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The May the 4th Be With Audrey Hepburn Blogathon: «Roman Holiday» (1953)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by William Wyler, Roman Holiday (1953) tells the story of Ann (Audrey Hepburn), the crown princess of an unspecified European country, who has just embarked on a multi-city goodwill tour. In Rome, she becomes frustrated with her endless schedule, to the point of throwing a fit. Her doctor gives her a sedative to calm her down, but she manages to escape the embassy. The drug eventually makes her fall asleep on a bench, where Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a reporter for the American News Service, finds her. Unaware of her identity, Joe assists Ann to his apartment and lets her spend the night there. The next morning, Joe, having already slept through the interview Princess Ann was scheduled to give, rushes out to work, leaving her behind still asleep.

After his editor, Mr. Hennessy (Hartley Power), scolds him for missing the interview with the princess, Joe sees a photograph of Ann in the newspaper and realizes who is in his apartment. Seeing his oportunity to make good money by writing an exclusive story about her, Joe convinces Ann to join him on a sightseeing tour of Rome. He also calls his photographer friend, Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert), to join them to secretly take pictures. That night, Joe and Ann enjoy a dance on a Tiber River barge, where they are cornered by the secret service agents of her country. After swimming to safety, they embrace and share a kiss. Later on, as she bids Joe farewell, Ann cries in the recognition that she cannot marry a commoner and fulfill her duty to her family and her country. The following day, Ann appears at a previously scheduled news conference and is surprised to see Joe and Irving there. By now, Joe has decided not to write the story. As Ann breaks protocol by shaking hands with the reporters, Irving hands her an envelope with the photographs he has taken of their "Roman holiday." With tears in her eyes, Ann tells Joe how much she has enjoyed meeting him. Heartbroken, Joe watches Ann retreat with her advisors and then walks out of the embassy alone.

Princess Ann: This is very unusual. I've never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on. With my dress off, it's MOST unusual.

Immediately after World War II, producer Samuel J. Briskin and directors Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens formed an independent studio called Liberty Films. That entreprise soon failed, however, producing only two pictures, It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and State of the Union (1948), both directed by Capra. To redeem part of their loses, the four partners sold the company to Paramount Pictures, who in turn offered Capra, Wyler and Stevens five-movie contracts at the studio. In the fall of 1949, Paramount acquired a new promising script for Capra, Roman Holiday, "a romantic comedy about a runaway princess bored with her royal routine and an American newspaperman in Rome who shows her how to live." Given its thematic similarities with his Best Picture winner It Happened One Night (1934) the story of a runaway heiress and a reporter who pretends to be unaware of her identity to write an exclusive article about her Capra was sure he could make Roman Holiday a successful film.

Although credited to Ian McLellan Hunter, Roman Holiday was actually penned by Dalton Trumbo, one of Hollywood's most successful screenwriters in the 1940s, responsible for such hits as Kitty Foyle (1940), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). However, when he was investigated by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an organization dedicated to uncovering suspected Communist sympathizers or members of the Communist Party USA within the Hollywood motion picture industry, Dalton's career was virtually ruined. His denial to testify before the committee and "name names" made him a part of the so-called "Hollywood Ten" a group of directors and screenwriters who were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to give information during the HUAC hearings in October 1947. As a result, Trumbo was banned from working in the industry and forced to serve eleven months in a federal penitentiary in 1950.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck
Finding himself "flat broke" after being released from prison, Trumbo realized that his only solution was to write. One of the original stories he crafted during this period was Roman Holiday, but because of his blacklisted status he could not sell the script with his own name attached. To deal with this problem, Trumbo asked Hunter to put his name on the project and sell it for him. Although Hunter was conflicted about the deception, he ultimatly decided to do it: "If something's phony, it drives me crazy. But I was stuck [...] Your friend is blacklisted and he needs money."

After Paramount purchased Roman Holiday for $40,000, Hunter checked into the studio to begin re-writing the screenplay. At the same time, Capra worked on putting the picture together with himself as directed, Cary Grant as newspaperman Joe Bradley and Elizabeth Taylor as Princess Ann. Just as Hunter delivered his first draft, however, Paramount informed Capra that the film "would have to be made on a forty-day schedule, with no shooting in Italy and only stock footage for backgrounds, for about $1.6 million." Citing these limitations, Capra decided to abandon to project, but he also concerned about the film's political repercussions, especially in England. Although her country remains unidentified in the script, Princess Ann was based on Great Britain's Princess Margaret, who was the subject of gossip articles about her escapades in Rome. 

