Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953)
For a few weeks now I’ve been suffering with a fairly heavy cold, amongst other things, and a light, breezy classic was about as much as I could cope with this weeekend. Audrey Hepburn’s most famous role –Breakfast at Tiffany’s, of course- had her as a hillbilly pretending to be a socialite. It was a back-to-front variation on her breakthrough role, as here she’s a monarch pretending to be a truant from school.
It’s the stock fairytale, prince & pauper scenario that’s fuelled countless films. She walks through a market, sits at a cafe and other commonplace things that we all do every day. The magic comes from knowing it’s the only chance in her life she’ll get to do any of this. But this film about the joys of absconding is moralistic, and has a work ethic; being sated by a day off, Princess Ann returns to the palace, now ready to accept her lot in life.
Gregory Peck’s hack also goes on a journey of self-improvement. He hangs around “Anya”, hoping to sell the story, until his conscience gets the better of him and he realises he doesn’t have it in him to betray the sweet kid. Unlike Tiffany’s the film goes against our expectations and keeps the love unrequited, each going back to their world and their duties. It’s a dignified, neatly poised finish in the vein of Lost in Translation.
Historically, what makes this neat little comedy important (apart from AH bursting onto the screen) is the extent of location filming. It must be one of the earliest mainstream Hollywood films to get out of the big studio sets and into the city streets. The great cinematographer Henri Alekan shows Rome off at its most touristy and photogenic, but it’s a start. I recently wrote about Carol Reed’s The Man Between, filmed in the ruins of Berlin, and it looks like Rome had a considerably better war than the Jerries. That or Rome was rebuilt in a day. One can only envy the relative scarcity of traffic and/or overcrowding.
After aerial postcard views of Rome and a stirring, Respighi-esque orchestral score, we meet Hepburn’s princess in a newsreel showing her European tour. London, Amsterdam, Paris- her home country is not specified. We catch up with her in a plush ballroom full of footmen in gowns; Ann is shaking hands with an endless procession of Papal representatives, Indians, Hungarians &c.
In a mischievous, slightly Bunuelish touch, Wyler shows her bordeom by repeatedly cutting to close-ups of her feet under her gown; steeping out of their shoes, wiggling toes, scratching her leg. When her shoe falls over, all of her entourage is horrifed. The General helps her stand up, her enormous gown covering the errant shoe, and they waltz onto the dancefloor- the others following their lead. Now that’s breeding.
Ann dutifully dances with all sorts of pallid posh mannequins until it’s time for bed. “I hate my nightgowns. I’m not 200 years old”, she complains as her governess pulls her away from the window. The sounds of music and revellery drift up. The governess reads out Ann’s packed itinerary for the next day; factory visits and all that. Hepburn nibbles on a cracker (and nobody can eat a cracker quite like her), the tears welling up. Eventually she cracks, and screams as she pounds her fists into the mattress. The doctor is called out to give her a shot of morphine.
In bed, Ann contemplates the friezes of Venus in the four corners of her ceiling, then gets changed and sneaks out. From below, the camera shows her traversing the bannister around the edge of the ceiling; then from above, sneaking out of the palace and into the back of a goods truck. Euphoric music and clinking bottles as the truck exits the palace gates, giving a view of young couples on scooters, pavement diners, and Rome’s fountains. Hepburn is thrilled. This is real life!
Meanwhile, Joe Bradley (Peck) is bowing out of a late-night poker game with his American pals. Lots of smoking, loosened neckties. The morphine has hit Ann and Bradley finds her sleeping on a wall outside the Forum. Hepburn is quite feline, nonchalantly quoting Shelley in her sleep as Bradley tries to rouse her. She is, as ever, the vulnerable little girl that men want to take care of. Tough guy Bradley hails a taxi and gives the girl a slap.
“Where do you live?”
The taxi driver gives us a madcap cameo as both he and Bradley try to offload the sound-asleep girl onto each other (“I have bambino at home. You know bambino? Waah, waah”). When the cabbie mentions the police, Bradley decides to take the girl home as a last resort. Nowadays he’d probably be getting the lubricant out by this point, but this 1953 and Gregory Peck is a Gentleman. His place is a cramped, boho attic room; he demurs when the girl asks for help undressing and makes it clear that she’s on the couch, not the bed (maybe not such a Gentleman, then).
Bradley goes out for some air, allowing Ann a chance to sort herself out. When he returns she’s in bed and he tips her onto the couch. They wake to church bells at noon the next day, and Bradley is horrified- he was meant to be interviewing that princess at 11:45. After drinking coffee from the hands of a typist girl, he goes into his editor’s office and tries to bullshit him. What did the Princess think of European integration? “She said it would have two effects; the direct and the indirect.” The furious editor shows Bradley a newspaper annoucing the Princess’ illness and cancellation of her programme; Bradley realises he’s got the girl in his flat. How much would the editor pay for the most private and intimate thoughts of the Princess?
