The Big Idea Behind ROMAN HOLIDAY
"Dalton was flat broke," recalled his wife Cleo. "He had just emerged from ten months in jail for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His only solution was to write." One of the original stories the blacklisted Trumbo pounded out during this dark period was Roman Holiday. He knew it was a winner, but because of his blacklisted status, he could not sell the script with his own name attached.
To deal with this problem, Trumbo did what many of the blacklisted writers of the time did: he asked a friend to front for him. Trumbo asked fellow writer Ian McLellan Hunter to put his name on the script and sell it for him. Hunter was a bit conflicted about the deception, but in the end he decided to do it. "If something's phony," said Hunter, "it drives me crazy. But I was stuck...Your friend is blacklisted and he needs money."
Hunter had no trouble selling the charming story, which was purchased by Frank Capra's company, Liberty Films, for $50,000. Hunter was put on salary by Paramount, and he began working on a rewrite of the screenplay while Frank Capra worked on putting the picture together with himself as director and Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor in the leading roles. Many sources claim that Capra eventually abandoned the project, which would have been his second feature for Paramount, due to the strict budget limitations placed on him. While that may have been part of it, Ian McLellan Hunter always maintained that Capra was just too afraid to make Roman Holiday because of its association with a leftist writer. "He was scared that people would say he had nothing but Communist stuff," said Hunter.
Whatever the reason, Capra decided to let this particular project go. Paramount paid Liberty Films $35,000 for the story rights and decided to let another director have a crack at it. "They passed it around to see who wanted it," recalled William Wyler. "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." William Wyler, then, became the new director of Roman Holiday. Wyler, who was an established Academy Award®-winning director of films such as Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Detective Story (1951), was looking forward to making a comedy, which he hadn't done since The Gay Deception in 1935.
Wyler set the condition with Paramount that he would only make Roman Holiday if he could shoot it on location in Rome. Frank Freeman, the Paramount Studio Chief at the time, was against location shooting for budgetary and logistical reasons. Freeman suggested that Wyler instead send a second unit to Rome for long shots using doubles for the actors while shooting everything else in the Hollywood studio with sets and rear projection. To that Wyler reportedly said, "You can't build me the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps. I'll shoot the whole picture in Rome or else I won't make it." He knew there would be no faking the timeless beauty of the Eternal City.
Finally, Paramount relented, allowing Wyler to shoot the film in Rome as long as he financed it with some blocked funds that the studio had in Italy. Using the funds meant that the Italian government would have to approve the script before freeing any money, and the budget was set at approximately $1,000,000. It was important to the Italian government that Italy not be made fun of or depicted in a negative manner. Annibale Scicluna, head of the Italian Ministry of Entertainment, didn't approve the script at first. "You can't block money to make fun of Italy," she told Wyler. "You make fun of Italian police, of the Italian people." Wyler responded, "That's right, but we also make fun of an American newspaperman, of American tourists. We make fun of royalty. We make fun of everybody. It's a comedy!" With Wyler's promise to not do anything to demean the Italian people, the funds were freed so the film could go forward.
Cary Grant had originally been approached to play the role of American journalist Joe Bradley back when Frank Capra planned to direct. However, Grant turned it down, noting that the male lead in Roman Holiday would be inconsequential compared to the role of Princess Ann. William Wyler later offered the part to established star Gregory Peck, who initially balked for the same reason Cary Grant did: his part was secondary to the role of the princess. In an interview 30 years later Peck recalled that he often played second fiddle to Cary Grant, too. "I always felt every time someone sent me a comedy script," said Peck with a twinkle, "that Cary Grant had seen it first and had turned it down." Eventually, however, Wyler convinced Peck to take the role.
Once Gregory Peck was securely onboard, Wyler began preparations to shoot in Rome. At the same time, Wyler began looking for his Princess Ann. He wanted a girl with grace and elegance who had a non-American accent-a girl you could truly believe was a princess. On his way to Rome, Wyler stopped in London to see several actresses for the part, including a young doe-eyed ingénue named Audrey Hepburn.