Rather than shelve the project, Paramount decided to offer Roman Holiday to one of Capra's former Liberty partners, William Wyler. "They passed it around to see who wanted it," he later recalled. "I'm not sure they offered it to George Stevens. But they offered it to me I was looking for a story and I liked it." The established Academy Award-winning director of Wuthering Heights (1939), Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Heiress (1949), Wyler was looking forward to helming a comedy, which he had not done since The Gay Deception (1935), with Frances Dee and Francis Lederer.

Hepburn and Peck on the Spanish Steps.
Behind them is the Trinità dei Monti church.
Wyler set the condition with Paramount that he would only make Roman Holiday if he could shoot it on location in Rome. After the critical and commercial success of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Quo Vadis (1951), filmed entirely at the Cinecittà studios in Rome, the Italian capital had emerged as a major location for Hollywood filmmaking, mainly "sword and sandal" epics. In fact, Rome had even won the sobriquet "Hollywood on the Tiber" Tiber being the river that runs through the city.

However, Paramount was against location shooting for logistical and budgetary reasons; instead, they suggested that Wyler send a second unit to Rome for long shots using doubles for the actors while filming everything else in the studio lot with sets and rear projection. "You can't build me the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps," Wyler said to Paramount chief Frank Freeman. "I'll shoot the whole picture in Rome or else I won't make it." Paramount finally relented and allowed Wyler to shoot Roman Holiday in the Eternal City on the condition that he finance it some blocked funds that the studio had in Italy. For economy's sake, Wyler agreed to let the film be photographed in black and white, though he later regretted his decision.

Wyler felt that having an unknown actress rather than a familiar face play Princess Ann would make it easier for audiences to believe the character's royal status. However, to be able to use a newcomer, he would first need to find an established male lead to lend weight to the project. When Cary Grant turned down the role of Joe Bradley, Wyler offered the part to Gregory Peck, a major star after Academy Award-nominated performances in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and Twelve O'Clock High (1949). Peck initially rejected the offer  for the exact same reason as Grant; he realized that "it was not going to be about me, it was about the princess." Wyler eventually convinced him to take the role by saying, "You surprise me, Greg. If you didn't like the story, okay, but because somebody's part is a little better than yours, that's no reason to turn down a film. I didn't think you were the kind of actor who measures the size of the roles." Peck and Wyler later re-teamed for the successful Western epic The Big Country (1958), with Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston and Carroll Baker.

Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann
On his way to Italy to begins preparations to shoot Roman Holiday, Wyler stopped in London to interview several for the part of Princess Ann. "I wanted a girl without an American accent to play the princess," he later said, "someone you could believe was brought up a princess." One of the young hopefuls Wyler met with was a 22-year-old ingenue named Audrey Hepburn, the daughter of a Dutch aristocrat and an English banker. Her small role as a cigarette girl in the British comedy Laughter in Paradise (1951) had caught the attention of Paramount's London production chief, Richard Mealand, who mentioned her to the home office. In September 1951, Wyler asked Thorold Dickinson, who has recently directed Hepburn in Secret People (1952), to shoot her screen test at Pinewood Studios. He also instructed Dickinson to keep the cameras rolling after her lines had been delivered, so he could "assess the spontaneous Audrey." Wyler believed that was crucial to how her "true personality" would translate on film.

Once she thought the test over, Hepburn was asked to change back to her regular clothes and have a conversation with Dickinson. She only became aware that the film continued to roll on the cameras about halfway through their talk. Deeply moved by her vulnerability and sincerity while discussing her experiences during World War II, Dickinson rushed the footage of the screen test and post-test to both Paramount and Wyler, who was already in Rome. They, too, was fascinated by the results. "She had everything I was looking for charm, innocence and talent," Wyler later recalled. "She also was very funny. She was absolutely enchanting and we said, 'That's the girl!'" The studio immediately sent a telegram to Mealand, requesting him to "exercise the option on this lady. The test is certainly one of the best ever made in Hollywood, New York or London." 

