Roman Holiday (1953): Subtle Romantic Comedy, Starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Oscar-Winning Performance

With a script by Ian McLellan Hunter (fronting for the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo) and John Dighton, “Roman Holiday” is a charming fairytale, a romantic melodrama that benefits from on location shooting in Rome and star performances by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.

The young, then largely unknown in Hollywood Audrey Hepburn plays Princess Anne, a monarch of an unspecified European country. Bored with her busy schedule of ceremonies and tired of being watched all the time, Anne decided to experience the world firsthand-and by herself. But nor for too long. She quickly meets a captivating American Journalist (Peck) and his eccentric photographer (played by Eddie Albert).

The characters are a tad too familiar, a down-at-the-heels American newspaperman and down-on-the-world European princess, but there is good chemistry between the two stars, even if neither was the director’s first choice.  Wyler wanted Cary Grant for the journalist and Elizabeth Taylor or Jean Simmons for the princess.

William Wyler, a proficient director who lacks humor, might have been wrong for this assignment and he was criticized at the time for his heavy-handed and humorless approach. This project would have been perfect material for Ernst Lubitsch (who died in 1948), known for his light, sophisticated touch, and even Frank Capra, who was approached by the studio, but for some reason decided not to do the movie.

Good with the camera and with editing, Wyler makes the most of the location shooting. The movie helped put Rome, seen as a colorful backdrop, on the touristic map of many Americans, who were captivated by the sights. Other films, such as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” in 1954, also set in Rome, performed similar function.

As the critic Andrew Sarris pointed out, “Roman Holiday” has endures as a romantic classic of love and unrequited longing, because of the aching restraint, decency, and dignity of the lead actors Peck and Hepburn.  It’s built into the genre: All great love stories involve renunciation or rejection.

In an Oscar-nominated role, Eddie Albert, as Peck’s hustling photographer friend, provides broad but much needed comedy relief.

“Roman Holiday” was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, and won three, including Best Actress for the enchanting Hepburn (See Oscar Alert).

Detailed Plot: Structure

Ann (Hepburn), the princess of an unspecified country, is in the midst of a highly publicized tour.  While in Rome, she becomes frustrated with her rigid schedule and her doctor gives her a sedative to help her sleep, but she secretly leaves to experience Rome on her own.

The sedative eventually makes her fall asleep on a bench, found by Joe Bradley (Peck), an expatriate American reporter working for the Daily American. Not recognizing her, he offers her money so she can take a taxi home, but a very woozy “Anya Smith” (as she calls herself) refuses to cooperate. Joe decides to let her spend the night in his apartment. He is amused by her regal manner, but less so when she appropriates his bed. He transfers her to a couch.  The next morning, Joe, having already slept through the interview Ann was to give, hurries off to work, leaving her asleep.

When his editor, Mr. Hennessy (Hartley Power), reproaches him for being  late, Joe lies, claiming to attend a conference for the princess. Joe makes up details of the interview until Hennessy informs him that the event had been canceled due to the princess’ sudden illness.  When Joe sees her photo, he realizes who is in his apartment, and immediately seizes the opportunity of getting an exclusive interview for large amount of money. Hennessy, unaware of the situation, bets Joe $500 that he will fail.

Hiding that he is a reporter, Joe offers to show Anya around Rome. He calls his photographer friend, Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert), to secretly take pictures. However, Anya declines Joe’s offer and leaves.

Enjoying her freedom, Anya gets her hair cut short.  Joe follows her to the famous site of the Spanish Steps and convinces her to spend the day with him. Among the sights is the “Mouth of Truth,” a face carved in marble, said to bite off the hands of liars. When Joe pulls his hand out of the mouth, it appears to be missing–and Anya screams. He then pops his hand out of his sleeve and laughs.

Anya shares with Joe her dream of living a normal life, but that night, at a dance on a boat, government agents track her down, but Joe and Anya escape. Predictably, they fall in love, but Anya realizes that a real bond is impossible and after bidding farewell returns to the embassy.

Upon learning that the princess is missing, and not ill, Hennessy suspects that Joe knows where she is, but Joe denies it. Joe decides not to write the story, and Irving decides not to sell the photos out of friendship.

The next day, Princess Ann, meeting the press, is surprised to see Joe and Irving there. Irving takes her picture with the same miniature cigarette-lighter-camera he had used before. He then presents her with the photos he had taken, tucked in an envelope, as memento of her adventure. Joe signals that her secret is safe, and, in return, she places into her bland statements coded messages of love.  She then shakes formally Joe’s hand and departs.  The very last scene depicts a bewildered Joe, walking out of the embassy’s long and empty corridors, knowing that he would never see Ana again.