The head of Paramount's London production office, Richard Mealand, had already written the home office about a new actress he was considering for the role: "I have another candidate for Roman Holiday--Audrey Hepburn," he wrote. "I was struck by her playing of a bit part in Laughter in Paradise." At the time, Hepburn was a complete unknown, having only done a few bit parts in European-made films and a few insignificant stage roles. Wyler set up a meeting with her. Years later Hepburn recalled getting the call from her agent: "He told me a movie was going to be made called Roman Holiday," she said. "They wanted an unknown, and they were going to test a great many girls. To get the test I had to meet a man named William Wyler. I had no idea who he was. So one day I got an appointment to go to Claridge's. I went up to his room wearing my one and only proper dress. I was quite apprehensive."
The meeting went well, and Wyler was impressed, finding Hepburn "very alert, very smart, very talented, and very ambitious." As Wyler flew on to Rome to begin preparations for the shoot, he ordered a screen test of the lovely 22-year-old Hepburn to be shot at Pinewood Studios. In a now legendary move, Wyler told the British director Thorold Dickinson, who was to shoot the screen test, to keep the camera rolling once Hepburn thought that the test was over. He wanted to see what she was like when the cameras stopped rolling to get a sense of her natural, relaxed state, which he believed was crucial to how her personality would translate on film. "A test is a precarious thing," Wyler explained later. "A good actress might make a very bad test, depending on conditions. You might not get her true personality, because of nervousness or whatever." The ploy worked. Once she thought the test was over, Thorold told Hepburn to change her clothes and come back for a casual chat. During their conversation in which they discussed her life including her experiences during World War II, Hepburn only became aware that the camera was still rolling about halfway through their talk.
Once Paramount executives and William Wyler saw Hepburn's screen test, they were sold. "She was absolutely delightful," said Wyler. "Acting, looks, and personality! She was absolutely enchanting and we said, 'That's the girl!'" Though some sources say that Wyler was also seriously considering actress Suzanne Cloutier for the part, it was Hepburn they were excited about. The Hollywood Paramount office sent a cable to the London office that said, "Exercise the option on this lady. The test is certainly one of the best ever made in Hollywood, New York or London."
If there was one concern that Wyler had with Hepburn's screen test, it was a surprising one considering her iconic image today. He thought that Hepburn might be too heavy. The screen test does betray Hepburn at probably the heaviest she was ever captured on film, though she was far from overweight. When she discovered this impression of her from Wyler much later, she confessed that she had been eating a little too much at the time. "I ate everything in sight," she said, "having been undernourished during the war. You know, whole boxes of chocolates. I was ten pounds more than I ever weighed in my life. It's funny to think I might not have gotten the part because I was too fat, because from then on everybody thought I was too thin."
There was one thing preventing Audrey Hepburn from starting production on Roman Holiday immediately. Earlier that same year Hepburn had been spotted by the famous French writer Colette while on location in Monaco shooting a small role for a French made picture. Colette had been looking for a young ingénue to play the title role in the Broadway stage adaptation of her beloved story Gigi. She, like Wyler, had taken one look at her and known that she had found her girl. Hepburn had already committed to doing the role in New York when she got the offer for Roman Holiday.
Paramount, happy to have finally found the ideal screen princess, signed Hepburn to do Roman Holiday following her stint on Broadway in Gigi, regardless of how long the play ran - a big risk for the studio that displayed tremendous faith in their new find. The studio initially offered her a 7-year contract, but she thought it was too long of a commitment. Negotiating a deal that was more to her liking, Hepburn wound up with a 2-year movie deal with Paramount with a clause allowing her to act in stage plays and television if she chose. Gigi closed after a successful run of 217 performances, and Hepburn was now free to work on the film that would make her a star.
There was one small problem with Audrey Hepburn that the studios wanted to change. There was another very famous actress already in the film business with the same last name - Katharine Hepburn. The latter was not related in any way to Audrey, but Paramount wanted Audrey to change her last name to avoid confusion. Hepburn, however, refused, and that was that. There would be two Hepburns in Hollywood now.
by Andrea Passafiume