Roman Holiday

Roman Holiday. Paramount Pictures 1953.
Roman Holiday. Paramount Pictures 1953.

Before watching the movie:

I always thought that a “Roman Holiday” was just recreation with wild abandon and no care for responsibility, like a Bacchanal, and as such I expected a carefree road movie. However, looking it up just now, I have learned that it was at least originally coined as an idiom to mean a depraved kind of schadenfreude (as in a crowd-pleasing public execution). Considering that the summary I’ve seen describes a sheltered princess escaping from her handlers and into the company of a reporter looking for a story, that seems ominous. But it’s a romantic comedy, so not very ominous.

I’ve known this movie existed for a long time, and never noticed the male lead is Gregory Peck. Nobody ever talks about Gregory Peck outside of To Kill a Mockingbird and Moby Dick anymore.

After watching the movie:

Crown Princess Ann, on a tightly-scheduled goodwill tour of Europe, has a breakdown in her bedchamber on the Rome leg of her trip, wanting to be free of her onerous responsibilities and be a normal girl. Her doctor gives her a shot of a “new medicine” that will make her “happy” so she can go to sleep, but as soon as her minders have gone, she escapes the embassy. Joe Bradley, a broke American journalist, finds an apparently intoxicated young lady sleeping on a bench, and since she’s not coherent enough to tell the cabbie where to take her, Joe ends up stuck with her for the night. The next morning at work, Joe reads the headlines about Princess Ann’s “sudden fever”, recognizes the picture, he bets his editor he can get an exclusive, exhaustive interview with the princess. Back at Joe’s place, Ann wakes up and tells him she’s “Anya Smith”, escaped from “school” for the day. Joe offers to join her in indulging her fantasies of the little joys of a normal life, mostly accompanied by his photojournalist friend with a Zippo camera. But the only heir to a nation’s throne can only disappear for so long.

Peck has a strong presence that works out very well for the role. He can take authority when he needs to, but he can also be friendly and even vulnerable. However, he seems too old for Hepburn’s portrayal of Ann. It’s hard to estimate her age very well, but in some scenes she seems as though she’s in her late teens while Joe is at least a 30-something.

This movie often takes moments to take advantage of the fact that it was shot entirely in Rome, but it feels lost on the black and white Academy standard aspect screen. Location productions like this are what Technicolor and Cinemascope are for. It’s also probably possible to effect a more artful contrast, but I recall Casablanca having a better look and I think it was entirely on studio sets. That’s not accounting for shot composition, just something I think is either rooted in optics and film stock or exposure timing or both. Or maybe it’s lighting. I don’t really have a handle on the particulars of monochrome cinematography, or at least the terminology.

The story manages to choose an ending that doesn’t strain credulity. In fact, I can come up with a plausible ending that might please more of the audience, though this feels fully appropriate. Apparently the pair were approached about a sequel once, which gets me thinking about what premise I would use for one, but it really seems inappropriate to continue the story past that point.

For the most part, this is just a couple hours of a couple of Americans showing a girl a good time around Rome, with a tragic undercurrent that it’s just for the one day. One thing it includes that most travelogue films de-emphasize is the street vendor experience. This feels a lot like a tour of how everyday people live in Rome rather than just a touristy jaunt around the landmarks. A day as a commoner.

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