by Matt Levine
Even those who bristle at both romantic comedies and Valentine’s Day may find themselves charmed by the Heights’ February 13 screening of Roman Holiday: shot entirely in Rome, featuring Audrey Hepburn in her debut film, and directed by one of the finest storytellers in the Golden Age of Hollywood, there’s simply no resisting the most romantic movie ever made. The effervescent joys of Roman Holiday are even more surprising considering the quiet, lingering tone of the film—with lengthy stretches devoted not to plot progression, but to character development—and the lack of a happy ending (or, at least, the happy ending we might have expected). There’s no question the movie is about love, but it’s also about the raw deal that fate or happenstance seems to offer us much of the time: “Life isn’t always what one likes,” says one character, but Roman Holiday is still hopeful that our lives can occasionally provide us with euphoric splendors.
Director: William Wyler
Producer: William Wyler
Writers: Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton, Dalton Trumbo (originally uncredited)
Cinematographer: Henri Alekan, Frank F. Planer
Editor: Robert Swink
Music: Georges Auric
Cast: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert, Hartley Power, Harcourt Williams, Margaret Rawlings, Tullio Carminati, Paolo Carlini, Claudio Ermelli
US Theatrical Release: September 2, 1953
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
The director of Dodsworth, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur, and many others, William Wyler was one of the “invisible stylists” who flourished in mid-century Hollywood. Like most of his peers, he was dedicated to telling a story as vividly and powerfully as possible, proceeding from the assumption that the majority of audiences attend movies in order to become engrossed in a narrative. Yet he told stories patiently, subtly, cleverly: his craft was so assured that the audience wouldn’t consciously notice a deep-focus long take, or an intense but almost imperceptible tracking shot, though the emotions contained therein would be bolstered immensely. The great French critic André Bazin once referred to Wyler as one of Hollywood’s most fine-tuned stylists, “dividing viewers’ attention against their will and directing it where it is needed for the time it is needed, thereby obliging them to contribute to the drama being crafted by the filmmaker.” Wyler made three American masterpieces within twelve years of each other--The Little Foxes (1941), The Best Years of Our Lives, and Roman Holiday (1953). The latter would seem to be the most comedic and lighthearted of the bunch, but it’s a testament to the movie’s bittersweet honesty that it’s just as emotionally resounding as the others.
If many young people dream of becoming royalty (or at least treated as such), Roman Holiday is a fantasy in reverse: naïve, inexperienced Princess Anna (Audrey Hepburn) wants only to interact and connect with the common people, though her supercilious handlers prevent her from doing so. The film begins with a fake newsreel of Anna’s interminable visits to European republics, her hand perpetually waving with delicately regal form, her tone always deferent and ladylike. Acting as the comedic counterpart to the “News on the March” prologue that opens Citizen Kane, this faux-newsreel (flawlessly photographed and edited to mimic a vérité feel) immediately suggests why Anna would feel so stifled by her opulent environment: she wants her life to feel spontaneous, dynamic, not a headline to be disseminated to the masses.
On her first night in Rome, after receiving an injection of some unknown (but apparently powerful) depressant from a doctor worried about her growing restlessness, Anna decides to sneak out of her country’s embassy and wander the city streets. Her escape from this extravagant prison into the urban labyrinth of Rome is a parade of ravishing sights, shot in glittering black-and-white from a removed distance that emphasizes the small marvels of the world that surrounds her. The Italian architecture and scenery provide constant visual pleasures in the film, though the black-and-white cinematography—a necessity of the comparatively small budget (the film was originally supposed to be shot in Technicolor)—ensures that the landscapes won’t become overly extravagant, keeping our attention focused primarily on the characters.
