Roman Holiday (1953)
Here’s a truly wonderful movie starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. It was the first Hollywood film to be filmed and processed entirely in Italy. So when Audrey Hepburn surveys the Colosseum, she’s really surveying the Colosseum.
It was Hepburn’s first major role in an American film. The Belgian-born-future-legend had been in some British films and starred in Gigi on the London stage, but this was her big break.
The story was originally owned by Frank Capra, but Paramount bought it in 1949. Capra was still attached to the project, and he wanted to star Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor. It’s hard for me to imagine sultry, over-the-top-gorgeous Elizabeth Taylor as naive yet poised Princess Anne…
Eventually the movie made its way to William Wyler, who would direct Hepburn in How to Steal a Million thirteen years later. Wyler is a rather big deal, known for his use of deep focus and long takes, and for directing fabulous movies packed with award-winning performances.
Wyler directed The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Funny Girl (1968), Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Lion in Winter (1968), Ben-Hur (1959), Wuthering Heights (1939), Jezebel (1938), Dead End (1937), and many more. Roman Holiday is at the top of my list, as is this beautiful poster issued by TCM. More on Wyler later.
Gregory Peck was cast as Joe Bradley, the American reporter, before the role of Princess Anne had been filled. Wyler wanted an unknown to play the role. When Audrey Hepburn came in for her screen test, Wyler asked the cameraman to keep the camera running after Hepburn had finished the formal audition. He wanted to see how she was when she was more relaxed, when she wasn’t “acting.” Wyler was impressed with Hepburn’s natural charm and screen presence, and she got the part. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it.
The movie is sort of a reverse Cinderella story: there’s a young, beautiful, poised, dutiful, and responsible princess on a European Goodwill Tour who takes an unscheduled, unsanctioned day off and meets an American reporter in Rome. But wait, you say–she’s already a princess? When the story begins? But that’s not how princess stories go!
True, this story is not about Anne marrying Prince Charming. Instead, she starts the movie as the heir to the throne of an unnamed country, and she’s a very good princess who waves very well and wears prim and perfect clothes and makes prim and perfect speeches.
The movie begins with a faux-newsreel about Princess Anne’s tour across Europe, noting that she’s now in Rome staying at her country’s embassy where a reception is being held in her honor. We get to see the Princess in a glorious ball gown and tiara as she receives the bows and curtsies with dignity and poise.
Edith Head, Paramount’s costume guru, designed the costumes for this film and won an Oscar for her work.
Then, in a telling moment which is also the first hint of humanity the Princess has shown, she goes to sit on her throne but her handlers, a Countess and a General, signal that she must do a meet and greet first.
Beneath her gorgeous skirt and lace petticoat, Princess Anne attempts to find relief for her tired feet, unbeknownst to her honored guests.
This is the first sign that this movie is a comedy. Incidentally, it was the first comedy Wyler directed since 1935’s The Gay Deception, but he’s not the least bit rusty. Besides being a wonderful love story, Roman Holiday is really funny. Observe: she knocks her shoe over and can’t quite reach it without others noticing.
Then it’s time for her to sit, but she’s only got one shoe…
I love the look on the Countess’s face when she sees the shoe. Princess Anne just calmly pulls on her long glove, remaining poised even in the face of such a calamity.
(Don’t worry, the General asks the Princess to dance which gives her an excuse to stand and step back into her shoe. Though it does mean she has to dance with a series of old diplomats and non-hunks.) You can watch the scene here.
But one night in Rome she flips out, just a little, because she’s so tired and bored and stressed by her perfectly scheduled and managed life.
When the Princess appears in her gown and tiara, or one of her many stunning hats, she seems mature and dignified, but when she’s brushing her hair or eating milk and crackers in a long nightgown that she hates, as the Countess drones on about this appearance and that speech…Anne seems very young. And she’s tired of being very young, very wholesome, and very sweet. As she complains to the Countess:
The doctor is summoned, Anne is given a tranquilizer of some sort (the General faints when the doctor administers the shot–comedy!), and she eventually calms down.
In a sequence that will be repeated later on (this film is full of wonderful echoes, rhymes, and repetition with variation!), drugged-up Anne stares at the ceiling of her cavernous, elaborate bedroom.
