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Roman Holiday
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Roman Holiday

Roman Holiday

Audrey Hepburn made one of the most successful Hollywood debuts of all time in Roman Holiday (1953), an enchanting romantic comedy often described as Cinderella in reverse. The role of a princess who runs from her royal retainers to experience the joys of real-life during one glorious day in Rome was an unparalleled showcase for the young actress, making her an international star and bringing her an Oscar®.

The project had been conceived by Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted writer who had been part of the original "Hollywood Ten," filmmakers who went to prison and lost their careers for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Over the years, Trumbo wrote several scripts under pseudonyms or through fronts, friends who paid him for scripts they then submitted as their own. In this case, he had Ian McLellan Hunter submit the script for him. Director Frank Capra picked up the project for his recently formed independent production company, Liberty Films. McLellan gave Trumbo the entire $50,000 fee for the story (many fronts were far less generous), then went on contract to write the first draft.

Capra planned to direct Roman Holiday, a story with a strong resemblance to his earlier hit It Happened One Night (1934), with Elizabeth Taylor as the princess and Cary Grant as the reporter who takes her under his wing to get a story. Then Liberty ran into financial difficulties with its first release, Capra's State of the Union (1948). The director sold the company and its undeveloped properties to Paramount Pictures, hoping to make Roman Holiday for them. But Hollywood was tightening its belt to deal with the declining box office of the post-war years, and the studio would not give him a budget of more than $1.5 million, so he dropped out. Later biographers have suggested that the ultra-conservative Capra had discovered the story's true author and did not want to get mixed up with a blacklisted writer.

Paramount then offered the project to William Wyler, who accepted on condition that they shoot the film entirely on location. This would provide advantages for both director and studio. It allowed Paramount to make the film with European assets that had been frozen after the war, while Wyler got to take advantage of a recent law exempting U.S. citizens from paying income taxes if they worked out of the country for 18 months or more. As a result, Roman Holiday was the first U.S. picture since World War II shot entirely in Rome

Wyler's first choice for the male lead was Gregory Peck, a matinee idol who was looking for a comedy to follow a string of action films. But Peck initially turned the role down, feeling that the female lead was clearly the film's star. Wyler shamed him into accepting the role, a change of heart Peck would never regret.

Jean Simmons was the first actress Wyler pursued for the role of Princess Ann, but she was currently under contract to Howard Hughes at RKO Pictures. Her schedule and Hughes's financial demands made the casting impossible. The director then decided the role needed to be played by a newcomer. Passing through England on his way to scout Roman locations, he interviewed five young actresses and was so impressed with Hepburn he suggested the studio place her under contract even if she didn't do Roman Holiday. Unable to film her screen test himself, he left instructions that the cameras be kept running after she had finished her scenes. As a result, he got to see how her personality registered spontaneously. The results were magical, as she kidded around with the crew after the take and then realized the cameras were still turning. Wyler asked that Paramount sign her for the film.

There was only one problem. Hepburn had just signed with a Broadway producer to star in Gigi, a stage adaptation of some stories by the French writer Colette, who had personally selected Hepburn for the role. She was committed for the Broadway run and a possible tour that could keep her tied up for two years. Fortunately, Peck was experiencing production delays on The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) that meant holding up production anyway. Paramount executives convinced Gigi's producer to postpone the show's tour so they could film as soon as Hepburn had finished the play's Broadway run. When it became a hit, they even paid him not to extend the run into the summer. The payment was well worth it, as the delayed tour drummed up publicity for the film.

Although she had appeared in seven European films, including the classic comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Hepburn knew she was still a newcomer and put herself completely in Wyler's hands. She found his tendency to shoot as many as 40 takes of a single scene the perfect way to perfect her film acting technique. For his part, he conspired with Peck to add surprising bits of business to the scenes so that he could capture her spontaneous responses. The most famous of these is the scene at the "Mouth of Truth," a statue that, according to legend, would devour the hand of any liar foolish enough to put his or her hand in its mouth. Although the script called for Peck to put his hand in the mouth and pretend he couldn't get it out, Peck and Wyler added a bit in which he hides his hand within his jacket sleeve, making it appear that the statue really has eaten it. Hepburn responded with genuine horror followed by uninhibited laughter when Peck revealed the joke. For once, Wyler got a scene in just one take.

There were problems, however, when Hepburn had to cry during the scene in which she finally leaves Peck. They worked for hours, but the tears wouldn't come, not even when the makeup man sprayed camphor in her eyes. Finally, Wyler chewed her out in front of the entire crew. Humiliated, Hepburn got the tears on the next take, after which Wyler apologized.

Peck was so impressed with Hepburn's work he called his agent during production and demanded that she be given equal billing to his. At first, Paramount executives resisted, but when they saw the rushes, they realized that her performance was going to sell the picture as surely as would Peck's name. The two stars became close friends during the filming and would remain so for years. In fact, when Peck's marriage broke up during his European stay, rumors flew that Hepburn had stolen him from his wife. In truth, the marriage had been in trouble for some time, and shortly after finishing the film, Peck fell in love with French journalist Veronique Passani, who would be his wife for almost 50 years. He also introduced Hepburn to actor-director Mel Ferrer, who would become her first husband.

Roman Holiday did indeed make Hepburn a star, also bringing her the New York Film Critics Award, a Golden Globe, a British Academy Award and an Oscar®. Surprisingly, it wasn't a huge hit in the U.S., though that would be more than made up for by its success overseas. On its initial run, it was one of the most popular U.S. films shown in Europe. It was a hit all over again in Moscow in 1960. And it was a surprise hit in Japan, where young women just beginning to feel the need for independence chose Hepburn as their role model. Years later, Wyler was amazed to tour Japan and see women there wearing her hairstyle from the film.

Along with Hepburn, the film won an Oscar® for its original story, though the award only went to credited writer Hunter. Eventually, Trumbo's authorship came out, and the Motion Picture Academy presented an Oscar® to his widow at a 1993 screening of the film. His name was added to the credits for the film's 2002 DVD release.

Producer: William Wyler
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton
Based on a story by Hunter [Dalton Trumbo]
Cinematography: Franz Planer, Henri Alekan
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Music: Georges Auric, Victor Young (uncredited)
Cast: Gregory Peck (Joe Bradley), Audrey Hepburn (Princess Ann), Eddie Albert (Irving Radovich), Hartley Power (Mr. Hennessy), Laura Solari (Hennessy's Secretary), Harcourt Williams (Ambassador), Margaret Rawlings (Countess Vereberg).
BW-119m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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