Using a front, the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo wrote this romantic comedy that marked Audrey Hepburn’s feature film debut about a queen who in Gregory Peck’s arms would much rather be part of the working class–that’s a Marxist message for you.
The Paramount crew that worked on Roman Holiday reminded me of expert marksmen who had made “charm” their target and seldom if ever missed it. The ancient buildings and streets of Rome are used as an unobtrusive backdrop, and I doubt whether architecture and sculpture have ever been tied in so tenderly and humorously with what the characters are doing at the moment. In the leading role of a bored princess who steals away from dull court routine for a day of street adventures with an American newspaperman, Audrey Hepburn has enough poise and looks for seven princesses. She also has an affected tom-boyish delivery. But Gregory Peck, Hollywood’s master of all shades of the thoughtful expression, manages by his varied throw-away movements to keep the film from stopping on Miss Hepburn’s affectations. While Roman Holiday is too succulent for my taste, I enjoyed Wyler’s switch to romantic comedy more than the heavier art style he used in directing Carrie, Detective Story, and The Heiress.
Wyler sometimes seems to be operating here with one eye on The Bicycle Thief. He is moving a well-scrubbed new movie face—Hepburn’s—against the worn face of the Eternal City, and doing a lot of other photogenic things borrowed from De Sica. When his princess is pacified with a drug by the royal doctor, both the camera and Miss Hepburn start acting in an innocent dreamy De Sica-ish way. When the heroine leaves the palazzo in the back of a laundry truck, the palace gates float up and away as though Lewis Carroll had given them life. Instead of simply crossing the street, Miss Hepburn walks into and out of a carriage and then dreamily down the street—in what Variety would call a boff bit of business.
If I enjoyed Wyler’s new work more than De Sica’s famous comedy-drama, it is simply because Wyler is a sharp-shooting technical wizard compared to the Italian neo-realist. Wyler is working strictly in the magically postured and timed idiom of Chaplin comedies when he starts Peck homeward with the doped Hepburn tagging behind. The main gag in this stretch is funny enough—Hepburn circling the winding stairway while Peck ascends it—but the wonderful things are the small bits of ballet work engineered by Peck and Hepburn. Peck’s movement with his arm leading the sleepy girl back to the stairway is a masterful piece of grace-note acting.
Wyler does noble work getting his princess away from the inhibiting palace and into the reporter’s bohemian quarters, but the adventures he arranges for the pair during the day are neither natural nor amusing. She gets a haircut, which is all to the good because of Paolo Carlini’s oily-gigolo acting of the barber. After that she takes a wild motorscooter ride, gets arrested, and escapes from a dozen plain-clothes detectives— and nothing works because it is all stock movie zaniness.
Unfortunately, the entertainment values of the picture make you constantly aware of someone’s maneuverings. Miss Hepburn often startles you with perfect impressions of England’s Princess Margaret Rose even in her slow way of giving forth with a toothy, uncomplicated smile and that pale little hand wave to the crowd. You are always conscious of Wyler’s cleverness—the way he times his jokes, puts sentiment into the laughs, or points up a silent stretch of story-telling with a funny photographic trick. Though I suspect the movie is aimed at an extremely gentle audience, it strikes me as a welcome, if eclectic, throwback to the beautifully acted, suavely directed comedies turned out in 1935 by Cary Grant and his zany tribe.