“I’d like to do just whatever I like — the whole day long.”
The script for Roman Holiday was not new. It had actually been purchased by Paramount in 1949 as a possible film for Frank Capra, who was at that time working on the Paramount lot. Capra’s first choices for the lead roles were Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant. Several concerns arose, however. The screenplay was viewed as being partly based on British Princess Margaret’s romantic involvements when on a trip to Italy, and Capra was concerned that the British government might object to the film. A bigger problem turned out to be Paramount itself. In March 1950, the company informed Capra that the film would have to be made in Hollywood with no location shooting at all and further, would be subject to a budget of about $1.6 million. Capra let his interest in the property lapse as a result.
Paramount eventually offered it to director William Wyler, who was then riding high with his most recent success — Detective Story. That clout enabled Wyler to extract most of his own terms from Paramount, the main one being that the film be entirely filmed in Rome. Paramount reluctantly agreed but only after Wyler agreed to restrict his budget to about $1 million in blocked funds that the company had in Italy. One of the results of this was Wyler’s decision to make the film in black and white, although the use of colour had been one of his reasons for wanting to film in Rome in the first place. Filming was carried out in the summer of 1952, and with pre- and post-production activities all done at Rome’s Cinecitta studios, Roman Holiday became the first American film to have been made in its entirety in Italy.
The film was a critical and box office success, eventually receiving ten Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. It lost to From Here To Eternity. Paramount has now released the film on DVD after a two-year restoration process.
Princess Ann (of an unidentified European country) is becoming exhausted and bored when she finally comes to Rome, the latest destination in a lengthy round of state visits. At the end of a particularly grueling day, after ostensibly going to bed, she manages to slip out of the palace where she is staying in order to sample the delights of Rome on her own. She encounters Joe Bradley, an American reporter who is at first unaware of who she is. When he recognizes her from a picture, Joe realizes that he has a perfect opportunity to write an exclusive story about her experiences in the city. Feigning ignorance of her true identity, he manages to convince her to let him be her guide for a tour of Rome’s special places. Everything seems to be going according to plan, except that Joe and Ann start to fall in love.
They call Rome the Eternal City. It’s a quality that has managed to rub off somewhat on Roman Holiday, for the film seems timeless, remaining fresh almost 50 years after it first appeared. A simple yet endearing love story; the open appeal of a young Audrey Hepburn with her character’s infectious zest for life; the chemistry between her and Gregory Peck; the warmth evident in William Wyler’s location shooting — all combined to make the film irresistible.
One of the reasons Wyler was anxious to film in Europe was the activity of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that threatened to embroil Wyler in its web because of his liberal stance during the previous two decades. Ironic then was the fact that Roman Holiday‘s original script was actually written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten who had refused to name names for HUAC. The script was actually submitted by Ian McLellan Hunter as his own in order to make some money for Trumbo. Trumbo is now properly credited in the film’s credits on the new DVD. The final script, incorporating some new scenes and lines written by British writer John Dighton, is actually a slight tale indeed. Its great strength is its unaffected, economical dialogue, which allows the film’s true star — Rome itself — to shine as strongly as the two acting leads, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn.
Roman Holiday was, of course, Audrey Hepburn’s big break. Although she had appeared in a few British films and on the stage previously, her role as Princess Ann was her first of any consequence as well as being her first starring one. A famous screen test of her conducted by British director Thorold Dickinson at Wyler’s behest had clinched the deal. Once cast, Hepburn seized the picture as her own with a winning combination of elegance, charm, youthful exuberance, and a winsome smile. So engaging was she that she overshadowed the male lead, Gregory Peck. Peck had impeccable acting credentials and an impressive list of credits under his belt, which probably made him secure enough that he wasn’t afraid that Hepburn was stealing the picture. Peck’s generosity in this regard allowed Hepburn to shine when the two were on screen together. The two seem completely in harmony in their portrayals despite the differing levels of experience they brought to the film. Most delightful is the “Mouth of Truth” sequence in which Peck’s character, Joe, pretends to have his hand bitten off, to which Hepburn reacts with first surprise, then shock, and finally laughter. Hepburn would later win the Best Actress Academy Award for her work in the film.
Worth mentioning also is the often underappreciated Eddie Albert, who plays Joe Bradley’s cameraman pal, Irving. Many of the film’s funny moments revolve around Irving’s failing to grasp a particular situation, which Joe must then cover up by spilling some water, or wine, or coffee, or whatever on Irving. Eddie Albert is now 94 and one of the few remaining stars from the Hollywood Golden Age. Only in the past half dozen years has he not been active in movies and television.
Paramount has undertaken a costly and extensive restoration of Roman Holiday that involved a complete digital clean-up by Lowry Digital Images, and the results are impressive indeed. Along with its similar effort on Sunset Boulevard, in Roman Holiday Paramount has added two more titles to the short list of the best-looking classic titles on DVD. The full frame image (in accord with the original aspect ratio) is clean and crystal clear with a remarkable gray scale that yields excellent shadow detail. There is a smooth film-like nature to the picture with no evidence of edge effects whatsoever. The issue of removing natural film grain as does happen with the Lowry process may be a concern for some, but anyone who would quibble with the overall results that have been achieved has little to do with their time. Very high marks to Paramount for this effort.
The audio does not live up to quite the same high standard. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is quite adequate for the task with dialogue being clear and free of distortion. There is, however, noticeable hiss if one’s volume is set on the high side. A French mono track is included as are English subtitles.
A nice supplement package indeed begins with a new 25-minute documentary on the making of the film, called “Remembering Roman Holiday.” New interviews with Catherine Wyler (William Wyler’s daughter), Eddie Albert and his son Edward, and Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, along with archival interviews with Gregory Peck, are blended with production photographs and film clips to provide a nicely-rounded profile of the original production experience. A short featurette then documents the restoration process. It features Paramount and Lowry personnel and reveals that the methodology used is of a sufficiently high enough digital resolution that 35mm prints for theatrical projection can be created from the new digital masters. “Edith Head — The Paramount Years” is a new 14-minute featurette whose title pretty well says it all. It’s a very brief resume of Edith’s lengthy career at Paramount that touches mainly on several of her 1950s films, including Roman Holiday. Hollywood historian David Chierichetti is the main interviewee. The package concludes with a gallery of 102 photos and three different trailers for the film (teaser, theatrical release, theatrical re-release).
Roman Holiday is one of the enduring classics of the 1950s. Its key component is Audrey Hepburn’s delightful performance in her first major role. Knowing that she won an Oscar for her efforts, it comes as no surprise that the director was William Wyler who had a knack for getting the best out of a performer. Throw in the reliable Gregory Peck, and it’s hard to see how this film could go wrong. Nor does it! Paramount has done the film proud on DVD with a wonderful restoration and a very interesting package of supplements. Highly recommended!