Classic romantic comedies with the two Hepburns

By Tom Von Malder | Sep 13, 2020
Photo by: Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment The stars of "Roman Holiday" are, from left, Eddie Albert, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Hepburn won an Oscar and Albert was nominated for one for their work in the film.

Owls Head — Roman Holiday (1953, Paramount, Blu-ray, NR, 118 min.). Newly restored and remastered, the beguiling “Roman Holiday” makes its Blu-ray debut as part of the Paramount Presents line of classic films. The film, which gave Audrey Hepburn her first starring role and earned the actress her only acting Oscar despite four subsequent nominations, is a joyful delight. The film earned 10 Academy Award nominations in all and also won Oscars for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story and Best Costume Design.

The black-and-white film opens by showing Princess Ann’s busy promotional tour of the European continent. Ann (Hepburn, who would go on to star in “Wait Until Dark,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” My Fair Lady” and “Sabrina”) is obviously getting tired of all her appointments and the repeated canned speeches she must make, but she is the direct heir in line for her father’s throne. This sequence is brilliantly summed up when, during a reception in Rome, she takes one foot out of its high heel shoe and wriggles the foot around for relief as she greets the long line of dignitaries. When she finally sits, the prodigal shoe is in front of her dress and one of her officials has to invite her to dance and hold her arm, as she gets the shoe back on, hidden by her dress.

Back at her embassy, though, she has an emotional breakdown, not wanting to carry on with the next day’s appointments. Hearing a crowd having fun outside her window, she sneaks from the embassy and into the city. Unfortunately, her doctor has given her a sedative to calm her down and she soon is sleeping on a short stone wall near the Forum.

Enter jaded American News Service reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck of “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” “Twelve O’clock High”) who would rather be back in America working for “a real newspaper.” He is perpetually poor and late for work, which almost gets him fired. He has a scheduled one-on-one interview with Princess Ann for the next day. Leaving a poker game, Joe comes across Ann and tries to help her. She ends up at his apartment when she is unable to tell the taxi driver where to take her. Joe once again sleeps late, missing his interview appointment with the Princess, not realizing he already has her in his apartment.

Ann claims to be Anya, but Joe learns the truth when he goes to the office and sees her photo in a newspaper story about the Princess’ announced “illness” and cancellation of all appointments. Not letting on that he knows her identity, Joe loans her some money and decides to follow her as she investigates the city. Joe also calls his news photographer friend, Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert, later of “The Longest Yard,” TV’s “Green Acres”), to secretly take pictures of her. A very amusing outdoor café scene has Joe keep physically interrupting Irving as he is about to blurt out his recognition of Ann, despite the really short haircut she has just gotten.

As the day progresses, the trio see more of the city, drive around on Vesta scooters – Ann drives so recklessly that they are picked up by the police – and see such sights as “The Mouth of Truth” statue (a wonderful, very funny scene that Peck partially improvised) and “The Wall Where Wishes Come True.” They even get involved in a brawl on a dance barge on the Tibor River. Most importantly, though, Joe starts to fall for Ann, and the feeling becomes mutual, even though both know there is no real future for their feelings.

The Oscar for the film’s story went to the credited Ian McLellan Hunter, but the real writer was the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (“Spartacus,” “Exodus,” Oscar winner for “The Brave One”). The other Oscar went to Edith Head’s costumes. Head was nominated a record 35 times for Academy Awards, winning eight times. This was her seventh win. The film also was Oscar-nominated as Best Picture and Best Director, with William Wyler (“Ben-Hur,” “The Best Years of Our Lives”) serving as both producer and director, an acting nomination for Albert, a screenplay nomination for Hunter (Trumbo) and John Dighton, Best Cinematography (Franz Planer and Henn Alekan), Best Art Decoration-Set Decoration (Hal Pereira and Walter H. Tyler) and Best Editing (Robert Swink). Hepburn also won a Golden Globe. The film is ranked as the number four greatest love story of all time by the American Film Institute.

A new bonus feature is Leonard Maltin discussing the film (6:59), including how Wyler fought to have it filmed entirely in Rome and how Peck was looking for a comedy to perform in. Ported over from a 2008 release are the rest of the extras, including three very good ones: a tour of the Rome locations used in the film (8:57); a look at Hepburn’s life, concentrating of her decade at Paramount Studios (29:55); and a look at Trumbo’s career and blacklisting (11:35). A featurette on the Costume Archive Department at Paramount (5:31) totally skips “Roman Holiday,” but otherwise is interesting. There also are galleries on the movie, its publicity and the premiere, plus a look at Paramount Studios in the 1950s (9:33) and a remembrance of Hepburn (12:12), including interviews with her son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, and her companion of 14 years, Robert Wolders. Grade: film 5 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Pat and Mike (1952, Warner Archive Collection, Blu-ray, NR, 94 min.). This black-and-white film stars another classic pairing in Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The two first met in 1942 on the set of “Woman of the Year.” They made nine films together – this was the sixth – and had a well-documented, although never officially acknowledged, 26-year love affair until Tracy’s death in 1967.

