April 1, 2023

Travels by Film – Roman Holiday (Rome, 1953)

I’ve been to Rome a couple of times. Though I’ve never been there with Gregory Peck. And I’ve never been there with a wardrobe designed by that legend of film Edith Head. Or been there as a princess pretending to be a pauper. Mine is more the journey of a pauper acting like a princess.


Rome brings that out in a girl. All those Roman ruins bring delusions of grandeur, fantasies of eating peeled grapes and scheming to overthrow an Emperor while lounging by a steaming, mosaic-laden bath. (The closest I got was an invitation to a bathhouse on a Saturday night by the waiter who served me coffee every morning near my hotel. His name was Tal. His coffee was good. I’m sure his intentions were not. He was not my Gregory Peck. I declined to steam in his bath.)


Two paragraphs in and I haven’t even mentioned Audrey Hepburn. Talented, elegant, and beautiful in heart. I challenge you to find an analogous actress now. When Gregory puts his hand into the mouth of truth (bocca della verita) and pretends that it’s been bitten off and Audrey screams, her reaction is real, the moment spontaneous, cooked up by Peck and director William Wyler. I scream like a banshee when scared; Audrey remains elegant to her core. She deserved Edith Head’s design-eye far more than I do.


If Rome is a city where anything can happen, Roman Holiday is its fairytale. From the beginning when Princess Ann’s enchantment begins with a sleeping draught to the ending when Joe Bradley – our tabloid prince – behaves with a moral code little seen in this century, this is Fantasy 101 and I love it.


The device is simple: to show an innocent (our princess) a city, a world, a life. Joe takes Ann first to his apartment in via Margutta, the artists’ quarter of Rome, not far from the Spanish Steps. This is where Renaissance and Baroque artists lived, drank and fought. Caravaggio may well have owed money to someone living in this very building. Or fought a duel with them. Ann and Joe are just one modern layer on the history of this narrow street. Layer upon layer, century upon century, civilisation upon civilisation, it’s difficult to comprehend Rome in its vastness, both in space and time. What better place to lose yourself for a day, perhaps longer, perhaps more permanently. Reinvention in a city that is constantly growing new layers.


But Rome’s no mouldy relic; it’s alive and well and buzzing with scooters. As Gregory whizzes Audrey through one of Rome’s iconic and death-dodging roundabouts, it reminds me of a taxi ride I once had through Rome where I said to the veering, diving driver ‘Roman traffic is chaos’ and he answered, ‘It is just free. We Romans are free.’ (We made it through unscathed and I did indeed feel a renewed zest for life.) Princess Ann is arrested for erratic driving of a scooter – a little unfair considering Italian driving – but also begging two other questions: how can a European princess speak all those many languages, but not speak Italian?, and how inept are the Italian police that they do not recognise a missing princess. (Scrap that last one; I think recent history with Berlusconi answers every question about Italian policing.)


Has anyone ever stood by the Trevi Fountain without being given a rose? It’s the place for bold romantic gestures and wishing on a tossed coin. Ann and Joe are falling in love with each other. Tourists are falling in love with Rome. When a charming man with a smile gives you a red rose it brings the city to bloom. When the same charming man names his price for the rose, the bloom fades. In true princely style, Joe protects Princess Ann from the rose-tempters of the Trevi Fountain. But he indulges her in all the other joys of Rome. Buying shoes. Smoking a cigarette with an espresso. Gelato on the Spanish Steps. (Just what does she do with the end of that cone? Is there a bin nearby? Do not tell me that Audrey is a litter-bug, I couldn’t bear it.) Fighting the bad guys in black suits at the dance-barge on the Tiber River. Our princess is scrappy in a good way. And any day out of reality has to include a party with consequences. Although I wouldn’t recommend swimming in the Tiber. Not even to elude the secret service. Well, maybe then.


In most fairytales, girls dream of becoming princesses. They find their prince and love, innocence and purity make dreams come true. In Roman Holiday, the princess is innocent and pure, she finds her prince and falls in love, but he is only the answer to her prayer for a day – she must give him up: the prince can marry the pauper but evidently the princess can not…


It’s Edith Head who has the final word in Roman Holiday: Audrey begins the film dressed all in white: an innocent princess in an engulfing nightgown, long unsophisticated hair, milk before bed. At the end of the film, our princess is wearing dark colours, her hair is short and sassy, her eyes have secrets to keep. Perhaps after all the fairytale message of Roman Holiday is that we who can walk out of the palace at the end of the visit are happier than those trapped inside.


Philippa Burne

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