Grade: A
Romantic comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

Audrey Hepburn’s appeal was that she somehow managed to convey both innocence and sophistication—a girl-next-door who was oddly glamorous at the same time. Two films showcased that exquisite balancing act best: Sabrina (1954) and Roman Holiday (1953). Thanks to Paramount, which recently released the latter on Blu-ray for the first time, a new generation of movie-lovers can appreciate the performance that earned Hepburn her only Best Actress Academy Award.

Hepburn plays royalty in Roman Holiday, but there are other Hollywood “royalty” involved as well. Three-time Best Director Oscar-winner William Wyler (Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur) is behind the camera. Dalton Trumbo, the most (in)famous of the McCarthy-era blacklisted Hollywood 10, was responsible for the story and co-wrote the screenplay. Though uncredited, Trumbo won an Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story, and legendary costume designer Edith Head added another Oscar to her own mantle for her work on Roman Holiday. And while Gregory Peck wouldn’t win his Best Actor Oscar (To Kill a Mockingbird) for another 10 years, he plays off Hepburn memorably in this very different kind of romantic comedy.

If Roman Holiday were described as a high-concept film during an elevator pitch, it could best be summed up as It Happened One Night meets The Prince and the Pauper in Rome.

Hepburn plays Princess Ann, heir to the throne of a fictional European nation who’s wrapping up a tour with a visit to Rome. Absolutely fatigued and on the brink of a nervous breakdown, she yearns to be common, to live an ordinary life, to get away from all the obligations that accompany being a princess. So what does she do? There’s no one to trade places with, but she sneaks out anyway and goes AWOL for 24 hours. The complication: the doctor had just given her a shot to “calm her down,” and it makes her incredibly sleepy and gives her the appearance of being intoxicated.

Like Clark Gable’s newsman in It Happened One Night, Peck plays a journalist who stumbles onto a runaway “royal,” and like Gable’s newsman, once he realizes her identity, he schemes to write and sell an exclusive “personal” story, all the while being careful not to let her out of his sight . . . or to reveal his ulterior motive. Eddie Albert, of TV’s Green Acres fame, plays Joe’s best friend, a photographer named Irving, and together they attempt to document this escaped princess on her carefree one-day Roman holiday.

Though shot in black and white in the traditional Academy aspect ratio of 1.37:1, Roman Holiday still features fascinating footage of Rome, where the picture was filmed. Viewers get to see the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, The Colosseum, the “Mouth of Truth,” the Tiber River, the Piazza del Pantheon, Piazza Venezia, Piazza di Spagna, the Viale del Policlinico, and the Piazza della Repubblica. But just as satisfying are the shots of an undercover Princess Ann exploring neighborhoods and markets in 1952 Rome.

Were people really as decent and genuine in the early 1950s as we see in films like this? As much as any of the ideas that the Hollywood dream factory has marketed over the decades, we’d like to think so. Films like Roman Holiday remain forever charming and wholesome—a refreshing, much-needed break from the amoral and often inscrutable antics that dominate today’s news cycles. I would argue that we need classic Hollywood films now as much as we ever have, and ones like this understated romantic comedy fill that basic need. Despite a brawl at a riverfront open-air club and some reckless scooter driving, Roman Holiday for the most part shows people behaving with decorum, restraint, civility, and good conscience. And without seeming moralistic or unbelievable.

Roman Holiday won’t be for the whole family, though, because it takes a willingness to embrace black-and-white and to put oneself in the place of the princess needing a break from her demanding “job,” or a reporter who finds himself having to choose between professional success and a woman he finds increasingly more endearing. Junior high age and older, I would think, could appreciate this classic but non-standard rom-com.

The 4k transfer to Blu-ray is a good one, though the source obviously had a handful of missing frames so that there are slight jump cuts that don’t seem to have been deliberate. Otherwise, this film hasn’t looked better.

Entire family: No (Junior high and older)
Run time: 118 min. (Black and White)
Studio/Distributor: Paramount
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby TrueHD Mono
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some adult elements)

Language: 0/10—Nothing here that I caught

Sex: 2/10—Innocent, though other people’s reactions have them thinking otherwise: a woman is seen wrapped in a towel; a woman sleeps in the same apartment as a man; a neighbor watches money change hands and thinks the woman a prostitute, etc.

Violence: 2/10—There’s that brawl at the riverfront, but it’s played for comic effect

Adult situations: 4/10—A woman says she’s smoking for the first time, a woman drinks champagne during the day, and there’s wine drinking but no drunkenness

Takeaway: Roman Holiday may not have won Wyler a fourth Oscar (Fred Zinnemann won that year for the sweeping epic From Here to Eternity), but it’s as good as anything he directed