She gets out of bed, runs to the window, and looks out on Rome and on a party happening across the street, lit with stringed bulbs.
Rome is too intoxicating for this woozy Princess to resist. So she changes out of her voluminous nightgown (she had earlier talked wistfully about pajamas!) and into a charming skirt and shirt combo with a neat necktie, sensible brown pumps, and white gloves.
And off she sneaks.
I love this shot of Anne in the mirrored reception hall where she had danced just hours earlier. (It’s a great example of deep focus and faux deep space using the mirrors to project Anne deep into the room. More on those techniques later.)
She sneaks into the back of a truck and is driven out the massive gates of the Embassy–success! She’s free! You can watch it here. She’s immediately dropped into real life and real people, as in this charming sequence with a scooter.
Gregory Peck, that’s who. And he’s handsome and charming and decent, and just so darn appealing. Swoon.
He assumes she’s drunk, and she doesn’t assume anything because by this point she’s completely loopy. It’s a good thing Joe is a good guy. But he’s not stupid. He’s just come from a card game where he made a production of putting his winnings (6,900 lire: “Not bad. Why, that’s 10 bucks” he said ruefully) in the breast pocket of his jacket. When Anne drunkenly sits up and leans against him he surreptitiously moves his cash out of his jacket and into his pants pocket on the side furthest from her. It’s adorable. You can watch it here.
He calls a cab to send her home, but when he asks where she lives, she just keeps saying “The Colosseum” before falling into a doze. Comedy!
So to Joe’s apartment they go. Don’t worry, he’s frightfully decent. In one of my favorite jokes of the whole movie, loopy Princess Anne doesn’t quite follow Joe up the stairs to his flat, and it takes him several moments to realize the mistake.
She gets Princess-y, too; asking Joe to help her undress (he unties her necktie, hands it to her, and says that’s as far as he’s going), and graciously tells him he may withdraw. She’s very excited when he gives her striped pajamas, though. She’s a lovely mix of refined Princess and completely sloshed goof. Again, it’s a good thing Joe is a good guy.
After this exchange he rather suddenly exits the apartment, and comes back later to find Anne asleep. Whew.
But the next morning Joe oversleeps and misses the Princess’s press conference that he was supposed to cover for his paper. He doesn’t yet realize that the young woman in his pajamas is that same Princess.
In the meantime, the Princess’s handlers discover that she is missing, and tell the world that she is ill so they can cancel her appearances and keep her disappearance a secret.
Joe doesn’t get this information, so when he hurries to his office and finds his angry boss, he lies. He says that of course he went to the press conference! His boss eggs him on into more lies about what the Princess was wearing and what she said before shoving a newspaper under his nose.
Well, Joe’s caught. But he hardly cares once he sees the picture of the Princess (it’s a little odd that he had never seen a picture of her before this morning, though.)
He realizes that the woman in his apartment is Princess Anne, and his reporter-mind begins to whir.
And his boss replies, tellingly, “Plain talk on world officials…$250? Her views on clothes, of course, would be worth a lot more, maybe $1,000.”
How little the world changes! Who cares what Kate Middleton says, but everyone cares what she wears! If this exchange was today, though, it might go something more like this: “Her views on clothes…$10,000? A topless photo, of course, would be worth a lot more, maybe $1,000,000.”
Anyway, Joe promises his boss he can get an exclusive interview and dashes back to his apartment. Princess Anne is still there, sleeping. In an echo of the gazing-at-the-ceiling scene in the Embassy, we again get Anne, in bed, staring at the ceiling.
And off we go. She’s startled but he puts her at ease. She tells him her name is Anya, she thanks him for his help, and then she’s off to return to the Embassy.
She wanders off on the streets of Rome with Joe following behind. He’s determined to get that exclusive! He calls his photographer friend Irving (Eddie Albert) and promises him big bucks if he can get some photos to accompany Joe’s story.
Meanwhile, Anne walks past a hair salon and looks disconsolately at her long, childish locks.
So in she goes, where she tells the buoyant barber to cut it off. And she’s not even on drugs anymore!
