The rigours of being a Princess. Image: Faintly Familiar

Spoiler Alert: This review of Roman Holiday (1953) is rife with spoilers and reveals the ending.

Roman Holiday was Audrey Hepburn’s first starring role in a feature film. She plays a princess on a dull European tour, where one of her stops, naturally, is the Eternal City.

The tour schedule is packed full of Obligations: meetings, receptions, and more meetings. Hepburn’s character dutifully and politely attends these events, but something inside of her Snaps whilst in Rome. She is a young woman, after all, and the pressures of travel and duty overwhelm her.

One night, after a ball/reception, Hepburn has an epic temper tantrum in her quarters. Her handlers manage to inject her with a sedative, but as soon as they leave her bedroom, she runs away and becomes an ordinary tourist for 24 glorious hours.

Roman Holiday also stars Gregory Peck and Eddie Albert, who play American journalists. Peck finds the groggy Hepburn just after her escape, and he takes her to his apartment to Sleep It Off, only to discover she’s a princess who has vanished and is the subject of a manhunt.

In the meantime, here’s what Hepburn does on her Day Off:

  • gets a haircut
  • eats ice cream
  • drinks champagne
  • sees the Sights

Why shouldn’t she? With a sleek new haircut and non-princess clothing, she’s just another young woman in Rome.

Except that Peck and Albert spend the day Egging Her On. They take notes and secretly photograph her because they plan to sell the story to a news outlet for $5,000 US (approx. $55,000 today).

In a way, you can’t blame them. It’s not every day a Princess-on-the-Lam story falls in your lap.

On the real Spanish Steps eating real ice cream. Image: UMas Boston

Roman Holiday feels like something of a hybrid. It has the familiar Hollywood trope of Character #1 deceiving Character #2, then falling in love.

But it also has the black-and-white somewhat gritty look of Italian Neo-Realism, which became popular after WWII. The street scenes feel natural, a slice-of-everyday Roman life. The lack of studio polish lends an air of unpredictability; anything can happen here.

Director William Wyler is clever with his camera. Look at the scene on the Spanish Steps (above). The camera is positioned to make us feel like we’re part of the crowds, watching two beautiful people enjoy the day and each other.

Then there are the ways the camera itself tells the story – gives it away, even. It does so subtly, but the effect resembles that of a sledgehammer.

It’s the final scene to which we refer, when Hepburn returns to her duties as a princess after her 24 hours of mayhem. She holds a press conference where her character gives vague answers to reporters’ questions. Peck and Albert are in attendance; she sees them and is glad; hope of a relationship beams from Peck’s face.

We wonder: Will Hepburn give up her royal duties to stay with Peck?

Hepburn is charming in this scene, in the way she is charming throughout the film. She publicly expresses gratitude for her time in Rome, and says she will treasure her visit always.

The press conference concludes. Hepburn and her entourage exit state left, the journalists exit stage right. Peck lingers, briefly, in case Hepburn reappears.

She doesn’t.

He turns to leave and walks down the long stateroom. The camera has positioned him to the right of the screen, leaving room for Hepburn to reappear from the left to sprint after him.

She doesn’t do that, either.

Then. The camera moves slightly, placing Peck in centre frame, and by that subtle shift, we Know. Hepburn, despite her feelings for Peck, is returning to her life of public service, while he ventures out of the stateroom, a life without Hepburn stretched out before him.

It’s done gently and with great care, this crashing of Peck’s hopes on that marble stateroom floor.

Director William Wyler on set with Hepburn. Image: BFI

Wyler and his wife were already living in Rome before production started on Roman Holiday. Wyler had the script that Frank Capra passed on due to budget restraints.

Wyler was eager to shoot the film on the city’s streets, but Paramount was reluctant. They wanted a second unit to film exteriors and shoot the rest on a soundstage. Wyler refused: No studio-built sets could replace actual Roman sights, or the atmosphere that goes with them.

Paramount conceded, but there were conditions. The budget was set at a million dollars, which made it necessary to shoot in black and white, and the Italian government had to approve the script. The government “wanted assurances that the picture would not ridicule public officials and would not satirize the culture.”¹

Wyler loved shooting in Rome. “Filming in Rome in those days was marvellous,” he said. “There were practically no automobiles, only Vespas. For every scene I could have had six locations, and each one was better than the other.”2

Roman Holiday was nominated for 10 Oscars and won three, including Best Actress for Hepburn. Wyler was nominated for Best Director, but lost to Fred Zinneman (From Here to Eternity).

This film is often on movie lovers’ lists of Top Ten romantic films, and deservedly so. It’s an enchanting film that never feels contrived.

If you’ve yet to see Roman Holiday, we urge you to do so. We’ve spoiled the ending for you, yes, but there’s still lots to enjoy in Audrey Hepburn’s day off.

Roman Holiday: starring Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert. Directed by William Wyler. Written by Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton (and Dalton Trumbo). Paramount Pictures, 1953, B&W, 118 mins.


¹Jan Herman. (1995) A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, p. 342.
2Ibid, p. 347.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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