Nothing reminds me of my joy quite like Roman Holiday. That’s why, even with its moments of melancholy, it’s one of my comfort movies. It’s actually the number one comfort movie for me, as well as my all time favorite. Each time I watch is like the very first time – and that was ten years ago! I find new things to love and appreciate, and find the familiar to still be lovely and wonderful.
“When she began Roman Holiday, it was like a flower suddenly come to bloom and we all watched in amazement. She was born to play this princess.”
I often wonder if I’d cherish Roman Holiday as much as I do if Elizabeth Taylor or Jean Simmons had won the role of beguiling Princess Ann. But then I have to agree with Gregory Peck, that Audrey really was born to be this princess, alias Anya, alias Smitty. Roman Holiday was not the first classic film I watched, and Audrey wasn’t the first actress I was enamored with. First there was the other Hepburn, Katharine, Norma Shearer, Carole Lombard, Vivien Leigh. But Audrey just made me pause in the middle of my life. I bring this up any chance I get, but it’s like Stanley Donen said when he first saw her in Roman Holiday: “There have only been a few firsts that have rattled me so much.” Knowing more about her offscreen became a priority, and what I learned continues to fill me with gratitude. To count on her both for inspiration and comfort is something I won’t ever take for granted.
Seeing Audrey never gets old, but watching Roman Holiday is like meeting up with three of my dearest friends again. There’s Smitty, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), and Irving Radovitch (Eddie Albert).
Joe and Irving, unbeknownst to Ann, don’t have pure intentions when they give her an adventure in Rome, the eternal city. She thinks she’s royalty incognito, but they know exactly who she is. They’re going to sell this story complete with photographs. They take advantage of her trust and privacy. And yet. You relish this adventure with all three of them. Scheming aside, a sincere camaraderie springs up between this trio. They make her visit so memorable and they make it possible for her to do all those things she’s always wanted.
Ann has had enough. She’s tired of the duties she must perform as a princess and as the representative of her unspecified European country. It’s all so repetitive. Small wonder then when she breaks down in tears and yells “Stop!” as the countess drones on about her schedule. She lists all that she has to do, who she’s supposed to meet with, the scripted speeches, gifts to accept, gifts to decline, thank you, no thank you, how do you do, charmed, STOP! She’s in Rome and boring business is all she has to look forward to? Maybe she seems like a brat, but she has performed her duty quite admirably up to now. Consider how a news announcer praises her graciousness and warm smile, noting that any signs of strain on this exhausting goodwill tour are absent. At the embassy in Rome, she stands for so long without a break or a chance to sit, greeting distinguished leaders from other countries. The guests are all older than she is and she doesn’t get the chance to hold conversation or even enjoy herself. The strain first becomes apparent when she lifts her foot out of her shoe, and momentarily stumbles. For only a moment she’s not perfectly composed.
So the princess steals away in the night. She’s triumphant in the back of the milk truck, her getaway car, as the imposing gates close and she pulls farther and farther away from them.
Of course her triumph is short lived since the drug she got to calm her nerves and help her sleep takes effect. Then she’s snoozing away on a public street.
Soon her knight in shabby armor arrives. Joe Bradley sees this young girl, alone and helpless, apparently drunk, and he prevents her from serious injury when she almost falls off the low wall she’s sleeping on. “What the world needs is a return to sweetness and decency in the souls of its young men,” she sleepily recites. Joe lacks sweetness, but he’s a shining example of decency. In her present woozy state, Ann is incapable of taking care of herself. Joe takes on that responsibility, letting her, a total stranger, into his house. He’s a reluctant Samaritan, but he provides shelter and safety.
This is why you love Joe, and trust him just as much as Ann does, even though you know what he’s up to. And Irving? Well, Irving’s just a fun guy to be around and he’s the one who has to suffer the pain of physical comedy.
There are so many comedic touches sprinkled throughout this film, most of them subtle, and others that make me laugh obnoxiously loud. Audrey’s comedic timing was stellar – I’m genuinely puzzled about why more people don’t talk about how funny she was on film. Roman Holiday offers a glimpse of her offscreen too; regal, elegant, and ethereal yes, but also goofy and gloriously down to earth.
Ann is Cinderella, but not in reverse, even as she charmingly mixes up the fairy tale.
She is Cinderella’s opposite because her clothes transform her into a commoner, but the haircut, the gelato, the sidewalk cafe (champagne for lunch!), the madcap vespa ride through the streets of Rome, the dance on the boat, the wild escape from her country’s secret service tasked to bring her back, and finally, her romance with Joe – that is her ball. And then the clock strikes twelve. It’s the chimes of duty and responsibility that call her back.
“Life isn’t always what one likes, is it?”
“No, it isn’t.”
Ann is left with only the pumpkin when she leaves Joe behind. Or is she? She got to keep the glass slipper too after all. No, it doesn’t lead her back to him; it leads her back to herself. She’s not the same princess from before. The fact that she went back at all is proof of that. She tells her guardians that it was duty which prompted her return. Life isn’t always what one likes, princess. Not all your days can be as dazzling as that 24 hour holiday in Rome. She and Joe do mirror each other, each of them bound by duty, however much they dislike it. Neither of them live carefree and joyful lives, until that one perfect day.
Her guardians soon realize that Ann is not as malleable as she once was. She refuses to tell them about her holiday, the man she met and kissed, whose apartment she slept in. She approaches the members of the press without their assistance, pausing before she goes so they know not to follow her. She proudly names Rome her favorite city to everyone’s shock, dismissing the script they gave her. She reluctantly chose duty over love. It’s so unglamorous, so unlike a fairy tale, and so unlike Hollywood.
But paradoxically, Roman Holiday is still a fairy tale. It gleams with all the sweetness and sadness of one. Its magic is not the unattainable kind, the kind that supposedly doesn’t exist. What I really appreciate about Roman Holiday is how it’s grounded in reality, even as it takes flight with whimsy and joie de vivre. I love to be whisked away on fantastical journeys, but this film gives me wonderment in the real world. And I’ve found that to be so comforting as I grow older. Dazzling days are still possible – necessary even! I can still have adventures, ones that seemed terribly far away the first time I watched this film when I was seventeen years old. Life isn’t always what I like, but it’s not always bleak.
And when life is bleak, when I’m stuck in a slump, Roman Holiday remains the best celluloid cure for whatever ails me. It offers me so much to laugh and smile about. It is just a movie, but it really is there for me, almost like a person. In just under two hours, I get a holiday of my very own.
Today’s quite a holiday: National Classic Movie Day! Click the banner below to read about more comfort movies and celebrate with your own!