A girl leaps from the bed and runs to the window. Outside people dance in the warm Italian night as she watches, longing to join them. She may be a princess, but her royal duties bind her; her capacious and ornate room is a prison cell. We see a closeup of her face: her large, dark eyes are filled with sadness, hope and desire. Her dark hair cascades down her shoulders. She is not just a princess, she is a star. She is Audrey Hepburn.
In 1953, Roman Holiday introduced the world to this captivating young actress. Aged just 24, Hepburn’s charming, funny and enchanting performance won her an Oscar for Best Actress as well as critical and audience adoration – eclipsing even Hollywood royalty in the form of director William Wyler and co-star Gregory Peck. However, Roman Holiday’s journey to the screen bears a closer resemblance to the film’s bittersweet ending than to its fairytale romance.
The project originated in the hands of Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriting legend who was infamously blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for being a Communist sympathiser, and forbidden to work in Hollywood. As with many blacklisted writers, Trumbo’s work was developed under pseudonyms or by proxy thanks to other writers. With Roman Holiday, his initial treatment received some additional work from John Dighton (famed for his Ealing comedies) and Ian McLellan Hunter, the latter fronting for Trumbo and claiming the Oscar for Best Writing in his place. Such was the fear of the blacklist that Trumbo’s name did not feature in the film’s credits upon its release, but was finally added for the DVD release fifty years later, in 2003. However, Trumbo would see his name large in the credits for Spartacus in 1960, the film that broke the blacklist.
Some regard Roman Holiday as a remake of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), telling the tale of a princess who falls in love with an American reporter during an official visit to Rome. Ironically, Capra almost directed the film, but left after disagreements over the budget and filming style (although rumours abound that he discovered Trumbo’s involvement and feared the consequences of association). Capra’s estimated budget was $5 million, which included shooting in colour on immense studio sets. Paramount was not convinced, and when Capra walked William Wyler, the multi-Oscar-winning director, stepped in. His plan was radically different: saving money by shooting in black and white, his budget was $1 million, and he proposed filming on location in Rome – a city he said offered an “embarrassment of riches” for a filmmaker.
Paramount had additional incentives for conceding to Wyler’s approach; following the Anti-Trust laws of the late 1940s American studios could no longer own their own theatres and so monopolise production, distribution and exhibition of their films through a system known as ‘Vertical Integration’. Coupled to diminishing attendance figures in the post-war years – dropping from 82-4 million per week in 1942 to 49 million per week in 1951 – Europe became an important market for American films. Attendances there were steadily increasing, and distribution deals ensured that US money remained in Europe as an incentive for American studios to invest in making films there (cheaper labour was an additional draw). Paramount utilised these so-called ‘blocked funds’ in Italy to produce Roman Holiday, and Wyler’s location shooting appealed to Italian and European audiences as well as adding authenticity and exoticism for American moviegoers.
Alongside this European appeal, the film boasted one of America’s biggest stars in the handsome form of Gregory Peck who, famed for his tougher, dramatic roles, was interested in doing a comedy. For his co-star and love interest, Wyler hired a relative unknown: Audrey Hepburn. The descendant of Dutch aristocracy with a Dutch mother and Anglo-Irish father, Hepburn was born and raised in Belgium (though spent time in England and the Netherlands). During WWII she practiced ballet, using her performances to raise money for the Resistance before moving into modelling and acting, gaining small roles in British films. Her initial break came when acclaimed French novelist Collette discovered her in Monte Carlo and cast her in the Broadway adaptation of her novel, Gigi.
Hepburn delighted audiences worldwide, with the film receiving almost universal praise and claiming three Oscars for Hepburn, Trumbo and costume designer Edith Head (who would inspire Edna Mode in The Incredibles). However, by strange coincidence the film’s narrative mirrored a real-life romance between royalty and commoner that swept the globe in 1953, when Princess Margaret’s affair with Peter Townsend became public: a sad reminder that duty sometimes dominates desire.
While From Here To Eternity took the Best Picture Oscar that year, Roman Holiday was a worthy nominee; a showcase of Wyler’s adaptability as a director, his lightness of touch and – while some may complain the film is a tourists’-eye view, much like the European films of Woody Allen – his use of location shooting gives the film an unsurpassed authenticity, beauty and timelessness. The script, too, sparkles – but in the end it is the stars who steal the show. Peck excels yet lets Hepburn shine – then, a captivating revelation; now, an icon.
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