Anna doesn’t last long on her intrepid journey: succumbing to a drug-induced stupor by sleeping on a park bench, she is eventually found by an American journalist named Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). Young, beautiful, seemingly drunk, Anna puts him in a compromising position; he initially tries to shuttle her away in a taxi, though she’s too incoherent to tell him where she lives. He begrudgingly sets her up on his sofa for the night, only to realize the following morning that she’s the beloved princess who had mysteriously gone missing in the early hours of the morning. Initially, with the help of his amiably obtuse photographer (Eddie Albert), Joe tries to milk the story for all it’s worth, seeing dollar signs in the story of a princess slumming it in the city; but it doesn’t take a romantic-comedy enthusiast to guess that they’ll soon fall in love, as he introduces her to non-diplomatic human relationships and she breaks down his cynical wall of armor.
The plot sounds trite, perhaps, especially given recent imitators like Notting Hill; but describing what happens in Roman Holiday does not do justice to its quiet tenderness, its sweetness, its curious fascination with simply observing humans in all their puzzling aloofness. The famous Mouth of Truth scene, in which Joe and Anna visit a stone carving that purportedly grants your deepest wish, is charming and buoyant, but there’s an underlying sadness: these characters know that their burgeoning desires, their growing infatuation with each other, could not possibly last. No mere pawns to be shuffled into a gratifying romantic union, they’re real people with enigmatic thoughts and secrets. Long periods of the film are spent in utter silence, with glances and gestures betraying untold passions; the film is more serene and unhurried than any modern Hollywood movie could get away with. In the centrality of its foreign location and its surprisingly melancholy conclusion, Roman Holiday has more in common with Lost in Translation (2003) than with the romantic-comedy offspring it influenced.
The opening titles of the film proudly inform us that Roman Holiday was entirely shot on location in Rome; even interior scenes were filmed in the city’s legendary Cinecittà Studios. Aside from a quest for realism, there were several reasons why the decision was made to shoot entirely overseas (at a time when much production still took place on Hollywood backlots): Paramount was eager to make use of financial assets frozen in Italy, and Wyler was equally eager to distance himself from the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had begun investigating the liberal director for possible ties to the Communist Party. (Indeed, the film’s screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, had been blacklisted for years; he wasn’t credited in the film’s original release, and the movie’s Oscar for Best Motion Picture Story was only posthumously extended to Trumbo in 1993.)
Whatever the reasons for Roman Holiday’s location shooting, it’s no exaggeration to claim that Rome is a prominent character alongside Princess Anna and Joe Bradley. Woody Allen could have taken lessons from this film (and its cinematographers, Henri Alekan and Frank Planer) in how to truly appreciate a foreign locale with Midnight in Paris or To Rome with Love. Wyler clearly is infatuated with Rome, though he doesn’t let the film dissolve into a mawkish travelogue. More than an exotic cast of extras, the Italian characters we meet—a loquacious barber and a nervous cabdriver among them—are respected as vivid, fully-lived personalities. Ultimately, the movie relates to Anna’s desire to live amongst the people, to experience a unique world firsthand; Roman Holiday, despite its moments of sadness and unfulfillment, sees life as a dizzying challenge worth experiencing.
In his subdued humanism and sociopolitical subtext, Wyler is clearly indebted to Italian neorealism—particularly in The Best Years of Our Lives, yet subtly here as well. At one point, Joe and Anna visit a street still scarred by the wounds of World War II, lined with handmade signs commemorating the dead and making vows for the future. Despite the allure of Rome and its rich history on display, there’s a darker undercurrent to this enthralling city—and Wyler can’t resist grounding Joe and Anna’s ecstatic romance in a recognizable, somewhat disheartening reality.
Like Brief Encounter (1945) or Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Roman Holiday is such a powerful romance because all is not well when the credits roll; in each of these cases, some mocking obstacle—the strictures of repressive society, human cruelty, or just merciless fate—undermines their love. But the end of Roman Holiday doesn’t carry with it the weight of tragedy or the pall of sadness; it remains a love story between two victims of circumstance, whose intimacy and respect for each other cannot be dissolved. We don’t doubt Princess Anna when she covertly tells Joe, amid a throng of attentive journalists, “I shall cherish my visit in memory as long as I live”—parting words that act as both a thank-you and a promise.