Film Discussion

Roman Holiday (1953) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.

The history of romantic comedy is dotted with films featuring stars who were tailor-made for the genre. Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Meg Ryan, Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts – they all had charming personas that were cultivated and refined on-screen in a manner that made them perfect for feel-good stories about loves gained or lost.

Amongst that list is, without a doubt, Audrey Hepburn. Like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, she emerged into the genre during a period that might be considered a golden age (and the latter two did so during a film-making period that the term would also apply to). Like Grant, there was something about her that went beyond Hollywood, that made her an icon to cinema-going audiences the world over. She transcended merely being an American movie star to become a key figure in narratives that were designed to truly make the stories feel like the product of a dream-making machine that we would all wish to live in.

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These movies were products of their time, but they still have a gloss and elegance that makes them a joy to return to again and again – more often than not just for the fact that you can luxuriate in the presence of sheer movie star magnetism. And it’s because of that, that Roman Holiday is one of those movies.

Audrey Hepburn had appeared in various productions throughout Europe before appearing alongside Gregory Peck in William Wyler’s popular classic, but it was her Hollywood debut and the film which would get her noticed considerably, even earning an Academy Award nomination for her efforts. She was not the first choice, though. Jean Simmons and Elizabeth Taylor were both considered for the role of Princess Ann and yet it is hard to imagine anyone else in this role but Hepburn.

She arrives on-screen with that pixie-like persona perfectly intact, and never lost it whenever gracing a film with a romantic streak. Not that her career is simply filled with romantic comedies that rely on her most famous persona, usually in romantic relationships with older leading men and with that pixie haircut. It’s always easy to forget that more challenging material such as The Nun’s Story and Wait Until Dark are also amongst her filmography.

Yet, in glorious black and white, amongst the most gorgeous Italian settings and on the back of a Vespa being driven around by a charming Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn rode into film history and the heart of audiences, and it couldn’t have come any better than with a Hollywood debut where she plays a literal princess.

The gender politics and themes of privilege do not get explored in detail here in the manner that they most likely would if the film were made today. Certainly, Peck’s character could threaten to become a darker variety of toxic male if this was made in an era that wasn’t the early 1950s, while one might be inclined to roll their eyes at seeing someone like Hepburn’s character be as unhappy given that her life is as privileged as it is.

Wyler’s direction and the screenplay from a then uncredited and blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (his credit has since been reinstated) just throws itself into a fantasy where those ideas are hovering over the surface but which like so many romantic comedies of the period just want to revel in a fantasy where Hepburn is a princess and Peck is a reporter who will do the right thing.

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Once again it’s a narrative about a reporter, which makes this one of several with similar stories featuring Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, or James Stewart as reporters. Like property developers falling in love with the hapless victims they are trying to swindle in a Hallmark or Netflix Christmas movie, it seems that if you wanted to portray an initially opportunistic male as someone who was capable of doing the right thing between the 1930s and 1950s, just give them a job at a newspaper and some witty back and forth with their beleaguered editor and cast them with the best looking male actors of the time and you were set to call ‘action’. Later romantic comedies such as One Fine Day and Runaway Bride would pay tribute to this trope by casting George Clooney and Richard Gere as reporters, so it’s a cliché that has never really gone away.

Gregory Peck had the ability to convey gentlemanly decency in so many of his most famous roles, most notably as Atticus Finch in the iconic adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird which was still nine years away. Like Grant, he could subvert those charms, and would do so when working with Alfred Hitchcock on Spellbound (in a role Hitchcock had wanted Grant for). Interestingly, Grant was also the first choice for Joe Bradley but would turn it down due to feeling he was too old to be a romantic lead opposite Hepburn.

It was one of a few near misses for the actors, as Grant would also be approached about taking on the male lead in Hepburn’s next film, the Billy Wilder-directed Sabrina, a role that would eventually go to Humphrey Bogart. Their classy demeanours, ability to inhabit romantic leading roles perfectly, and Mid-Atlantic stylings would make Hepburn and Grant a perfect pair, and most likely would have worked in any film that Grant was approached about. But in the end it would be Stanley Donen’s 1963 comedy-thriller Charade (the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made) that would see the two paired together for their one and only time on screen. The results would be wonderful, but we will save that for 1963.

Peck was in the end perfect. It would be hard to imagine Grant not getting the girl at the end of the film, so to speak, and it’s Peck’s ability to channel a more grounded, down-to-Earth form of charm and masculinity that would allow the final scene of the film to be as poignant as it is.

Yes, this is a film where the female and male leads do not get together, but then it would be hard to know how such a relationship could ever work. The image of Grant hightailing it as a jet-set husband to a member of the Royal Family (whose country is never mentioned on-screen) is somewhat believable, but the man who would be Atticus Finch doesn’t fit that screen image.

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Like La La Land and Lost in Translation, the final moments of Roman Holiday are an affirmation of something special in the moment that might have been the right people at the right time but only for one brief moment and not beyond.

The manner in which Ann and Joe converse via subtext in a room full of reporters would be paid tribute to years later in Richard Curtis and Roger Michell’s 1999 Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant blockbuster Notting Hill, but there it’s a moment that kickstarts that film’s feel-good ending. Here, Wyler ends with the most subtle and heartfelt of goodbyes, delivered in gorgeous close-ups of its none more beautiful leads as they walk away from each other back to their corners of the world forever, never to see each other again.

Like Joe, we walk away a little sad, but smiling at the fact that the memory will last a lifetime.

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