He has the concierge guard his door and his military drills are attracting kids by the time Bradley shows up. Gentle music as he studies the sleeping Hepburn and lifts her back into bed- the love story is being telegraphed. Half-awake, the Princess murmurs about the man in her dream; “He was strange, and so mean to me… it was wonderful” (she likes it rough). A glimpse of the ceiling, with a boiler instead of Botticelli, wakes her up. Ann realises where she is, how she’s spent the night, takes a few moments to soak up the realisation and consequences; then decides she likes it.
Bradley runs “Anya” a bath then calls his photographer Irving (a bearded Eddie Albert) from a payphone. Fun-loving Irving has a model at his place and protests that he’s “up to my ears in work”. Hepburn gets scolded in Italian by the cleaner and when she makes her excuses and leaves, the concierge spots Peck lending her some cash- he too seems to assume the worst. Peck follows from a distance as Hepburn enjoys herself passing scooters, cyclists and workmen in the streets.
Hepburn steps into a barber’s and has her long flowing tresses chopped off- she looks much better. The barber asks her to come dancing and she’s delighted that people fancy her; they’re seeing the girl and not the title. Buying a gelato, she enjoys her anonymity as much as the camera enjoys panning down the Spanish Steps. Meanwhile, at the Trevi fountain a primary school teacher catches Peck trying to mug one of her pupils for her camera.
Now seems an appropriate moment for Bradley to “bump into” Ann and suggest that they spend the day together. Ann says she’s playing truant and her father is in PR, Bradley says he’s a fertiliser salesman. I suppose they’re both telling the truth in their own ways. They meet Irving at a café and Peck’s face is priceless when Hepburn blithely orders champagne. As Ann smokes “her first cigarette”, Irving produces a hidden camera inside a lighter. They’ve struck gold. We cut to a plane from Ann’s homecountry, from which scores of Thomson Twin detectives emerge. “These men are supposed to be inconspicuous”, moans the general.
Peck and Hepburn ride through Rome on a scooter, he pointing out sights. Her spirits raised, Ann tries to ride off on the scooter herself and there follows a silent slapstick scene as she knocks over street painters, the police give chase, etc. We see the three in the station, gesticulating wildly and trying to mime their way out of trouble. Wagner’s bridal march blasts out as we deduce their story; we were trying to get to the church on time. They make a very gay threesome (in the old-fashioned sense), but it’s delicious to think that the two men are at present duping the Princess.
It’s during a slow dance, at a jazz concert by the Tiber, that Bradley begins to melt; Ann raises her head from his shoulder, gazes wide-eyed and whispers “Hello”. He looks distinctly awkward when she reflects on their day together and how “unselfish” he’s been. Irving is delighted when Ann dances with the barber from earlier, and makes sure he gets plenty of shots. The party is curtailed by a carful of the Thompson Twins detectives and a neatly-choreographed punch-up, where most of the goons end up in the river and Hepburn smashes a guitar over the head of one, beating The Clash and The Who by a good few years.
The two lovers are confirmed as such when they swim to the other shore and kiss. After the first snog they’re both terribly bashful, but it’s back to his place and Ann’s turn to have her conscience pricked. The news bulletin on the radio tells of her citizens’ grave concern at the mystery illness that has kept her from fulfilling her duties. Bradley drives her to round the corner from the palace, and they part amidst tears and kisses. He looks shaken.
At the palace, we see that this assertion of independence has turned the little girl into a woman. When her entourage attempt to give her a royal bollocking, Ann faces them down effortlessly; and she doesn’t want any crackers for supper either. Watching the sun come up in his bedsit, a preoccupied Bradley is visited by his editor. He’s decided that he has no story to tell. When Irving buts in, he is told to “go home and shave”.
The Princess’ appearance before the gentlemen of the press is rescheduled; Bradley and Irving are two of the many who filter through into a stupendous hall with vertiginously high ceilings and walls crammed solid with paintings. Questions from the floor are answered with impeccably impenetrable diplomat-spea, until Ann is asked which city was her favourite. “All of them… no, Rome”. At the end she steps down from the platform, announcing her wish to meet some journalists. The assembled hacks from Japan, France, Canada are touched by her gesture but we know her real motives. Irving sneaks her the many action photos that were meant for the exposé.
The final shots see the camera wobble a little, then pull back through this vast hall as Bradley -having waited for the hall to clear and wondered if the Princess might reappear- strides out, smiling. He turns back at the threshold, hesitates with a forlorn gaze and then walks out of the frame. He’s lost his love, but one senses that it’s been a wholly positive experience with no regrets. A love that is only for one night can never go stale or sour, but can instead be idealised for all time.