The Princess and the Plebian
Rough tough cartoonish action heroines and sweet little-girlie cartoons aside, princesses are hopelessly out of vogue. Times and tastes have changed, while scandal and celebrity magazines have finished this job, since non-regal photos and familiarity breed contempt.
But once upon a time not so very long ago, a slender, charismatic, beautiful young lady brought the wonder, respect, elegance, dignity and charm all back together again. Roman Holiday was the first feature rôle for ballet aspirant and fashion model Audrey Hepburn -- previous bit parts included the opening sequence of The Lavender Hill Mob -- won her an Oscar and the acclaim and love that continue down to today, nearly a quarter century after her death, as in photographs everywhere of her Holly Golightly. (Speaking of that lady somehow pure in spite of her lifestyle, David Thomson links her as a game-changing icon along with Julia Roberts’ more candid but still non-blatant pretty woman and Princess Diana’s stylish tortured tabloid life.)
In that year, 1953, with Elizabeth II’s coronation and the Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay celebratory gift of Everest, Hepburn as Princess Anne embodied the fairy tale in which the world would like to believe (but no longer can).
His suits, pajamas, residence, concierge and vehicle appropriately not the most stylish but his eyes betraying the real sympathy behind a professional veneer, Gregory Peck is fine but second fiddle. His newspaperman Joe Bradley just manages to avoid being fired by Harley Powers’ decent but skeptical bureau chief Hennessy but dreams of the scoop that will pay two months’ arrears in rent and get him back to New York from Rome. Director-producer William Wyler and cinematographers Franz Planer and Henri Alekan make the Eternal City itself an arresting location black-and-white player, in cafés, backstreets, river barges and beauty salons, markets and monuments; and as bewildered bohemian photographer Irving Radovich, Eddie Albert gives one of his best performances.
Taking some from Ernst Lubitsch -- at that transplanted Berliner’s funeral, Wyler lamented that “Worse than no more Lubitsch; no more Lubitsch films” -- and much from It Happened One Night, this fairy tale of the unhappy princess and her knight-errant on a Vespa was “written” by John Dighton and Ian McLellan Hunter, who won an Oscar. It subsequently came out that the latter was fronting -- see Woody Allen’s Howard Prince in The Front -- for blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, and so forty years later a posthumous statuette was inscribed to that Hollywood Ten hero.
The princess from an unnamed kingdom is on a goodwill publicity visit. But she is so bored stiff with propriety, protocol and protection from the real world that staff assume she is ill. Indeed, they will soon have to use that corrected misconception to mask her having disappeared. What the film knows, which they do not, is that after a nocturnal escape from her warders, she fell asleep on a public bench and was taxied to his inglorious flat by Peck. Exasperated by her, then upbraided at work for missing a scheduled interview with the princess, he realizes who the woman in his bed and pajamas actually is, and envisions an up-close-and-personal exclusive and meal ticket home.
Before the age of fabricated news and selfies, he still needs to bring the photographer aboard, for visual verification, Anne not revealing her identity, and Joe not revealing that he already knows it, anyway, documented by Irving and dogged by royal detectives the two have a merry old time of it in the happy city. And they fall in love, handsome virile he loosening up, and lovely elfin she reveling in life outside the palace in this warhorse of royalty traveling incognito. Duty and responsibility, political and moral, however, may not see things so much with the heart. A letdown and stuffy future beckon imperiously from the royal wings and command noble renunciation.
But what a never-to-be-forgotten brief holiday it was, befitting one of filmdom’s true regal princesses.
(Released by Paramount Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)