The last Five Star Film I wrote about, Singin’ in the Rain, was a Technicolor spectacular from 1952. One year later came a very different (yet equally wonderful) film, this time in black and white: 1953’s Roman Holiday. Superbly directed by William Wyler, it’s the enchanting story of a princess who goes AWOL in Rome.
1. THE CAST
The Roman Holiday cast are so perfect, headed by some extraordinary actors. Fabulous leading lady Audrey Hepburn, in her first major film role, plays the adorably endearing Princess Ann (AKA ‘Smitty’). Just twenty-three years old at time of filming, Hepburn was new to Hollywood. She wasn’t the first choice for casting, but the decision certainly paid off. Absolutely delightful and luminous in this role, her unforgettable entrance into the Embassy Ball early in Roman Holiday is now considered one of film history’s most iconic introductions. Hepburn also went on to win a number of awards for this role, including an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe.
The leading man is a post-Hitchcock, pre-Atticus Gregory Peck. Peck, with all his be-still-my-beating-heart charm, divine speaking voice and tall-dark-and-handsome-ness is right on the money as American newsman Joe Bradley. [Side note: seriously, was there ever a more swoon-worthy man than Peck?…. sorry, I digress]. Accustomed to dramatic roles, this more comedic one was a new thing for Peck, and it worked so well.
Rounding out the Roman Holiday principal cast is Eddie Albert, twelve years before his most famous role: his six-year run as Oliver Wendell Douglas on TV’s Green Acres, opposite screen wife Eva Gabor (Zha Zha’s sister). Albert plays Joe’s friend, photographer and cheeky ladies’ man Irving Radovich, with great charisma.
2. THE CITY OF ROME
Roman Holiday was shot entirely on location in Rome. And how beautiful the Eternal City looks! The black and white photography works stunningly well. All the locations, both famous and pedestrian, are shot exquisitely. There’s something quite magnificent about the whole look of the film: from the ornate palatial embassy interiors, to the gorgeous street exteriors, and even Joe’s tiny apartment.
3. THE HUMOUR
There’s a lot of humour the film. And not just one type either. Case in point: the ‘take you by surprise and give you a fright kind’ in the famous ‘hand in the lion’s mouth’ scene; the endearing kind when Ann’s hopeful beau combs her hair on the dance floor at the barge; the slapstick kind in the café scene where Joe and Irving are at cross-purposes; further great physical comedy in the staircase scene where Joe and a drugged Ann are negotiating the stairs up to Joe’s apartment; and of course so many witty scenes and ingeniously funny lines of dialogue all through the screenplay.
[Side note: the actual principal screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was unable to be credited at the time, due to his blacklisting by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Trumbo was one of the infamous alleged communist sympathisers who refused to ‘name names’ and were dubbed the ‘Hollywood Ten’. In 2011, his name was officially posthumously credited by the Writers Guild of America.]
4. RETROSPECTIVE CONSIDERATIONS
Though Roman Holiday wasn’t necessarily setting out to make a huge political statement about the media, privacy, celebrity and fame, it’s interesting to consider these things in hindsight. At the time the film was made, even though there was public interest in the private lives of famous people, there certainly wasn’t the same level of deep intrusion into their privacy that there is now. And sixty years on, when considered from our current-day perspective, Irving’s prophetic line ‘it’s always open season on princesses’ rings particularly true.
5. EVEN THE BAD BIT IS GOOD
Roman Holiday is such a joyous delight that even the one ‘flaw’ is somehow endearing. I’m talking about the extremely feeble attempt to disguise Peck and Hepburn’s stunt doubles. It’s hilarious how NOT seamless the transitions between the principal actors and stunt doubles are in the ‘runaway Vespa’ scene. It’s funny to watch, but I don’t mean this in a patronising ‘how crap is that compared to what’s possible today’ way. I actually look upon it with warmth, and with a certain nostalgia for a time when stunts (and indeed many other parts of film-making) were actually less slick and required more of a suspension of disbelief.
Roman Holiday certainly deserves its place in the canon of great classic films, and is an absolute treat to experience.*
Lisa Malouf - follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf
[* for reasons including, but not limited to, Gregory Peck]