They both hate his first attempt, but his final effort is a real winner. Hepburn’s hair undergoes a similar transformation in Sabrina (1954) when she comes back from Paris sans her ponytail. I guess once her hair is short it’s a signal that she’s suddenly mature, chic, and sophisticated.
Hepburn’s crazy-slender figure and short, chic haircut were instantly popular. Hepburn’s look is quite unique–remember, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell came out the same year as this film.
Joe watches newly shorn Anne walk by a flower vendor, who gives her a bouquet. Her Princess training takes over; Anne nods kindly, thanks him, and gravely shakes his hand before turning away. The florist grabs her, demanding payment for the flowers. Comedy!
She buys gelato and sits on the Spanish steps, where Joe “coincidentally” passes by. They chat and she says she’d love to spend a whole day doing exactly what she wanted. Joe offers to make her wish come true (with only a huge ulterior motive beneath his kindness.)
I love how Edith Head subtly alters Hepburn’s main, deceptively plain outfit. She wears this shirt and skirt for most of the movie, but it’s not boring because she’s constantly changing things.
For example, she puts the stiff necktie away. The prim white gloves vanish. She buys sandals to replace her sturdy brown pumps. She unbuttons her collar and does some poppin’. She rolls up her long sleeves to make short ones. And she adds a jaunty striped scarf tied in a knot around her neck. No one does casual chic quite like Audrey Hepburn.
Anne’s first wish was to sit at a cafe, so Joe takes her to one where they are soon joined by Irving. Irving is just funny. Look at this photo shoot he arranged in his apartment:
Once Irving joins Joe and Anne at the cafe, we begin one of the running gags of the movie. One of the first things Irving says is that Anya is a “ringer” for Princess Anne, though he doesn’t get past the word “ringer” because Joe kicks him under the table. Then he starts to tell Anya that Joe is a reporter and he is a photographer, but he doesn’t get that out either because Joe spills his drink on him and knocks his chair over. Poor Irving gets beat up because he keeps saying the wrong thing. Comedy!
Joe finally pulls him aside and explains the situation. The two sneaky, but fundamentally decent men concoct a plan. Joe will make all of Anne’s wishes come true, and Irving will photograph it all with his handy cigarette lighter camera. The first photo? The Princess’s first cigarette.
They go all around Rome seeing the sights. You can watch it here.
They go to the Mouth of Truth, where legend says that if a liar places his hand in the mouth, his hand will be bitten off. Anne almost does it, but gets too creeped out. Then Joe does it, and pretends that his hand is bitten off!
It’s an amazing day. I’m super jealous.
That evening they head to the barges for some dancing (remember the stringed lights and the party Anne saw from her window? She dances with the barber, but mainly she dances with Joe. Swoon.
Irving gets some photos:
But the Secret Service from Anne’s country are scouring Rome for her, and they find her at the dance. And almost drag her away! But don’t worry, Joe saves her.
With some help from Irving and the barber. Irving gets some good photos when he’s not brawling.
And things get really romantic.
Before we all start crying, here’s a nice behind the scenes photo of Hepburn being watered. She and Joe end up in the river, you see.
But Anne’s a princess! They know it can’t work. Peck and Hepburn do awkward love really, really well.
And they do heartbreaking embraces well, too.
Joe drives her to the Embassy (though she just tells him to stop at the corner, because she still doesn’t know that he knows who she is.)
And then there are more heartbreaking embraces, and anguished looks at the Embassy gates. Tears. Every. Time.
Back in their respective homes, they both stare out the window. Sigh. She’s not in her childish nightgown anymore, though, the one she wore the first time she stared out that window…
The next morning Irving brings the photos by to show Joe. But Joe has changed his mind about publishing his exclusive. Irving protests: “She’s fair game, Joe! It’s always open season on princesses!”
But Joe refuses. He and Irving go to the Princess’s re-scheduled press conference. I think Joe just has to see Anne again.
She walks out, dressed once again in gorgeous finery. She looks out on the ladies and gentlemen of the press. Then she sees him:
Goosebumps. She doesn’t know if he’s planning to sell their day together, she’s wondering if it was all for the story…She keeps her composure for the most part, and arranges to meet some of the members of the press as a way to get close to him. When she “meets” Joe and Irving, they hand her the photos and thus show her that they will not sell them. It’s lovely.
