Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Roman Holiday - A Royal Adventure

There is something to be said about a romantic comedy that endures. William Wyler's 'Roman Holiday' is that rare movie that in its lightheartedness and fun sweeps us into an experience truly unforgettable and at the end, quietly melancholy. Launching the big screen career of Hollywood's sweetheart Audrey Hepburn, this movie gave us romance at its most endearing, comedy at its most hilarious and finally a waif like girl who would burn up the entire screen each time she twinkled into the camera.

The story is old as the hills. In a case of cinderella reversed, we have Princess Ann from an unnamed  country, on a goodwill tour across the European states. Her last stop is Rome and we sense a discontentment even as she meets with dignitaries and addresses them with regality and charm. A desire to escape the daily routine takes over her sedated self at night, after a bout of hysterics and she tumbles into the streets of Rome. An encounter with a charming gentleman Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) leads to him taking her to his shoebox size apartment, unable to leave her on the streets in her drug induced state.

Turns out that Mr. Bradley is a reporter who now has a scoop on his hands. On discovering that the troublesome, seemingly inebriated girl is the princess, who is stated to have been indisposed of a sudden illness to hide her disappearance from the palace, he along with his partner in crime, photographer Irving (Eddie Albert), seize the moment to keep the runaway princess around them long enough to build a story around her adventures in Rome. And so we have Ann posing as Anya Smith getting a haircut where her locks are sheared into Hepburn's now signature pixie cut, riding a motorcycle to hilarious consequences, gorging on a gelato at the heart of Rome and creating some marvelous moments of fun with the two opportunists in tow. And then the day comes to an end with the princess finding love.

This is a movie with some great moments of physical comedy that have been emulated through the decades in cinema across the globe. The fun between Joe and Irving over revealing the identity of the princess is a highpoint as is the sequence at a dance where a sidesplitting furor occurs culminating in the memorable snapshot of Anya bringing down a guitar over a man's head. But no sequence of the fun on this holiday is probably as famous, indeed imitated over the years, as the 'mouth of truth' sequence where     if one is telling an untruth with their hand in the mouth of a stone image, it gets bitten off. Amidst all the fun, the tender romance that develops between the lead is aired with sadness. After all, can the princess ever fall in love and live happily ever after with the commoner?

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn have crackling chemistry. Gregory Peck was a star at the time. But for Audrey Hepburn, this movie, though not her debut, was her first starring role. To hold her own against a seasoned performer and actually at times be more effective, was no small achievement. That she took home the Oscar that year isn't surprising. Watch her slight smile with that teardrop hanging like a pearl from her eye in her final sequence. Amazing! Gregory Peck, that handsome gentleman, was extremely at ease in his first comic outing. To give him fine company was the third corner of this fun trio, Eddie Albert. His physical comedy with Peck had perfect timing. The performance of all the actors stand out, especially in the final sequence. The director takes his time with the scene, lingering over the expressions, each nuance is highlighted and the actors deliver to the moment.

The movie was shot wholly on location, thereby giving it that authentic air, studio shot movies can never quite duplicate. At its inception, the project was to star Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor and be directed by Frank Capra. However, since the story was by Dalton Trumbo, at the time blacklisted for his political activities, Capra had reservations going ahead with the project and William Wyler was brought into the picture. At his insistence, the movie was shot in Italy and to keep the budget in check, made in black and white. Dalton Trumbo was not credited for his work in the movie and Ian McLellan Hunter, who had helped on the screenplay, got the credit for which he won the Oscar as well. However, Trumbo did receive a posthumous Oscar for his work and his name has now been restored on the credits in the DVD of the film. With Wyler's inclusion came the bright young actress Audrey Hepburn, who had screen tested for him. Cary Grant had reservations about working with an actress as young as Hepburn and in stepped Gregory Peck who was by the time, ready to do a romantic comedy having worked only in serious roles before.

Roman Holiday finds its bearing in being a tale told lightly of unconsummated love. Some of the greatest love stories are of a love which do not find a happy ending. The ones that leave us wistful for what might have been. In Princess Ann's tears shining through her smile and Joe Bradley's teary eyed melancholy look, we sigh for a love that this and a life that won't allow them to be together. But out of this love, they find honor. The honor to do what is right, to fulfill their duties. To become better human beings. Love often does do that to people.

Originally released in 1953

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