o DVD Savant Review: Roman Holiday
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Roman Holiday

Roman Holiday
Paramount Home Video
1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 118 min. / Special Collector's Edition / Street Date November 26, 2002 / $24.99
Starring Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert, Hartley Power, Harcourt Williams, Margaret Rawlings
Cinematography Henri Alekan, Franz F. Planer
Art Direction Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Film Editor Robert Swink
Original Music Georges Auric
Written by Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton and Dalton Trumbo
Produced by Robert Wyler, William Wyler
Directed by William Wyler

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A romantic staple and the film that launched Audrey Hepburn to instant stardom, Roman Holiday is a charming fairy tale with a compact story of the kind that Billy Wilder might concoct. William Wyler, a fastidious director who made very few films that couldn't be described as exceptional, wasn't known for comedies. In this relaxed and romantic winner, the humor comes far more naturally than in most scripted comedies.


Newsman Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) lands a terrific scoop: he picks up runaway Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) when she skips out on her official diplomatic duties while in Rome. Together with photographer Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert), Joe escorts 'Anya Smith' on a fun day around the city, while agents from her country search far and wide. Joe and Irving are counting their riches to come, as Joe realizes he's falling in love ... a development that promises trouble for all.

There's almost no need to catalog the graces of Roman Holiday; it's a pioneering Hollywood film shot on location in Italy, with a top star and a dazzling new discovery fitting in perfectly with the scenery and some very well-chosen locals. Gregory Peck's charm is effortless - he mostly stands and exudes integrity. He has to make an effort to appear the kind of opportunist who'd take advantage of a young woman, with a lot to lose from his journalistic ambitions.

People like to think of Marilyn Monroe as symbolizing the 50s, but the girls I grew up with in that decade more often than not chose to identify with Audrey Hepburn, who makes being slight and petite seem infinitely preferable. As critic Molly Haskell intones in the docu for the DVD, this Hepburn was original in appearance, manner and mostly that kind of honest but lovely self-possession that all mothers wish their girls would adopt. In the beginning, she's supposed to be spoiled: we forgive her. She spends the night in a bachelor's apartment, saying things like, "Could you undress me please?" yet she's absolutely innocent. Like everybody's first girlfriend, Hepburn's smile melts all objections and breaks all hearts.

The central story of Roman Holiday is a journalist's putting personal ethics ahead of his tabloid training, an outcome we have no trouble understanding with Peck in the role. Two years earlier, Billy Wilder laid one of his few boxoffice eggs with a jet-black ode to cynicism, Ace in the Hole. It had a similar frame - a reporter gets a scoop and nurtures it to his personal advantage, regardless of the consequences. Ace did so poorly, essentially not opening, that before being changed to The Big Carnival, its unofficial title around the studio was 'Ass in the Wringer'. Roman Holiday is such an inversion of Wilder's story, that one is tempted to wonder if Paramount made it to show Wilder how wrong he was. Unlike Ace's cutthroat reptiles, the journalists in this film are benevolent softies. When Peck renigs on his promise to turn in a whopper article, his boss (Hartley Power, the narrator-ventriloquist of the final tale of Dead of Night) amiably lets him off the hook. Wilder took the lesson and never returned to Noir territory; as top talent at Paramount he instead fashioned an immediate followup to Roman Holiday, the almost perfect Audrey Hepburn vehicle, Sabrina.

William Wyler keeps things reasonably restrained. We feel the Princess' delight at being on her own for a fling in the ancient city. Joe and Anya's parting has the strong pull of obligation and personal integrity behind it. The Princess may not be rushing off on another madcap weekend soon, but she'll no longer be the pampered baby in the palace, either.

The film and the docu skirt the issue of the East West tensions that were causing havoc in the Postwar Europe of 1953. The Princess is supposed to hail from some imaginary Eastern European monarchy, when everything East of Austria was either already under or deeply compromised by Soviet domination. The 'secret police' that come to Rome to find the Princess aren't Ruritanian constables, but sinister men in dark suits and hats. Yet, of the journalists greeting the Princess at the finale, not one comes from an Eastern bloc country.