She’s asked which city in the Goodwill Tour was her favorites, and she starts to say her rehearsed answer about “Each, in its own way, was memorable…” but stops and looks at Joe and says:
It’s wonderful. As is their parting.
And Joe’s long, solitary walk away.
With just one look back.
Before we all blubber too much, here’s a photo of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn playing cards on the set. They aren’t really Anne and Joe, remember. Though it’s hard to, in this movie.
When filming began, Gregory Peck had sole star billing, but as production went on and he saw how wonderful Hepburn was as Princess Anne, Peck told Wyler that Hepburn should get star billing, too. And she did.
She went on to win the Best Actress Oscar for this movie, Edith Head won for Best Costumes, and Ian Hunter won for Best Writing (Story). The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Supporting Actor (Eddie Albert), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Art Direction.
As I mentioned, Hunter won the Oscar for the story, but Hunter did not write the story–it was actually the work of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.
Trumbo was a member of the Hollywood Ten, so he couldn’t get work in Hollywood. So Hunter fronted for Trumbo, and eventually Trumbo was officially recognized by the Writers Guild for his work on Roman Holiday, and the Oscar was restored to him, albeit posthumously.
I promised more Wyler, so here we go. That’s Wyler on the set with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
Wyler was known as “40-Take Wyler” after he made Henry Fond repeat a scene in Jezebel forty times. Wyler’s only direction to Fonda was “Again.” This was not unusual; Wyler would shoot a scene many, many, many times in order to get it just the way he wanted it. But it seems to have worked…
He won three Best Director Oscars, and was nominated a staggering twelve times. Thirteen of his movies were nominated for Best Picture, including Roman Holiday, and three won (Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Ben-Hur). He also has the distinction of directing more Academy Award nominated performances than any other director: 36 of his actors were nominated and fourteen won. Some actors got frustrated working with “40-Take Wyler,” but their frustration probably lessened once award season came around.
So that’s the “fabulous movies” and “award-winning performances” out of the way. Let’s tackle deep focus now. Deep focus is when you have large depth of field, which means that foreground, middle ground, and background are all in focus.
You can see in the screenshot of Princess Anne walking towards the camera that the people in the foreground are in focus (clear and sharp), as are in the people in the mid ground, the chandeliers, Audrey Hepburn and the back wall of the room. It’s not perfect deep focus, but perfect deep focus is very difficult to achieve.
You’ll usually hear about Orson Welles and Citizen Kane when you hear about deep focus, but some of the most celebrated, virtuosic deep focus shots in that movie were created using trick photography. Deep focus requires a lot of light and an extremely skilled cinematographer, with sets, blocking, and art design all geared to that technique.
With deep focus often comes deep space or depth staging, which is when sets and movement stretch to and away from the camera into the distance to take advantage of the deep focus cinematography. You can see depth staging here in how Wyler has arranged the guests to form lines leading away from the camera with Princess Anne moving along the camera axis. He could have filmed the Princess from the side so that she moved horizontally, but instead Wyler went with depth staging. Here’s another nice instance of depth staging with Joe walking away from the camera:
Compare the deep focus+depth staging shot of Anne going down the reception line with this shot–see how the background is fuzzy? That’s shallow focus, when only one plane is sharp and clear.
In some circles, deep focus is considered to be the height of cinematic art, so directors and movies that use that technique are granted special status. Deep focus is supposed to be more realistic, more complex, more beautiful. My classmates and I spent a semester trying to trace the development of deep focus cinematography from its earliest days to its high point in the 1940s. The more you know.
Now for long takes. That’s easy–it just means the shots go on for longer than normal. So a conversation might be filmed all in one take, without a cut, instead of jumping from one angle to another. Think of the crazy-fast editing in a Jason Bourne fight sequence where shots are flying around like confetti; long takes are the opposite of that. Often deep focus goes with long takes, and Wyler was a master at both.
It’s a wonderful, beautiful movie. Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, Rome, Vespas, tiaras, William Wyler? Can’t be beat.