- Rated NR
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
elieve it or not, there was a time when Hollywood was able to fashion love stories that even hardnosed male audiences could tolerate (or, if you could get them to admit it, actually love). Still, not many of these were as successful at combining some fairly broad comedy with bittersweet hearts and flowers as the adult fairytale that introduced Audrey Hepburn to an adoring world.
“Roman Holiday” brings us the 24-year-old Miss Hepburn as Princess Ann, the future queen of a nameless European country. Visiting Rome as part of a continental tour, the young woman is frustrated to the point of depression by her grinding schedule of state visits and diplomatic functions. Desperate, she escapes her lavish quarters while still under the influence of a potent sleeping drug. She is soon found, apparently dead drunk, by struggling journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) who, rather than leave her to the mercies of the Roman street, brings the incoherent beauty to his apartment to sleep it off. When Bradley figures out that his reluctant act of gallantry has put a hugely lucrative news story right in the palm of his hand, he decides to help the lonely princess get the day of pure fun she so desires – while documenting the gossip story of the decade with the help of his photographer buddy, Irving (Eddie Albert). Naturally, true romance will throw a plus-size monkey wrench into his cynical plans.
Though it’s jokes and pratfalls are less than hilarious, and the story of a royal in love with a commoner had been a popular plot contrivance long before 1953, “Roman Holiday” is more than redeemed by a strong core of clear-eyed emotional realism. Written by one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters, the then-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (“Spartacus,” “Johnny Got His Gun”), and directed by the great but perpetually underrated William Wyler (“The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Ben Hur”), “Roman Holiday” fits both talents because, for a sweet little comedic love story, it’s relatively dark stuff. Among other issues, we are reminded that Princess Ann’s little escapade could have serious consequences for her nation, and Joe the journalist’s plan is downright vicious, if you care to think about it.
Nevertheless, the love that blooms is never in doubt, and for that about 70 percent of the credit must go to the two leads. This is mostly a two-character piece. While he gives one of his most likable performances here, even Gregory Peck acknowledged that Audrey Hepburn -- the onetime dancer who had never taken a single acting class before starting her career on Broadway -- completely owned “Roman Holiday.” Watching her work in this film, there’s no question why she became a major star and won an Oscar with her first movie performance. She exhibits a heartbreaking but thoughtful vulnerability and a lively but low-key comic chemistry with her stolid-but-charismatic costar that actors vastly more experienced couldn’t begin to touch. It probably didn’t hurt that she was descended from severely impoverished Dutch aristocracy.
“Roman Holiday” also netted an additional Oscar for costume design and for its screenplay, though Dalton Trumbo was unable to collect it. (His “front” got it instead.) Among the first major Hollywood films to be shot entirely on a foreign location, “Roman Holiday” was actually nominated for 10 Oscars in total, and it’s a fine example of classic Hollywood picture making, particularly regarding the visuals. With the help of two world-class cinematographers, France’s great Henri Alekan and Hollywood’s Austrian-born Franz Planer, director William Wyler delivers some of the most stunning black and white visions of Rome ever put on film. Considering how many eye-filling extravaganzas have been set in the eternal city, that’s really saying something. Like “Roman Holiday” as a whole, it’s something to behold.
Centennial Collection DVD Review:
This double-disc repackaging of the beautiful 2002 restoration includes a second disc with a number of new short-subject documentaries along with some older features, a nerd-friendly look at the restoration, and two lengthy commercials for the Paramount catalogue best left unviewed. Fortunately, there’s more than enough good stuff to compensate. The longest of the short subjects is “Audrey Hepburn: The Paramount Years,” a flowery but informative documentary recounting the actress’s career as one of the last of the old-style, contract movie stars. It’s followed by the far more somber “Remembering Audrey,” which discusses the great actress’s humanitarian battle against hunger through her work with UNICEF. (Ms. Hepburn’s famed figure was obtained at great cost, due to malnutrition she suffered as a child in Nazi-controlled Holland.) “Rome with a Princess” is a sort of historical travelogue. “Dalton Trumbo: From A-List to Blacklist” is refreshingly frank in its discussion of the gifted extreme-leftist writer’s battles on behalf of the spirit of the First Amendment. It makes the important point that while Trumbo might have been an actual Communist Party ideologue in his private life, there was about zero evidence of the thoughts of either Marx or Lenin in his movies. If there are any politics at all on view in “Roman Holiday,” they are pro-monarchist.