Roman Holiday - Centennial Collection Review

Truly one of the great films of its decade, Roman Holiday represents the realistic fantasy element that has always made movies so attractive. More serious film enthusiasts may disapprove, but the majority of filmgoers surely value a diversionary quality in their entertainment over all else. The viewer gives the movie a couple of hours and receives a smile of distraction in return. In the best of circumstances, that effervescent feeling carries over even past the credits and persists through repeat viewings. These kinds of films can serve as reliable methods to change one's mood or simply provide a little comfort during times of uncertainty. Just as we have warm, rib-sticking treats irresistibly thought of as comfort foods, special films exist to make us feel better and usher in temporary amnesia from the outside. It's a trick, but what isn't.

Roman Holiday qualifies entirely, I think, as one of those comfort films for many people, even though I'd argue it probably should be rated a little higher on the conventional wisdom scale. You can analyse and drone on forever, but it really is a terrifically entertaining picture that needs little praise aside from the mere instruction to watch and watch again. So many qualities that are largely intangible and ones that look deceptively effortless are contained inside William Wyler's film. With an Oscar-winning story by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and a superlative-exhausting performance from Audrey Hepburn, who also won the little gold guy, the film seems to be one of the few that burst out of the gates as both a critical and popular success while maintaining that same balance of appreciation throughout the fifty-plus years since its release. I assure you it's deserved, completely and without reservation. It's the type of film you lose yourself in totally, having been entirely won over by all the elements.

Though Roman Holiday wasn't Audrey Hepburn's first film role - she'd done small parts in several other productions including The Lavender Hill Mob - it was her first time starring and it's also lovingly thought of as the beginning of her movie star career in earnest. The funny thing is, I think it may be her best film of all and possibly even her finest outing before the camera. I'm careful to not claim it as her best performance because there are some other, more dramatic and demanding roles she did later on, Two for the Road for example, where her actual piece of acting may be of a greater quality, that possibly eclipse Hepburn's turn as Princess Ann, aka Anya, aka Smitty. Regardless, it's Roman Holiday that represents her unique place in film more than any other and it's mostly because of how absolutely adorable and swoonworthy she is here. The screenplay, direction and presence of Gregory Peck all obviously allow for Hepburn to emanate such a winning presence, but that sort of nonsexual attractiveness and charming likability uniquely belongs to the actress. In the history of film, very few female performers have managed to convey that package of cosy comfort, the cinematic equivalent of a kitten, any better or on par with Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

For the readers who expect some form of synopsis, you're all better off just watching the movie. Nevertheless, I'll give you a couple of sentences as a peace offering. Hepburn's Princess Ann has been touring European capitals and stops off in Rome only to become disenchanted with her insular royal life. She runs off into the night and is found on a bench by Peck's American newspaper man Joe Bradley, igniting a period where the two stroll through Rome via foot and Vespa as Bradley plans a big story but doesn't figure on falling for his secret subject. It sounds romantic - it is romantic - but the joy isn't reserved only for those who enjoy dusting off Breakfast at Tiffany's or Funny Face every year. A good portion of the film's charm lies in how subtle the plot is. Wyler and Trumbo somewhat slowly allow the viewer (or at least the male viewer) to fall for Hepburn's character in much the same way Peck's Bradley does. It's inevitable, but still unhurried and natural. The artificial sweetener is absolutely nowhere to be found.

Some of the credit should probably be reserved for Peck, as amiable a leading man as Hollywood ever had. There's a sense that his character could be some sort of Billy Wilder newspaperman opportunist, but that idea tends to forget that this is Gregory Peck at the wheel. When is he not a stand-up guy who does the right thing? Indeed, part of the film's accomplishment is its ability to keep us unsure of how stand-up Bradley really is. With Peck there's that assumption of stalwart goodness, but he is a member of the media in the film. The character played by Eddie Albert, whose performance and beard fully earned his Oscar nod, only adds to Peck's possible opportunism. It's also important to remember that Peck was never known for appearing in comedies, even taking Roman Holiday after Cary Grant declined as a way to stretch his appeal, so this could perhaps be rarely charted territory. That it's not, that Peck still plays the typical character he usually plays, somehow serves to keep the universe sufficiently aligned for Hepburn to pinch and poke at when no one's looking.

When she's on the screen, however, most everyone is looking right at Audrey Hepburn. I'm so keen on her in this film and not really in anything else, though that's not a knock against her so much as an acknowledgment of her rising above the fray here. She gives a similar performance in her next film Sabrina, directed by Billy Wilder, but the pitch just isn't as perfect or the material as accommodating. Similarly, the iconic roles in My Fair Lady and Breakfast at Tiffany's echo her attributes and I'd fight for Charade to the death, but there's simply something particularly special about Roman Holiday. There's a naivety to her princess that's indelibly cute and persuasive, but also deserving of some empathy. Hepburn plays her as a character lost amid the protocol, as someone who has everything except experiences. Rarely has a performance of a royal figure actually elicited understandable sympathy. It's not merely the champagne bubbles that affect the viewer's reaction to Hepburn, but, also, the whole deal of resisting this born-in obligation of being almost an alien to the outside world.

