I far less often rewatch movies as I do search out new ones, but I’m starting to realize that when I do revisit an old favorite, it tends to be much better than I remembered. So goes Roman Holiday for me. Who could count how often I watched it when at the start of my Audrey Hepburn obsession, yet it had been a few years since I’d reunited with the actress’ first starring role.
Roman Holiday is sort of the full package in cinematic storytelling. It is adventurous, innocent, cleverly humorous and throws in a bit of romance and heartbreak for good measure. In truth, who would not want to live Princess Anne’s adventures through an exciting foreign city with a handsome stranger?
Hepburn is this princess who stops in Italy as part of a goodwill tour of Europe. We learn from the opening scene where she greets and endless line of diplomats while dressed in a white ball gown complete with regal medals that she is not so different from any other young woman. Standing for what feels like hours, Anne pulls her foot out of her shoe to give it a break only to fail to get it back into the high heel. When Anne finally sits, the shoe is left lying in front of her while she maintains her poise.
That night, Anne suffers a nervous breakdown after comparing the fun-loving Italians partying on the street beyond her window to the meticulously scheduled day ahead where she again must let her royal persona supersede her natural behaviors. A doctor is summoned to sedate the princess, but as soon as her caretakers leave the room, Anne sneaks out of the Colosseum and onto the Roman streets.
Once the sedative catches up to her, Anne reclines on a street bench, which is where foreign correspondent Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) finds her. He has no idea who she is but realizes quickly she is well read. Not wanting her to be arrested, he tries to arrange a cab ride home but instead is stuck hosting the young woman in his apartment where the innocent sexual tension begins.
The next morning, Joe heads to work after missing an appointment to interview Princess Anne, not knowing the press conference was cancelled because of her highness’ “illness”. When he spots a photo of the princess in the paper, he realizes she is asleep in his room. Arranging with his editor to score a hefty bonus for an exclusive interview, Joe dashes home to ensure he keeps the young woman with him.
Anne, who has introduced herself as Anya Smith, wakes with all the surprise and reservation a princess should when finding herself in a strange bed and in men’s pajamas. She departs Joe after borrowing money and the man lets her go, but ensures he runs into her later. The two then start a day full of exploration and adventure that is joined by Joe’s photographer friend Irving (Eddie Albert), who discreetly snaps photos using a cigarette lighter camera.
The adventures culminate in dancing by the river where royal secret service spot the young woman. The ensuing calamity results in a brawl and Anne hitting one of her pursuers over the head with a guitar. When Joe falls in the water, Anne dives in as well and the two swim to the opposite bank where they share an unexpected kiss. Both are in love, but both know Anne’s duty to her country will outweigh any feelings the two have. She returns to the Colosseum and her caretakers a new woman, more mature but more in control of her movements than ever before. The princess’ meeting with the press is rescheduled for the next day where she discovers Joe and Irving’s true identities and realizes they knew her’s all along.
Perhaps the most emotional scene in Roman Holiday is this last one. Anne is still reeling from her romance and in any other setting would have run into Joe’s arms upon the joy of seeing him again. Instead, she must maintain the deliberate and restrained facade any princess must and takes questions without allowing her gaze to be fixed on her love. Breaking protocol, however, Anne announces she will meet a few members of the press and walks down the row of men and women shaking hands and offering calm greetings. She deliberately starts at the end opposite Joe and Irving so as to linger with them last. We are privy to all that passes between the couple during their slow handshake through the shots of their faces that to all else look perfectly normal. We can feel the tension and how difficult it must be for both parties to keep from embracing one another.
Hepburn was perfectly cast as Anne, although her perpetually youthful look creates some question as to the age difference between the princess and the reporter. The young actress, however, naturally had the poise, accent and upbringing that easily painted her as royalty (her mother being an actual baroness). Her performance brings all the spontaneity we would want to see in a sheltered young woman living life on her own for the first time. The well-written dialogue rolls well off Hepburn’s tongue, such as in her sedated state when she instructs Joe to help her undress for bed.
Peck, too, fills the role aptly. He lets the awkwardness of the original meeting with Anne play comically without having to be a funny actor himself. He also makes clear to us from the outset that Joe is not the sort of man who is really looking to exploit a girl for his own profit, so we can relax and know nothing sinister will befall Anne.
William Wyler directs this high comedy. The master was given two options by the studio for shooting. He could either film it in color on a soundstage or in black and white on location. We can all be assured he made the correct choice. Rome itself becomes another character to the story as we experience some of her most famous sites and culture. The Italian extras also add another level of realism as they patter off half their dialogue in their native tongue.