I’m sure its the case for many my age (It has a 3 in it somewhere for context) that when a huge glut of movies is released a year and you look to write about the majority of them, catching up on old features, even ones described as classics proves difficult or maybe the best way of putting it is intimidating. Be it the fact that any vintage picture could run the risk of not belonging in a 2020s landscape (see Gone With The Wind and the streaming debacle that its inclusion on HBOMax caused) or just the fact that any film from more than 20 years ago could feel dated because of change in filming techniques or just different mindsets at the time. Taking the leap and putting your faith in a classic isn’t a light decision even for the most avid of movie fans and personally I consider myself too busy to ever describe myself as avid, although I watch a lot of movies. Just days before I took a break from writing I watched what I hope will be the first in a series of classic films, not only to improve my knowledge of classic cinema but also to combat this troublesome stigma, at least in my own mind.
My choice for my first feature in this series was the William Wyler directed Roman Holiday, a film with a storied history surrounding its Oscar win for best writing for a motion picture. Written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, this 1953 feature also proved an introduction for audiences to Audrey Hepburn (who won the statue for best actress as well) but Trumbo didn’t receive his Oscar until after his death in 1993. Despite knowing little about the film outside of this, it has been something I have wanted to watch thanks to the lyrical writing of the acclaimed writer and despite some overly quaint storytelling, this is a marvel of cinematic escapism that has more to it than an impressive script as Wyler makes a compelling fantasy spring to life while creating some lasting Hollywood clichés at the same time.
Telling the story of Princess Ann (Hepburn), a naïve and insulated member of a small country’s royal family as she is sent on a royal tour, destined to endure the same stuffy balls and political discussions while never having a life of her own. When she arrives in Rome she decides now is finally the time to break out and escape her cloistered life in search of adventure, one that leads her right into the path of reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a man who has been tasked with getting an interview with the illusive princess, an interview that could save his precarious position at the paper. If it all sounds awfully charming and utterly unbelievable, that’s because it is and that is exactly why it works.
Wyler’s film is a stereotypical Hollywood romance but back when that wasn’t a bad thing, when a Vespa ride around Rome was met with adoration instead of rolling eyes. Although Trumbo’s script occasionally borders on the verbose, losing the plot of an intimate romance with overly complicated verbal comedy as two men bicker over how to handle a naive woman (something that doesn’t play particularly well in a 2021 world), Wyler compellingly jumps between grand ballrooms and dingy back room bars while also making a grand romance seem close and intimate despite a film full of galivanting and escapism. Joe and Ann’s day together might at first glance seem insignificant, a playful dalliance full of kitschy tourist traps and little moments and Trumbo plays into that only to pull the rug out quickly and without remorse.
Wyler, off of Trumbo’s script has crafted an ending bordering on iconic, one that speaks to how even the smallest relationship starting out can turn into something huge and significant, using the glorious backdrop of Rome’s architecture and its grand halls to tell the story of a day with a lasting impact. Quietly using physical comedy to allude to the shifting status of their relationship and constantly keeping in tune with its characters, its impossible not to see why Roman Holiday is as revered as it is and despite a few odd trips and stumbles along the way, it is one that feels new and original even now in a world that has been riffing off it for almost 70 years.