As good as Hepburn is, Peck too, there's always someone guiding an iconic performance, especially on what amounts to a first try here, and the directors who manage to inspire such seemingly easy work rarely get their due. William Wyler did get ample recognition during his career, earning a whopping twelve Oscar nominations for his directing and winning three times, but his critical reputation has faded a bit over the decades. Even so, I don't think Wyler really needs defending. However, I do think his versatility away from the epic tends to get overlooked and watching such a steady hand at work on films as diverse as The Letter, The Heiress, this film, and The Collector, none of which won him a statuette, is still worth marveling at all these years later. Wyler was less an auteur than a supremely gifted actor's director, but almost any film fan can find at least one of his films to appreciate.

For the anti-Ben Hur crowd, that very well could be Roman Holiday. Wyler was capable of a great delicacy where other directors might have gone down a more melodramatic path. As a byproduct of that ability to finely layer his films, Wyler's movies tend to appeal to both genders and often eschew preconceived notions in that area. Roman Holiday might seem to be heavily female-centric based on premise alone, but it really isn't. There's a degree of pathos in there that still never ruins the fairy tale element. The film's final scene is especially emblematic of this and it makes for a more powerful picture than simply having an unrealistically happy ending. You sort of ache a little bit at how it all turns out. It's not enough to dampen the joy of the rest of the movie certainly, but that touch of reality grounds things into melancholy and elicits a result that's affecting without being downbeat.

The Discs

Roman Holiday

is one of three titles included in Paramount's first wave of R1 Centennial Collection releases. Like Sabrina and Sunset Blvd., the film has been issued in a two-disc set with a slipcase box housing the standard size keepcase. The artwork seen above is for the outer case while the keepcase cover looks like this. An eight-page booklet is tucked inside the plastic case.

The 1.33:1 picture looks more or less the same as the previous release from 2002, which was also quite impressive. The only main difference may be that the film now gets a full dual-layered disc to its self and the contrast has improved a bit. Detail too perhaps. Really no imperfections at all were detected. The progressive transfer is clean and free from any damage of note. It's a shade inferior to the Sabrina clean-up, but nonetheless exceptional and downright amazing for a film released 55 years ago.

A Dolby Digital English two-channel mono track is likely carried over from the earlier edition. I could hear a little bit of a faint hiss at times, but nothing to get worked up over. Much of the audio seems to have been dubbed after filming, especially in outdoor scenes with heavy background noise. You can sometimes make out a lack of synchronisation between seeing the actors' mouths and hearing them speak. This is inherent in the film, though and obviously not a flaw of the disc. Actual dubs are also provided in French and Spanish, with the latter a new addition from the older release. Subtitles are optional, white in colour, and available for English, French and Spanish.

Disc one is dual-layered and the only extra it contains is the same It's a Wonderful Life preview (0:37) that's found on the other Centennial Collection releases. A few things of note are on disc two, though it may also be a tad light on bonus material. I remember a fairly good making-of featurette on the 2002 release entitled "Remembering Roman Holiday" that was inexplicably dropped from this version. It ran about half an hour and there's nothing new that really serves as a replacement. Also missing is the Edith Head featurette that can still be found on the concurrent Sunset Blvd. set. There's plenty of room for them here, as this is just a single-layered disc, but both are absent all the same. All the new material is presented in 1.78:1 and enhanced for widescreen televisions. Let's focus in on what is included:

"Audrey Hepburn: The Paramount Years" (29:54) - A very, very basic profile of the actress and her work at the studio that's similar to the piece about William Holden found on the Sabrina release. Hepburn only made six pictures at Paramount, though.

"Remembering Audrey" (12:12) - More successful is this warm featurette with interviews of her son Sean Hepburn Ferrer and her companion later in life, Robert Wolders. Out of all the extra features I've been through on Roman Holiday and Sabrina, this is the one that seems to best capture Audrey Hepburn's essence as a person instead of simply an actress or a fashion icon.

"Rome with a Princess" (8:57) - Basically a short look at the Rome locations seen in Roman Holiday, but so inviting it could have been made by the Rome tourism bureau.

"Dalton Trumbo: From A-list to Blacklist" (11:55) - Noted screenwriter Trumbo was blacklisted because of his political views and refusal to testify before Congress, but used aliases to continue writing films throughout the 1950s, including Roman Holiday. This is a nifty little piece on all of the above and more, with interviews from several people who lived through it.

"Restoring Roman Holiday" (6:50) - Carried over from the 2002 DVD, this is in full frame and details some of the work done to make the film look its best. There's also some discussion of the credit change that inserted Trumbo's name into the existing version, but nothing that speaks to the ethics of erasing some of the ugliness of history.

"Behind the Gates - Costumes" (5:31) - Continuing to showcase a particular aspect of Paramount in little chunks on these Centennial Collection releases, here we have a really nice peek at all the many pieces of clothing worn in the studio's films over the years. Some of the actual clothes featured in films like Sunset Blvd. and To Catch a Thief are glimpsed.

"Paramount in the '50s" (9:37) - This again? The ubiquitous pat on the back that's already somewhat outdated makes an appearance here just as it does on numerous other DVD releases.

Theatrical trailers - A teaser featuring Hepburn's screen test (1:49), the original theatrical trailer (2:15), and a re-release version (2:30).

Galleries - Divided into four sections, one each for Production, The Movie, Publicity and The Premiere.

Booklet - Eight pages' worth of photographs and press notes.

Final Thoughts

If you like Roman Holiday, and who doesn't, you may already have the previous DVD version. With a higher price, roughly the same transfer quality and uneven extra features, it's difficult to recommend the Centennial Collection release as an upgrade. Those who may have held out until now should be fairly happy with the two-disc set, though the missing featurette from the earlier edition is a nagging complaint.

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