This comes to the fore when one notes that the supposedly pro-Soviet Dalton Trumbo came up with the story for Roman Holiday. There's not a trace of propaganda in the finished work, unless it's in support of monarchies. Trumbo used a front, Ian McLellan Hunter, for his original story, and Hunter co-wrote the screenplay. (Wrong - see Avie Hearn's  correction.) Almost the only thing in this script that isn't perfect, is the repeated slapstick business of Peck kicking, pushing, and spilling drinks on Albert to keep him from spilling the beans. Even the famed standout gag at the 'mouth of truth' sculpture has a relation to the overall theme of the story, as both Ann and Joe are operating under false pretenses, lying to each other.

In the DVD docu, Paramount authority A.C. Lyles pussyfoots around the issue of the Blacklist like the mayor of Amity, assuring us that the shark situation was an historical blip that's now far behind us and best not thought of very much. Another restoration extra explains how the existence of the textless background behind the titles allowed the studio to seamlessly return Dalton Trumbo's name to its proper place in the credits. It is undetectable.

It's undetectable, all right, like 1984 - style revisionism. It was shocking to find out how many movies in the 1950s were written by blacklisted writers working under pseudonyms or behind fronts. But new policy has the studios revising the credits of films where possible to give them credit. This sounds like a good idea, but it's simply erasing history and encouraging us to forget the cruelty of the times, as if giving a few star writers back their credits can neutralize the wrong done hundreds of other artists deprived of their careers. Like all revisionism, such as redoing 1977 special effects with 1997 digital tools for Star Wars, this confuses the issues, and destroys history. Future politicians will be able to claim that the Blacklist never happened, if the evidence (the many films with fudged credits) disappears. The right thing to do would be to put a text card before or after the film, explaining the reason why Trumbo's name isn't on this film, or Carl Foreman's on The Bridge on the River Kwai. Some films add a similar text card when a picture wins a big prize in a film festival, as with the new Polanski film The Pianist.

To see how heartfelt is Paramount's commitment to the revision, look at the back of the Roman Holiday package. The credit block is the old one, before the Trumbo story credit was reinstated. All that effort for the film change, but ... oh, never mind.

Paramount's Special Edition of Roman Holiday has been given the royal treatment, image-wise. A featurette addresses the restoration process, and becomes an ad for the local company that did the work - they don't explain it too clearly, but the gist is that a new digitally scrubbed version was made from the surviving film elements, and then recorded back to film to make a new negative. The before and after demos are either very subtle or misleading, as all we really see change is the darkness of the scenes. The experts talk about reducing grain and eliminating dirt, but they don't say how: there's no mention of actual frame by frame retouching, and the results gleaned are much better than contrast-skewing and edge-harshening 'noise reduction'. On DVD, Roman Holiday looks as good as the restored Sunset Blvd., and that's saying something.

Like other Paramount docus, the one on Roman Holiday covers the bases, but has a tendency to stick to studio-approved banalities in the narration and voiced by Mr. Lyles. Like many other in-house productions, the docu is unattributed by name, a move indicative of the corporate control over anything new created with studio money. Mustn't let the little people think they're creating anything.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Roman Holiday rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Two featurettes, Edith Head featurette, photo gallery, teaser trailer and two trailers
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: November 30, 2002


1. A response from Author Avie Hern:
Just read your review of Roman Holiday and found it a great pleasure -- insightful as always. I must take issue with a few things, however.

Ian McLellan Hunter admitted a few years ago that he actually contributed nothing to the screenplay of Roman Holiday, beyond acting as Dalton Trumbo's "front." He took the meetings with Wyler, etc., went home and "wrote" (for public consumption). Trumbo was the real writer of the film's full script, along with its original story.

You neglect to mention that Audrey Hepburn's straitlaced Princess's request that Joe undress her is the result that her character is thoroughly drunk for the first time in her life -- a significant factor in her making such an uncharacteristic request.

Your observation that Roman Holiday and Ace in the Hole (one of Wilder's, oh, three greatest films, as far as I'm concerned, regardless of its box-office failure), both made by the same studio in 1951, being two markedly different treatments of the same basic story is very astute -- rather like All About Eve and The Gunfighter, both from Fox in 1950, vaguely being two versions of the same story. I certainly hope that Ace in the Hole is headed to DVD in the not-too-distant future. Best, Avie Hern


Savant Reviews of other William Wyler Movies:

Friendly Persuasion
The Children's Hour
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Little Foxes
Mrs. Miniver

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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