“We can’t go running around town with a hot princess!” The 60th Anniversary of ‘Roman Holiday’


Roman Holiday
Roman Holiday (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Niall McArdle

“Rome! By all means, Rome!”

Cyd Charisse. Marilyn Monroe. Jane Russell. Donna Reed. Deborah Kerr. Hollywod had an array of beautiful women on screen in 1953, each in their own way wordly and sexy. But it was a different, schoolgirlish beauty that captivated the world that year, when an elfin, dark haired Audrey Hepburn spent the day in Rome in the company of Gregory Peck.

Roman Holiday is many things. It’s a Ruritanian romance. It’s a two-hour commercial for Rome. It’s the story of a newspaper reporter and a princess, a retread of those screwball newspaper-heiress comedies of the Thirties.

In his excellent “Have You Seen …?” film critic David Thompson imagines a world where it is Audrey Hepburn who becomes Princess of Monaco, and Kelly remains in Hollywood with Hitchcock to make Vertigo and Marnie, not to mention all of Hepburn’s fims; Sabrina, My Fair Lady, etc. It doesn’t bear thinking about; the absence of Kelly’s glacial beauty on our screens is lamentable and gave Hitch much to brood about, but she had a successful career prior to meeting Rainier, and we have Rear Window, The Swan, To Catch a Thief, and whatnot. But a world deprived of Audrey Hepurn would be a duller place indeed.

Audrey Hepburn made her Hollywood debut, famously, in Roman Holiday, after Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons were both unavailable. And it really is better that an unknown play it, for how well-known is a princess?

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Roman Holiday doesn’t just mark Hepburn’s stunning film debut; it marks the beginning of the mystery that is “Audrey Hepburn”, the little girl from Belgium who gave dance recitals to fund the underground during the war.  She was discovered by Colette and had done the Colette story Gigi on stage (another gamine, Leslie Caron, was in the film version.)

Hepburn as Gigi
Hepburn as Gigi

It is significant that in this, her debut film, Hepburn gets the pixie haircut we often associate with her. And the camera does just love her, and it never stopped doing so. Of course the hairdresser asks her out. Wouldn’t you?

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It works because of the fairytale nature of the story and because it’s the best ad for Rome, for a Rome long recovered from the deprivations that Rosselini had shown us in Rome: Open City. It’s a fairytale because little girls wish to be princesses and princesses, we’re told, wish to be ordinary. So Peck takes her out to do all the things she doesn’t get to do, like eat gelato, visit a sidewalk café, ride on a scooter, smoke a cigarette, dance, and so on.

Eddie Albert takes her photos in secret, and it’s hard not to think of a  paparazzo hounding celebrities with a long lens, or even hounding the world’s most famous princess, Diana, to her death. “She’s fair game. It’s always open season on princesses.”

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1953 also marked the real life romance of a princess and a commoner. Princess Margaret had to give up Captain Townsend for the sake of duty. Paramount couldn’t buy that sort of publicity.

The film had a curious pedigree. Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo wrote the script because he was about to sent to jail and needed money for his family; Ian Hunter fronted for him. Did Hunter ever give Trumbo the Oscar he won for it?

Dalton Trumbo facing the House Commitee on Un-American Activities
Dalton Trumbo facing the House Commitee on Un-American Activities

Cary Grant turned it down knowing all the attention would be on the princess; Peck liked to joke that he got comedy scripts with Grant’s fingerprints all over them. Actually, Peck is quite good in it; he has a nice comic touch, proof that he wasn’t always such a pompous dolt. Peck insisted that Hepburn’s name be above the title and he predicted she’d win the Oscar (she did). Frank Capra was going to direct but got nervous at being associated with Trumbo; he passed. William Wyler took it over.

William Wyler
William Wyler

Why did William Wyler make it? He had done serious fare like The Best Years of Our Lives and Mrs. Miniver. Certainly he must have enjoyed filming on location in Rome, away from Hollywood, which at the time was in the throes of its virulent anti-Communism. In 1950 Wyler had attended the most famous meeting in the history of the Directors Guild, when he and others defied Cecil B. deMille’s efforts get its members to sign a loyalty oath. The events of that evening are hysterically and frighteningly recounted in Kenneth Geist’s biography of Joseph Mankiewicz. Trumbo, along with nine other writers, had been jailed as “the Unfriendly Ten.” They were all blacklisted and went into exile; there is a lot to be said for a film written by Trumbo about not being able to do what you want, having to stick by the rules.

Rome is the third character in the film, and by being there the filmmakers could avoid studio control. They chose to shoot it in black and white because they didn’t want the city to distract from the characters. It helps (Peck wasn’t really made for colour.)

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It is a curious thing that the film has remained so popular, because although I’ve seen it many times, I can only ever remember a couple of scenes (the Mouth of Truth, of course, which enthralled audiences). Peck improvised an old Red Skelton bit; years later Gere did something similar to Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.

But I can’t recall a single line of dialogue. So is it not a memorable film? Or is it just such a well-made film that you go along with it, very like a tourist at the Spanish Steps and the Coliseum? In any event, audiences loved it, and sixty years later still do.

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