Roman Holiday (1953)

Roman HolIncluded in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (Schneider ed., 2003) and ranked no.4 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 10 greatest romantic comedies, Roman Holiday (1953) introduced Audrey Hepburn in her first major role and received 15 nominations for different awards, winning 10, included 3 Oscars – one of which was for Ms Hepburn. (In fact, it eventually received two awards for best Motion Picture Story for reasons explained below.)

Roman Holiday quotesPLOT: On a diplomatic tour, young Princess Ann becomes sick of official duties and throws such a hissy fit that she is given a sedative and put to bed. But she slips out the window and escapes into the night streets of Rome. The sedative begins to work, however, and American reporter, Joe Bradley, takes her for an irresponsible student who can’t hold her liquor. Joe tries to send her home in a cab but, of course, she ends up sleeping on his couch. Late to the office next morning and castigated by his editor, Joe spots a front page picture of the girl still asleep in his apartment … and realising he has a scoop on his hands, he hatches a plan: pretending to be an unknowing salesman, he will spend the day getting the princess’s story!

THE STORY OF THE STORY: In Hollywood, classic films often come about by luck not judgement. This one is a case in point: blacklisted since refusing to comply with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (pictured below) wrote the story outline for Roman Holiday in 1949. A writer, fronting for Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter got his agent to sell it to director Frank Capra who, wanting Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor in a variation on his Oscar-winning, It Happened One Night (1934) then had a draft of the screenplay prepared.

trumboCapra’s production company was in financial trouble however and, after discovering Trumbo’s involvement (Trumbo was imprisoned for most of 1950) and wanting to distance himself, Capra sold the script to Paramount. Ben Hecht then worked on the screenplay, but his 1951 version was markedly different from the completed picture and he ultimately waived his credit. Director Preston Sturges then worked on the script but in March of 1952 it was another director, William Wyler, who (having no compunction about working with Trumbo) took a film crew to Rome (to put some distance between himself and HUAC, which was threatening to investigate his own liberal stance). Wyler then hired British writer John Dighton to rewrite dialogue and scenes as needed on location, where the last scene was rewritten many times.

Unsurprisingly the contribution of all these writers has never been properly determined. What is not disputed is that, because Trumbo was blacklisted, he was not credited and therefore could not pick up his Oscar when the film won Best Motion Picture Story of 1953.  Instead, Ian McLellan Hunter, the friend who has sold the story to Capra and who had also worked on the screenplay, accepted the Oscar for Trumbo. Trumbo died in 1976 and it was not until 1991 that the Writers Guild of America finally credited Trumbo with the film’s story. His wife, Cleo Trumbo, was presented with the award in 1993 – though the statue was a new one, since Hunter’s son wouldn’t give up the one his father had collected. Trumbo’s name finally appeared on the film’s opening credits when the restored edition was released in 2002.

CASTING: Cary Grant is said to have turned down the part of Joe Bradley, because he thought he was too old to play Hepburn’s love interest – though he played exactly that ten years later with her in Charade (1963). By the time Gregory Peck got the script he was hungry to do a comedy (he had never been in a comedy on film) and later said that, at the time, he felt like every romantic comedy script he had the chance to read “had the fingerprints of Cary Grant on it”. However, when Peck came to Italy for the shoot, he was privately depressed about his recent separation and imminent divorce from his first wife, Greta Kukkonen. On his way to Rome he was interviewed by a Paris news reporter named Veronique Pasani whom he later married and they remained together for the rest of his life.

The film became a massive hit, turning Hepburn into an international star and making Rome (the real star of the picture?) a new hot tourist destination. Hepburn’s Roman Holiday screen test took place at Pinewood Studio in London, September 18, 1951, under [Thorold] Dickinson’s direction. “We did some scenes out of the script,” he said, but “Paramount also wanted to see what Audrey was actually like not acting a part, so I did an interview with her. We loaded a thousand feet of film into a camera and every foot of it went on this conversation. She talked about her experiences in the war, the Allied raid on Arnhem, and hiding out in a cellar. A deeply moving thing!” (For more on Hepburn see here.)

Roman Holiday quotesTRUMBO’S GENIUS: It is a measure of Trumbo’s talent that from such a dark period in his life, Trumbo should be able to conjure such light and charm as Roman Holiday exudes: while being forced to use fronts and pseudonyms to sell his scripts, Trumbo employed the theme of deception in a tale of a princess who pretends to be a student and meets a reporter who claims to be a salesman in order to get her story.

TRIVIA: Though it is implied to be England, the country in which Princess Ann is a member of the royal family is never confirmed in the film. And yet much of the film’s success was attributed to public fascination with Britain’s Princess Margaret who had recently been forced to renounce a high profile relationship with commoner Peter Townsend (NOT of the Who) because he was divorced, and she should marry more “suitably”. No doubt, this informed Dighton’s many re-writes of the last scene.


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