The comedy, which actually places romance on the backburner until late in the proceedings, was written by spouses Ruth Gordon (as an actress, she appeared in 44 films, including “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Harold and Maude”) and Garson Kanin, with the pair also having written Tracy and Hepburn’s classic “Adam’s Rib” in 1949. The married couple were nominated for an Academy Award for their writing of both films, as well as “A Double Life.” As was “Adam’s Rib,” “Pat and Mike” was directed by George Cukor (“My Fair Lady” with Audrey Hepburn, “A Star is Born,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “A Double Life”).

Here, Hepburn plays Pat Pemberton, a college physical education instructor who excels at nearly every sport, but especially golf and tennis. She is engaged to Collier Weld (William Ching), an administrator at the same school, Pacific Technical College. Collier is a bit overbearing when giving Pat instructions on how to act. One unfortunate result is that whenever she sees Collier on the sidelines watching her compete, her confidence and game fall apart.

Despite this, semi-crooked sports promoter Mike Conovan (Tracy) sees her potential and she eventually signs on with Mike to be her coach and promoter, sharing everything “five-oh, five-oh.” Unlike Collier, who wants her to be “the little woman,” Mike is more than happy to be the man behind the woman, even going legitimate in the process. Mike gets her lots of tennis matches and some more golf matches. These matches have Pat compete against some well-known athletes of the day, including golfers Babe Didrikson Zaharis (whom I read a book about back in the early 1960s, while I was in elementary school) and Betty Hicks. Seven other athletes play themselves in the film, which, by the way, has a powerful feminist message.

Mike is instantly attracted to Pat – his early comment is “Not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce” -- and, by the end, she’s there too.

There is a nice comedic turn by Aldo Ray (“We’re No Angels,” “The Secret of NIMH”) as Mike’s other human client, not-too-bright boxer Davie Hucko. Mike’s other client is a racing horse. Other familiar faces in the cast include Jim Backus (“Rebel Without a Cause,” TV’s “Gilligan’s Island”) as Charles Barry, the golf club employee who sees Pat’s championship potential, even though she has been playing golf only a year; Chuck Connors (“Flipper,” TV’s “Police Story,” “The Rifleman”) as the Police Captain; Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer (“Our Gang” films) as a high-strung bus boy; and Charles Bronson (“Death Wish” films, “The Great Escape”), then known as Charles Buchinsky, as Hank, one of Mike’s shady investors. This was only the second credited role for Bronson, who had appeared in five other films uncredited. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3.5 stars

Ghost in the Shell (Japan, 1995, Lionsgate, 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray, NR, 83 min.). This classic, directed by Mamoru Oshii and written by Kazunori Ito, based on the manga by writer-illustrator Shirow Masamune, set many new standards for animated films. This is its first 4K Ultra HD release, a combo pack with a regular Blu-ray version. The film is presented in both the original Japanese and a very good English dub.

The year is 2029 and Major Motoko Kusanagi, a female cybernetic government agent from Section 9, is trying to hunt down “The Puppet Master,” an unknown villain, who hacks humans’ “ghost” or soul/essence, implants false memories and makes them do his or her bidding. On her team are Togusa, who is human except for some mind implants, and Batou, who is about half cybernetic. Also after The Puppet Master is the Internal Bureau of Investigations, aka Section 6, which had a secret Project 2501 that may have something to do with the fugitive.

Story-wise, the film questions what makes up life and the soul, as well as how far machine intelligences can go. Visually, the film is a feast, with detailed settings, half of which represent a futuristic Hong Kong that resembles the city in “Blade Runner” more than a little bit. Advertising is everywhere in that old portion of the city. Then, there is the more antiseptic new portion of the city.

Both discs come with an audio commentary by animation writer and English language scriptwriter Mary Claypool, animation producer and writer Eric Calderon, English language Batou voice actor Richard Epcar and animation historian/film critic Charles Solomon. There also are two new featurettes: “Accessing Section 9: 25 Years into the Future” (18:42), which talks about the Philip K. Dick style story set in a slightly dystopian future world, has interviews with the English language voice actors and Claypool discussing how she worked on the script, and mentions Kenji Kawai’s influential film score; and “Landscapes & Dreamscapes – The Art and Architecture of ‘Ghost in the Shell’” (10:50), a fascination look at the original drawings for the film and how they were researched and created.

