Best Romance, 1953 – 5-Star Masterpiece
Perhaps the Most Perfect Romantic-Comedy Ever Made
That’s not just my opinion – it seems to be universal. It was directed by one of the all time greats, William Wyler, who is known for such mega classics as Ben-Hur (1959), for which he won the Oscar for Best Director; Friendly Persuasion (1956), Detective Story (1951), The Big Country, The Heiress (1949); The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), for which he was named Best Director; Mrs. Miniver (1942), for which he again won Best Director; The Little Foxes (1941), The Letter (1940), Wuthering Heights (1939) and Dodsworth (1936).
Wyler has more Oscar nominations than any other director (12), and only John Ford has more wins (4). Even without those nominations and wins, Wyler would have to be considered one of the top three directors of all time, along with John Ford and Frank Capra, for the sheer quality and quantity of his work. He is considered to be second only to Ford as a “master craftsmen of cinema.” And even though Roman Holiday is a “little” film, as far as budget and scope, it has a huge heart and was probably a lot more fun to make than many of his larger productions. It’s definitely more fun to watch.
Roman Holiday was the film debut of one of the most beloved actresses of all time, Audrey Hepburn. She plays a reluctant princess, Princess Ann, of an undesignated European country, who is doing a good-will tour of Europe, when she comes close to having a nervous breakdown. To save herself, she sneaks out of the palace where she’s staying and has a “holiday” from royalty. Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a somewhat unscrupulous American reporter, finds her sleeping in the street and reluctantly puts her up for the night. In the morning, when he realizes who she is, he falls over himself – and causes his photographer friend, Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert), to fall over himself – trying to “help” her enjoy her holiday, while Radovich captures it all on film. Together they plan to sell the exclusive story and photos for a ton of money; but as often happens in romantic-comedies, things don’t work out quite the way they planned.
Besides being nominated for Best Director and Best Picture of 1953, Roman Holiday won the Best Actress award for Audrey Hepburn; Best Costume Design in a Black-and-White Film for Edith Head; and Best Story award for Dalton Trumbo. In addition, it was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Eddie Albert; Best Art Direction and Set Direction for a Black-and-White Film; Best Cinematography for a Black-and-White Film; Best Film Editing; and Best Screenplay for Ian McLellan Hunter and John Dighton. That’s 10 nominations total. Hepburn also won the British version of the Oscars, BAFTA, for Best Actress, as well as the Golden Globe and the New York Film Critics Circle Award. Not bad for a first film. Writers Hunter and Dighton won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best American Comedy.
That’s a lot of big awards for a “little” film. But that just goes to show that good filmmaking is not about budget, not about special effects, not about sex, language or violence. It’s about good writing, good cinematography, good production values, good acting and good directing. And what’s even more impressive is that Roman Holiday is as popular today as it ever was. According to the American Film Institute’s list of the “100 Greatest Love Stories,” it’s ranked number four after Casablanca, Gone With The Wind and West Side Story. Since none of those are comedies, that would put it at the top for Best Romantic-Comedy. The only other film that comes close to it, in my opinion, is It Happened One Night (1934).
Like Summertime (1955), Roman Holiday feels so natural, you imagine you really are in Italy intermingling with the people – not as a tourist, as you did in Summertime, but as an expatriate, which is what Joe Bradley and his buddy, Irving Radovich, are. It is shot on location in Rome, of course, with Bradley and Radovich as your tour guides. It takes Radovich a while to catch on to what Bradley is up to, because they haven’t had a chance to discuss it. One of the running gags of the film is how Bradley lets Radovich in on things.
The writing is about as witty as you’re going to get. I love it when Bradley introduces Anna to his digs and says, “This is what is laughingly known as my apartment.” And when Anna is first waking up in that apartment, and thinks she’s still in her palace, she mistakes Bradley’s voice for that of her doctor’s, and so starts confessing things to him that only her doctor would know. Bradley plays along and says, “Tell the good doctor everything.” It’s a great exchange.
One of the highlights of the film is when Bradley takes Anna to visit the “Mouth of Truth,” a first century image, carved from Pavonazzetto marble, located in the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Legend has it that if someone given to lying sticks his hand in the Mouth, it will bite it off. Both Joe and Anna have been telling a pack of lies about themselves, so neither is particularly eager to test the legend. But, unbeknownst to Hepburn, Peck had planned ahead to act like his hand had really been bitten off. When they shot the scene, and he screamed and then pulled out his arm with his hand up his sleeve, her reaction of shock was real. It makes an unforgetable scene.
The film is full of unforgettable moments that will make you feel you really have visited Rome – not just as a tourist, but as the special guest of an expatriate or a native, which is really the best way to visit any new place. Enjoy the trip, and arrivederci..
Waitsel Smith, July 21, 2010
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Text © 2010 Waitsel Smith. Images © 1953 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.