Eddie Albert, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck
At that point, however, Hepburn was about to star in the Broadway adaptation of Colette's popular novella Gigi. Colette herself had personally selected the yet unknown Hepburn for the role after spotting her on location in Monaco, while the young actress was filming Monte Carlo Baby (1952). It was believed at Paramount that Gigi would last two months at most, which would allow the production of Roman Holiday to be completed in early 1952, before the sizzling Italian summer set in. Consequently, the studio signed Hepburn to do the picture following her stint on Gigi. Paramount initially offered her a seven-year contract, but she balked at the long commitment. Instead, she opted for a two-year deal that would also allow her to pursue work on stage and in television. Premiering at the Fulton Theatre in New York, Gigi ended up being a huge success, closing on May 31, 1952, after 219 performances. The play's unexpectedly long run ultimately caused Paramount to postpone production on Roman Holiday until late June of that year. 

Hepburn and Peck first met at an introductory party at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome. He approached her with his right arm extended and, in reference to their upcoming roles, exclaimed, "Your Royal Highness." She replied, "I hope I don't let you down." That encounter seemed to be enough for tabloid writers, who immediately began reporting that Peck and Hepburn had become romantically involved. Both stars were equally offended by the rumors of an affair. Hepburn was engaged to a 28-year-old English millionaire playboy named James Hanson, while Peck was still married to Finnish-born Greta Kukkonen, the former hairdresser of Broadway legend Katharine Cornell. During the making of Roman Holiday, however, Peck began a love affair with French newspaper reporter Veronique Passani, whom he eventually married on December 31, 1955.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck between takes
Filming in Rome proved a challenging endeavour. The summer of 1952 had been one of the hottest on record in Italy, with temperatures generally exceeding 32º C (90º F). In addition to the sweltering heat, political tensions were heightened as Fascists and Communists battled in the streets. At one point, five bundles of explosives were reportedly found under a bridge over the Tiber River, where filming was about to take place. Furthermore, both tourists and local residents, caught up in the excitement of witnessing an on-location film a rare venture in those days often got in the way, hoping to get a glimpse of Peck, the only established star in the cast. All of these difficulties compounded the delays already attending Wyler's directorial style, which was to re-shoot, sometimes up to sixty takes in an afternoon.

While plagued with heat, gawking spectators and noice, the location shooting turned out to be a tremendous asset to the film, as Rome became a integral character in the story. The many streets, monuments and landmarks seen in Roman Holiday include: the Palazzo Barberini (today the Galleria Nazionale D'Arte Antica), used for exterior scenes at Ann's embassy; the Roman Forum, where Joe finds Ann sleeping; Via Margutta, the site oJoe's apartment; the Trevi Fountain, which Ann passes through on her way to a barbershop on Via della Stamperia to get her iconic pixie haircut; the Spanish Steps, where Ann enjoys a gelato; a sidewalk café on Piazza della Rotonda, where Joe, Ann and Irving have lunch; the Colosseum, which they then visit; the Vittorio Emanuele Monument, seen during the famous Vespa ride; La Bocca della Verità, or the "Mouth of Truth," the carved stone face which supposedly bites off the hands of liars (this is where Joe teases Ann by pulling out his apparently handless arm); Viale del Policlinico, the location of the Wall of Wishes; the Ponte and Castel Sant'Angelo, where Joe and Ann share a dance.

Hepburn and Peck at the "Mouth of Truth"
Although Wyler usually liked to stick to the script, the location shooting also allowed a great deal of room for spontaneity to take advantage of any new discoveries he happened to come across. Perhaps the best example of this spontaneity is the scene with Hepburn and Peck at the aforementioned "Mouth of Truth," arguably the most iconic moment in Roman Holiday. Wyler claimed that he had gone sightseeing one day with his two daughters to the monument and played a prank on them, placing his arm into the mouth and pulling it out with his hand hidden under his sleeve. The joke terrified and delighted the girls, "so I thought there must be a place for this in the picture. Especially since it's a story of two people who lie to each other." However, Peck remembers the story differently. He stated that he was the one who suggested the trick to Wyler, which was actually an old comedy skit created by Red Skelton. When time came to shoot the scene, Peck decided to play the gag on Hepburn without telling her beforehand. Her reaction to Peck's "bitten-off hand" was completely genuine. According to Hepburn, "It was the only scene Wyler ever did with one take."

