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With: Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert, Tullio Carminati
Written by: Dalton Trumbo
Directed by: William Wyler
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 118
Date: 08/27/1953

Roman Holiday (1953)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Princess Audrey

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

No one in movie history made a debut quite like Audrey Hepburn. She was barely detectable in movies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) before she got her big break in William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953) playing a princess on a goodwill tour. Her screen charm and presence were unequalled in history by all but a handful of movie stars. And in playing the role of a princess, she became one and won an Oscar for Best Actress.

The Academy rarely gives awards for debut performances and rarely to young people who have a hot career ahead of them. That's how solidly Audrey won over all of Hollywood. And when we watch the film today, nearly 50 years later, we're still won over. The princess role was perfect for Audrey. She was stunningly beautiful, a gamine with a long neck, huge almond-shaped eyes, appropriate lashes, and thick eyebrows that drew attention to the eyes. Her charming English accent (although she was born in Brussels) was the finishing touch -- no one in Hollywood sounded as good. She was noble and elegant. You wouldn't want to think about sex with her (sex with a princess is out of the question) but she was so charming you wanted to spend an afternoon cuddling her and listening to her speak. And thus Roman Holiday is her perfect picture.

But is it her best film? I would concede that it's a great place to start watching Audrey's films, but it's not quite a masterpiece. Let's start with the content, which is flawless. The story was credited to Ian McLellan Hunter but was really written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. (When the movie's story won an Oscar it was Hunter who picked it up.) The screenplay is by Hunter and John Dighton. Rumor has it there were more uncredited writers including Ben Hecht and some Italian screenwriters. But it all comes across as an old-time fairy tale.

Princess Audrey is tired of making appearances and giving speeches so she sneaks out to experience Rome. Newspaperman Gregory Peck and photographer Eddie Albert show her the town. Audrey tries to hide the fact that she's a princess and doesn't know that Peck and Albert are journalists. Peck and Albert know that she's a princess, but don't let on that they know. In a lesser Hollywood film (one starring David Spade or Adam Sandler), the whole long joke would be that no one is in on the charade and there would be lots of slapstick designed to conceal it. But since Trumbo and the others were smart enough to let everyone in on it, we can relax and enjoy.

But the trouble comes with respected and boring director William Wyler. Wyler was one of Hollywood's top helmers and he always turned in a quality product without any personal stamp or artistic invention. He didn't rock the boat and the suits liked him for that. When Wyler was behind the camera for serious Oscar contenders like Wuthering Heights (1939), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) or Ben-Hur (1959), he was fine. But for Roman Holiday, he was too stiff and uncaring. The movie needed a lighter touch from someone like Ernst Lubitsch (who was dead by then), George Cukor, or Howard Hawks. Think of how much fun Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from the same year was and you'd have an idea of how much better Roman Holiday could have been. Picture the scene in which Audrey rides a motor scooter for the first time and it gets away from her. Wyler's thuddingly distant approach to the scene makes it dull, when it could have been lively. It's as if he were more interested in photographing the real Roman locations than getting inside the characters.

In other scenes, though, Wyler was smart enough to simply let Audrey do her thing. In one scene early on, Audrey is fast asleep in Peck's arms and Peck must figure out what to do with her and where to put her in his small apartment. Wyler lets a simple wide shot record the actors' rhythms rather than trying to impose himself on the scene. At other times, the atmosphere of Rome actually enhances Audrey, as when she walks around Rome haphazardly spending what little money she has left on a haircut. Whatever else one can say about Wyler, he was smart with actors.

In the end, Roman Holiday succeeds because Audrey is the real "auteur" of the picture and not Wyler. Her presence is such that she inevitably takes over whatever movie she's in. When we think of Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) or Sabrina (1954), we don't think of them as Blake Edwards or Billy Wilder movies. They're Audrey Hepburn movies. As far as that goes, she's at her best in Roman Holiday and I still get immeasurable pleasure when I watch it.

For its 2002 DVD, Paramount has done a truly spectacular job restoring this beautiful film to an unbelievably crisp black-and-white luster, and have seamlessly installed the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to his rightful place in the opening credits. The disc comes with a documentary about legendary costume designer Edith Head and a featurette about the film's restoration.

In 2008 Paramount, re-released the film on a new two-disc edition for the studio's "Centennial Collection." It contains -- as far as I can tell -- the same transfer as the 2002 disc. The bonus disc comes with a half-hour documentary on Hepburn, a "remembrance" of Hepburn, a brief featurette on Rome, a brief featurette on Dalton Trumbo (rendered null by the new film Trumbo) and a featurette on the restoration of hte film. It also comes with a little 8-page booklet, with great photos. Sadly, two of the bonus features from the 2002 disc ("Remembering Roman Holiday" and "Edith Head: The Paramount Years") are not here.

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