**This post is written as part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fabulous Fifties Blogathon. Head over to the CMBA’s website to read the rest of the blogathon participants**
If you’ve looked through the list of other blog participants for the Fabulous Fifties Blogathon, you’re aware of the many important films produced during the decade (Some Like It Hot, Sunset Blvd, Singin’ in the Rain). This wasn’t even director William Wyler’s best remembered film of the 1950s. He directed Ben-Hur in 1959. With that, I went with a movie I’ve A) never seen previously B) should have seen previously and C) is pure entertainment. Roman Holiday is a elegant Cinderella adventure story with beautiful on-location filming and Audrey Hepburn at her most delightful. Book a flight to Rome after watching this!
Princess Ann (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. Along the way she meets a handsome American reporter named Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) whose 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 to fathom 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, and 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.
Roman Holiday is a Cinderella story in reverse, according to articles written about it, and that’s true to a point. She turns back into a pumpkin by the end, but remains the princess. Ann 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. 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. She’s continually tested and judged, as seen when she tries to slyly stretch/itch her feet under her gown (a fun camera cut beneath Hepburn’s skirts), eventually losing her high heel. The script, co-written by Ian McLellan Hunter and Dalton Trumbo, calls out the fairy-tale for infantilizing young women and preventing 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 matters 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 meets Gregory Peck’s Joe, a down-on-his-luck reporter interviewing the princess the next day. Upon meeting the young woman, who he thinks is a drunk, he humorously tries to take her home while 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 have gone 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 her being the princess under his hat, as she keeps it under her hers. 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, it conjured up images of the Russian princess, Anastasia and her imposter, Anna Anderson (this could be something those who saw the Don Bluth animated film will recall).
It’s surprising to realize Roman Holiday is almost two-hours because the film moves as quickly as the scooter Joe and Ann ride. The plot becomes a series of location excursions bound together by Joe and his photographer, Irving (Eddie Albert returning-although not in brown face-after my Oklahoma! viewing). 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 (it’s been a day!). 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 is must have been for Peck playing the straight man. He’s marginalized in a way reserved for female characters in this genre. He’s forced to react to Ann’s adventures, and fall in love with her. That’s it! 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? Worth discussing in the comments.
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; 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.
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Audrey Hepburn Collection
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.