Take a Roman Holiday

By Daniel Dunkle | Nov 22, 2020
Eddie Albert, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in "Roman Holiday" (1953).

If you’re going crazy after months of watching the news, give yourself a break.

TV has been relentless, ranging from men yelling at maps to people talking about the pandemic to… nothing else. That’s all we’ve heard forever. And your internal anxiety, whether you are acknowledging it or not, is getting more and more intense.

What you should do is take a break and watch “Roman Holiday.”

I have yet to meet anyone who has watched this 1953 classic and not liked it.

Audrey Hepburn plays a young crown princess on an official visit to Rome. She is clearly based on the recently crowned Queen Elizabeth II of England, who was a sensation as a young monarch.

Hepburn’s character is bored and frustrated. She gets to visit every place, but experiences nothing as her time is taken up by stuffy officials. She runs away from the palace in the night, determined to enjoy the sights and activities of 1950s Rome. Who should she run into but a dashing American newspaper reporter played by Gregory Peck, who realizes who she is but does not let on in hopes of getting the big story. What are the longings of a princess?

They ride around on scooters, get in trouble with police, have a fight with some government agents, and share a forbidden kiss under a bridge. They also famously confront the Mouth of Truth, a carved Roman face in an old church where you can stick your hand in the mouth. If you lie, your hand is supposed to be bitten off. The scene is almost, but not quite, too charming.

My favorite character is actually Eddie Albert, who plays a wily photographer. He cannot simply ask her to pose for photos, so he sets up situations where he can get killer shots without her knowing. In one of my favorite moments, he sets up his camera with a flash at the bar with Peck standing in front of him. At the right moment, Peck steps aside and then looks around in alarm, pretending to figure out where the flash of light came from.

This is the perfect romantic comedy, and it takes your mind off men yelling at maps for a few hours.

The backstory of some of the people involved is almost as good as the movie itself.

The film was written by legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was a blacklisted communist in the 1950s and had someone stand in to take credit for him. The story actually won an Academy Award, as did Hepburn, but Dalton could not accept it. That must have been pretty hard.

If you’re interested, check out the 2015 movie “Trumbo,” starring Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad.” Trumbo used to write in his bathtub accompanied by a parrot given to him by Kirk Douglas. Like you do...

And then there is Audrey Hepburn herself. It does seem we always hear about “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” written by Truman Capote. I could write a whole column on that film, which showcases Hepburn a little later after she has arrived as the epitome of fashion in 1960s New York.

Robert Matzen’s book, “Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II,” a relatively recent release, details her astonishing early life living in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation. Her father was British and her mother a member of Dutch aristocracy. Alarmingly, her mother was pro-Hitler at one point. The deprivations of war changed her mind.

Hepburn, however, ended up working as part of the resistance, running messages and performing in dance events to raise money for the cause, according to an article in The Christian Science Monitor.

Getting back to “Roman Holiday,” I would say part of its appeal stems from fascination with the royals and their mysterious personal lives. According to online sources, the movie benefited in the foreign box office from the scandal arising from Princess Margaret’s fling with commoner Peter Townsend. Margaret, of course, is a character from the Netflix series “The Crown.” Wait, actually, she was a real person, the sister of the Queen of England.

And if you haven’t been watching “The Crown,” I also recommend that as a break from people yelling at maps.

“Roman Holiday” is an influence on other works, especially Disney’s “Aladdin.” The princess escapes and meets a young man of the streets. Thief, reporter… both are kind of rakish in their own way, eh?

It’s also clearly there in 1999’s “Notting Hill,” which is funny, because I would say that Hepburn was in appeal the Julia Roberts of her day.

Soon we will all be watching holiday movies, but for just one last scent of summer, treat yourself to a “Roman Holiday.”

 

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