Only the Blu-ray disc has the archival featurettes on the making of the film (27:04) and the digital works (29:34), with the latter including an interview with director Oshii. Grade: film 5 stars; extras 4 stars

Graveyards of Honor (Japan, 1975 + 2002, Arrow Video, 2 Blu-ray discs, NR, 225 min.). The set includes both Kinji Fukasaku’s original 1975 film and Takashi Miike’s 2002 reworking, both based on Goro Fujita’s novel about a self-destructive man who becomes a yakuza member in Tokyo, but soon thereafter loses self-control and succumbs to heroin addiction. Here, I review each film separately.

Graveyard of Honor (Japan, 1975, NR, 93 min.). In Fukasaku’s film, the character is called Rikio Ishikawa and the film tells the story in more conventional biographical style, with the opening itself done very much like a documentary, with childhood photos of Ishikawa and relatives and friends talking about him. Ishikawa is played by Tatsuya Watari (“Night Trains to the Stars,” “Tokyo Drifter”).

In this film, Ishikawa runs away from home in 1941 at age 17 and joins the Kawada Family in Tokyo. Two years later, he is arrested for his first assault. The main part of the story picks up in 1946, when he is running a protection racket for his yakuza family, but picks on another yakuza family’s operation, almost starting a war. He is approached by senior members of the Imai Family to help them attack some “third nationals” – Taiwanese, Korean and Chinese, who were living in Japan during the war and were liberated by the Allied occupation forces – whom the Imai feel do not know their place nor show proper respect.

Ishikawa is not a nice man. His brutality shows when he relieves himself on an outdoor firepit that is keeping several women warm. He also mishandles women, raping one (Yumi Takigawa as Chieko) who nonetheless becomes his common-law wife. He also is too eager to use a blade and attacks his family’s own godfather (head), leading to an 18-month prison term. However, despite being banned from joining any yakuza clan for 10 years, he comes back from Osaka after only one year, but now he is hooked on heroin. He attacks the Imai leader, leading to another, longer prison sentence, which leads to his eventual demise.

The film is very well made, but the story is not very appealing and the ending is overly brutal. The film does play up the negative aspects of yakuza life. Extras include audio commentary by Mark Schilling, author of two books on Japanese art and culture, as well as “The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to the Japanese Gangster Films.” There is a visual essay (13:11) on the film by critic and Projection Booth podcast host Mike White, which gives away the ending in the first minute (!) and an archival appreciation of director Fukasaku’s films, with interviews with filmmakers, scholars and friends of the director (19:46; in Japanese). Additionally, there is an interview with assistant director Kenichi Oguri about working with Fukasaku (5:34; in Japanese) and an image gallery. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Graveyard of Honor (Japan, 2002, NR, 130 min.). Miike’s take on the story begins where Fukasaku’s left off, then jumps backwards in time to tell Rikuo Ishimatsu’s story. Miike changed the character’s name a bit and moved the action up to the turn of the century. We see 19-year-old Ishimatsu working as a dish washer when a gunman walks into the restaurant and starts killing people. Ishimatsu conks him on the head with a pan, saving the life of Boss Sawada, who then makes him his protégé, to the dismay of some family members of longer standing.

Ishimatsu is played by Goro Kishitani (“All Under the Moon,” “Returner”). His character is as brutal here – he rapes two women, including his future common-law wife twice – and there is much more bloodletting by knife in Miike’s film. Chieko is played by Narimi Arimori. In prison five years for a knife attack on an enemy of his boss, Ishimatsu befriends Imamura of the Guju Family. Out of jail, Ishimatsu goes berserk after failing to get a loan from his boss – Ishimatsu wanted the money to buy the geisha business where Chieko works – and he injures three of his fellow yakuza family members. Later, he attacks the family’s leader over the same loan, not realizing his boss was trying to give him the money.

Ishimatsu would be a tragic figure if he were not so cruel, because he is always doing the wrong thing. He is constantly fueled by his impulses. Much of the last half hour is given over to his heroin use.

Miike loves to use blood, or at least its fake substitute in his films. One startling image is a woman’s face getting splattered with blood as she opens a door, and Miike literally uses buckets of blood to up the ante on Fukasaku’s jarring final scene.

The extras include audio commentary by Tom Mees, who wrote the book “Re-Agitator: A Decade of Writing on Takashi Miike.” The visual essay on the male driving force in Miike’s films (23:46) is by author/critic Kat Ellinger, who describes the architypes as the rootless individual and the outcast, the family unit, male bonding and violence. Three archival featurettes feature interviews with Miike and actors Kishitani and Arimori (17:59; in Japanese), the same three at a press conference (4:17) and the trio again in a premiere special (4:03). There also is a making-of featurette (8 min.) and an image gallery. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3.5 stars

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