, “”That girl is going to be the biggest star in Hollywood.” Judging from the countless biographies and tribute books that still get published today about the actress, he is arguably correct. Hepburn remains one of the greatest stars Hollywood has ever seen. But no one element ever makes a film great, and Roman Holiday is one in which all the elements combined in perfect harmony.
“Joe, we can’t go running around town with a hot princess!”
The story is of a beautiful princess who slips away from her stuffy responsibilities to live life as a commoner for a while. Princess Anne (Hepburn) not only picks the wonderful city of Rome as her playground, but she also unwittingly encounters Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck); a financially strapped journalist who soon realizes her true identity and decides to prey on this opportunity to get a well-paid exclusive published. He enlists the help of his photographer buddy (Eddie Albert) to take compromising pictures of her exploits but, along the way, this princess and the pauper duo discover romance too.1
Paramount Pictures originally wanted the film shot entirely on their Hollywood lot, but director William Wyler insisted that real locations be used. Wyler could best be described as the Steven Spielberg of his time. Much like his modern-day counterpart, he directed some of the most commercially successful films of his era. For example, his film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was one of the top ten grossing films of the 1940s. But Wyler was never a director who allowed his visual style to overwhelm his story or characters, but to complement them. One of the reasons he choose to shoot Roman Holiday in black & white, for example, was so that the splendor of Rome wouldn’t distract from these crucial elements – yet the real locations were essential to capture the reality of the setting. Curiously it became the first Hollywood film shot entirely in Italy.
“I’ve never been alone with a man before. Even with my dress on.”
Wyler also employed as many locals as he could for supporting roles, to add to the authenticity. But, of course, the crucial role was of Joe Bradley, played by screen legend Gregory Peck. Cary Grant was originally slated for the part – the script was written with him in mind – but he turned it down because he felt he was too old to play Hepburn’s love interest. In retrospect, Peck proves to be an ideal choice.
Up until that time Cary Grant had a strong track record for appearing in screwball comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), Arsenic and Old Lace (1941), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Monkey Business (1952). He had also done some remarkable physical comedy in Gunga Din (1939), as well as a number of successful romantic comedies such as The Philadelphia Story (1940) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949). Even in his more serious films, such as the war propaganda film Destination Tokyo (1943), room is always found to exploit Grant’s flair for comedy. His style would surely have leaned more towards the comical than Peck’s more stately presence, as proven by the performances that garnered him four Academy Award nominations — The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Plus, Peck relished the opportunity to lighten up his image. His input ultimately made some of the best scenes possible.
In the “Mouth of Truth” scene Peck asked Wyler if he could try a gag he’d once seen Red Skelton do. Wyler obliged, provided he didn’t clue Hepburn in on the joke. The scene was shot in one take and, as the film reveals, Hepburn’s reaction was clearly an unscripted one. Not to mention, delightfully funny. This reliance upon genuine emotions is a key reason for the film’s success. Even at the casting stage.
Though other actresses had been considered for the princess role — Jean Simmons and Suzanne Cloutier in particular – it was Hepburn’s screen test that secured her choice. As described by the 1953 Time Magazine article, Hepburn played the part “a little nervously, a little selfconsciously. But Wyler had played a sly trick on the newcomer by ordering the British director who made her test to keep his cameras turning after the scene was over. When the word “cut” rang out, Audrey sat up in her royal bed, suddenly natural as a puppy, hugging her knees and grinning the delighted grin of a well-behaved child who has earned a cookie.”
“She was absolutely delicious,” says Wyler. “We were fascinated,” adds Paramount’s Production Boss Don Hartman. “It’s no credit to anyone that we signed her immediately.”
Even Gregory Peck recognized the importance of Hepburn’s presence in the film. Contractually – as an established Hollywood star – Peck was assured sole starring credit, but when filming was completed he realized it would have looked silly not to share the credit with Hepburn. So he insisted that Paramount include her name alongside his in all publicity, and in the opening credits.
“Hit him again, Smitty!”
The film was released at a time when the tabloids were following the story of Princess Margaret, who had fallen in love with a commoner named Peter Townsend. The story parallels were too striking for audiences to resist, and helped ensured the film’s success. Ultimately life ended up reflecting art, as both stories had similar bittersweet conclusions. Consequently, in subsequent years, this real-life drama was erroneously credited as an inspiration for the film, even though the original script had been written four years previously.
More than 50 years since its release, the appeal of Roman Holiday is still strong. In 2002 the American Film Institute (AFI) named it the fourth best love story of all time in its 100 Years… 100 Passions list. Similarly, in 2008, the AFI named it the fourth best film in the romantic comedy genre. But the clearest indication of the film’s lasting appeal is the existence “Roman Holiday Tours,” where travelers to Rome can visit the various locations featured in the film. One such tour even offers a photo opportunity with a vintage Vespa, which figures prominently in the film. Countless fans obviously can’t resist imagining they are having a Roman holiday just like Ann and Joe.
- Ian McLellan Hunter and John Dighton were originally credited as the scriptwriters, and they later won an Academy Award for their Roman Holiday script, but Hunter actually fronted for blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten who testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 and was subsequently barred from working in the industry. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) acknowledged his contribution and, on May 10th, 1993, his Best Writing Oscar for Roman Holiday was posthumously presented to Trumbo’s widow. In 2002 the video re-issue of Roman Holiday digitally added Trumbo’s writing credit. ↩