One of the more enchanting and effervescent romantic comedies to come out of any era, Roman Holiday (1954) is certainly an anomaly among films from the frantic 1950s, a decade remembered for its deadly serious dramas, oppressive crime stories, ponderous literary adaptations, epics and musical productions. No, Roman Holiday is something completely different, unique unto itself; one of those magical motion pictures in which every element combines to form an exquisite, uplifting entertainment that transcends time and still feels as fresh, surprising and spontaneous today as on the day it was released.
The surrounding paranoia of that time manages to taint the film’s timeless beauty with a single, silent act of omission among the opening credits, as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s name does not appear. Credit is instead given to his friend (and front) Ian McLellan Hunter, along with John Dighton, an injustice that persisted long after Hunter accepted the Academy Award for Best Story and which was not corrected until 1993, when the Academy finally recognized Trumbo’s achievement (he had passed away in 1976) and presented a duplicate Oscar to his wife Cleo.
The irony is a bitter one, as the screenplay for Roman Holiday is not only a masterpiece of organic storytelling that grabs hold of its audience by tapping subtly into a transgressive sense of escape and adventure, it also stands out for its moral stance, its refusal to compromise, and its insistence on taking the noble course of action regardless of the personal cost.
That’s not to say it isn’t funny, too. On the contrary, the movie’s moral core reveals itself – as does its romance – almost as an afterthought, while the bulk of time is spent on details of the secrets the main characters keep from one another, the playful way they talk around them, and the adventures they have in their exotic surroundings. Roman Holiday lives up to its name both in exploring the “Eternal City” itself and in spotlighting some of its more colorful inhabitants, from the barber to the flower merchant, the suspicious landlord enlisted as sentry to the mob of children who mount a mock charge against him. The atmosphere throughout is almost too good-natured, as when a foreign agent is reprimanded for demonstrably enjoying the music at an outdoor dance and responds by adopting a more appropriately fearsome demeanor.
This playful atmosphere is cultivated to perfection by director William Wyler, one of the giants of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Wyler’s career spanned the history of cinema itself, from the silent movies to the sixties, and includes such disparate classics as Wuthering Heights (1939), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Ben Hur (1959), and Funny Girl (1968). His storytelling skill is on glorious display in Roman Holiday, and from the mini-drama of the princess’s itchy foot at the film’s beginning to the long, silent shot at its end, we know, if only barely consciously, that we are in the hands of a master.
The most conspicuous hands that contribute to weave the spellbinding allure of Roman Holiday are its actors, of course, and they each rise to the occasion to deliver their finest work. Eddie Albert is a pleasure as Irving, the eager photographer and ladies’ man who comes along for the ride and possibly the scoop of the century. Gregory Peck is a marvel as the glib, self-assured journalist Joe Bradley, who can scarcely believe his luck in stumbling onto that story, and can barely speak when confronted with feelings he can’t quite comprehend. But the real star of the film is its luminous leading lady, Audrey Hepburn in her first full-length role. As Anya, the princess who manages to escape her cloistered existence for just one memorable day, Hepburn finds a perfect vehicle for her innate grace and style, her otherworldly, magnetic charm, and her childlike innocence. It is difficult to imagine any other actress jumping out of bed to get a glimpse of a local festival outside her window with the same spontaneity, or having that hidden drama of an itchy foot play across her features so delightfully. Her appeal is instant, her hold complete, her command total. From the first words she utters to Joe, in a sedative-induced stupor, to their heartbreaking echo in her final farewell to him, she inhabits her role marvelously and compellingly, imbuing even the most ordinary lines with the ever-startling strange emphasis of her unique voice. For her efforts she was awarded the Oscar for Best Actress, an auspicious debut indeed.
Perhaps what resonates so strongly today about the film is the underlying sense of honor that ultimately drives the story to its conclusion. All holidays end, but the sacrifices made in this case on both sides – haltingly and awkwardly on his part and so powerfully articulated on hers – ensure this holiday’s survival in memory as unimpeachable, in its own beautiful bubble, as eternal as the city in which it took place. Roman Holiday does not deliver the “happy ending;” it has the good sense to provide the perfect one.