Roman Holiday (1953) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
28Aug/100

Roman Holiday (1953)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Danny LIKEIt's a story older than Rome itself-- the bored princess dons a disguise and becomes a commoner for a day. Sometimes there's danger, sometimes there's laughter, and sometimes there's love.

Mind you, most princesses get a little better disguise than a haircut, but let's be honest, we don't want to watch Audrey Hepburn wearing an eye-patch for ninety minutes.

Roman Holiday is the film that introduced Hepburn to Hollywood. Selected by legendary director William Wyler to give his new film an air of untapped allure, Hepburn plays Princess Ann, royalty of an unnamed European nation. She is forced through ritual and routine, much to her consternation. Unable to keep her enthusiasm bottled up, she escapes into the Roman night only to find the influence of a sleeping pill she'd been fed soon leaves her more than a little goofy.

Hard lucked Joe Brady, played with a wry grin by Gregory Peck, is losing another game of poker to his fellow journalists. He's been working on getting the money to get out of Rome and back to America, but him and cash were always going in the wrong directions.

Leaving the game, he finds Ann next to a fountain, lazily drifting to sleep. Unable to leave the girl there with a clean conscious, Brady sets her up in his apartment for the evening. The next day, when Brady finds out who it is who's asleep in his bed, he sets out with a plan to catch the princess unguarded and earn a payday for an expose.

The day revolves around the two covering up their mutual pasts in an attempt to earn a chance to experience mutual innocence; she wants the real world experience, and he wants to get her getting that experience. That they fall in love in the course of the day is of little surprise to anyone but them.

Written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, Roman Holiday functions as many things: a fairy-tale, a travelogue, and a definition of responsibility, desire and real love.

Filmed around the city of Rome, the movie is a tribute and a time capsule of post-war Italy. All of the sights are here, from the fountains to the Colosseum. One of the first films shot on location, Wyler is freed from the studio, and as such turns in a movie with a hand-held feel that undoubtedly influence the Nouvelle Vogue movement in France a few short years later.

With Rome as the sensual backdrop, it's the actors that bring this film to life. Audrey Hepburn, who won the Oscar for her work here, is nothing less than luminous. Wyler takes the same smile that she'd casually dashed off in her British period and lingers on it, allowing Hepburn every frame she needed to get to that charming toothy grin. Her smile is one of innocence and exuberance, and such a simple but beautiful physical act that seeing her smile here is like seeing the very idea of a smile anew.

Her character is held in check by a bemused Gregory Peck, every moment her match and equal. Peck's acting style can be described as either aloof or stiff; he often gives off a feeling of not taking things seriously, and while that's been deadly in a few of his films, it works to his great benefit here. Any other actor would either focus on the nastier side of Brady, taking advantage of the princess, or the daffier side, losing all of the tension about the truth between the two characters.

And that tension is what holds the movie together. That both of them are liars and using the other is a hypocrisy relished by the film, most notably when we get to one of the film's more famous scenes. Brady and Ann discover the Mouth of Truth, an old Roman statue that, if you are a liar and you stick your hand in its mouth, you'll soon find yourself down a hand. Hepburn is too nervous to do it. Peck fakes losing it. They're both relieved and move on quickly, but the shot lingers on the Mouth.

It missed. This time.

I'd be remiss if I didn't sneak in a mention of Peck's henpecked photographer friend played by Eddie Albert as a man with the luck and the money that Peck can only envy. Albert has the comic timing and look of a pro, and reveals himself to be both a good friend and, in the movie at least, pretty great photographer.

There's another great sequence that also subtly undercuts the hidden truths between the two, and that's the couple's visit to the Wall of Wishes. The Wall is a place where people form around Rome leave placards of  hopes, looking for a shred of light in the darkness. It's not a coincidence that Ana and Brady end up here, a place of profound sadness and beauty that's a testament to mankind's resilience.

There's a beautiful shot of Hepburn here, maybe the only time in the film that she has her back to the camera, where she stares at the wall with an unseen awe. The reverence that the two share for this place of honest desires and needs only underscores how tangled their relationship really is.

It isn't until the last act that it untangles, and its too soon after the two discover their true feelings for one another. The restraint of the scenes showing the culmination of the romance that had been building for most of the film is lyrical and underscores the foregone conclusion that they both secretly know.

For all of its charm and humor, Roman Holiday is ultimately about two people whose responsibilities outweigh their feelings. It's about both of them growing up in a way. Brady discovers something more meaningful than money, and Ann discovers both true loyalty and friendship for the first time.

The ending to Roman Holiday gets me every time I've ever seen it, as the film climaxes with a quiet dignity that speaks volumes as to how the audience has come to care for the characters and how they've come to care for each other. Hepburn's speech about Rome and the final shot of Peck as he leaves are the moral of the story, told within hidden smiles and beaming eyes.

It's a movie with an impossible story told with impossible style and grace. Roman Holiday is about as perfect as a film can get.

Audrey Hepburn Sundays

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Posted by Danny

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