This kind of spontaneity and unpredictability also meant that film's final script was always a work in progress. Once Wyler took over Roman Holiday, Hunter had no further involvement with the project. Instead, Wyler hired British writer John Dighton — whose credits included the popular comedies Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Man in the White Suit (1951), both starring Alec Guinness — to come on location to work on the screenplay. As editor Robert Swink later recalled, "We had Dighton in Rome with us all the time. He was writing new scenes, new lines, whatever it took. The picture was kind of put together as it went along." Hunter and Dighton ultimately shared screen credits for the script of Roman Holiday

Filming an embassy scene in Roman Holiday
Everyone on the set of Roman Holiday was fascinated by Hepburn. "She was every eager young girl who has ever come to Rome for the first," Wyler remembered, "and I, crusty veteran that I was, felt tears in my eyes watching her. Audrey was the spirit of youth and I knew that very soon the entire world would fall in love with her, as all of us in the picture did." As for Peck, he said, "It was my good luck, during that wonderful summer in Rome, to be the first of her screen fellows, to hold out my hand, and help her keep her balance as she did her spins and pirouettes. Those months [were] probably the happiest experience I ever had making movies." In fact, Peck was so impressed with Hepburn that he called his agent after two weeks of working on the film and asked him to change the billing, arguing, "I'm smart enough to know this girl's going to win an Oscar for her first picture, and I'm going to look like a damn fool is not up there on top with mine." Hepburn and Peck became lifelong friends during the making of Roman Holiday and for the rest of her career, she expressed gratitude to him for his magnanimous gesture.

Roman Holiday opened at the Radio City Music Hall on August 27, 1953 to overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. The New York Times described it as "natural, tender and amusing," adding: "Audrey Hepburn […] is a slender, elfin and wistful beauty, alternately regal and childlike in her profound appreciation of newly-found simple pleasures and love. […] Gregory Peck makes a stalwart and manly escort and lover." For their part, Variety considered that Wyler "times the chuckles with a never-flagging pace, puts heart into the laughs, endows the footage with some off bits of business and points up some tender, poignant scenes in using the smart script and the cast to the utmost advantage." The film also did well at the box-office, grossing $3,000,000.

Audrey Hepburn with her Oscar
At the 26th Academy Awards held simultaneously at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood and the NBC Century Theatre in New York in March 1954, Roman Holiday received three Oscars: Best Actress for Audrey Hepburn, Best Costume Design for Edith Head and Best Story for Ian McLellan Hunter. It garnered seven additional nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Eddie Albert, Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White) and Best Film Editing.

Hepburn received her Oscar from Fredric March in New York, where she had recently finished a successful run on the play Ondine, co-starring her future husband, Mel Ferrer. To a rousing ovation, she raced up the aisle towards the stage, then turned in the wrong direction and ended up in the wings. When she finally made it to the stage, she nearly ran into March, gave a short, breathless speech and rushed off. She was so overwhelmed by her win that she left the Oscar in the ladies' room on her way to post-awards press conference.

In 1992, three decades after the Hollywood blacklist was abolished, the Screen Actors' Guild reviewed the crediting for Roman Holiday as well as the rights to the Oscar for Best Story. Along with the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, they decided to change their records and restore the film's true authorship back to Dalton Trumbo. At a special screening of Roman Holiday at the Academy on May 10, 1993, Trumbo posthumously received the Oscar that rightfully belonged to him, which was presented to his wife Cleo. Academy President Robert Rehme told the audience, "Tonight we will be attempting to right history by presenting the Oscar that Mr. Trumbo won in 1953. [...] It is out hope that here and now, one more dark chapter in American history can begin to be closed."


This post is my contribution to The May the 4th Be With Audrey Hepburn Blogathon hosted by Flickin' Out. To view all entries, click HERE.

Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris (2001) | Audrey Hepburn: A Biography by Martin Gitlin (2008) | Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride (2011) | Gregory Peck: A Bio-Bibliography by Gerard Molyneaux (1995) | Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life by Lynn Haney (2004) | William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director by Gabriel Miller (2013) | Roman Holiday filming locations TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. Wow, your post consisted of so much infomration that was new to me, I enjoyed it from beginning to end! I'm glad to see, by the way, that "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is your favourite classic movie, that's the film I prepared with for this blogathon :)!

  2. This is one of my top 10 movies. Everything about it is perfect, even the black and white :) I didn't know about the political situation at the time! That must have been scary!


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