It’s a fable and as such it happened a long time ago in a far away place. At least by Hollywood standards. Roman Holiday was one of the first major American productions to be shot outside of the film mecca. It happened 70 years ago in the Italian capital. William Wyler’s film made Audrey Hepburn famous and won an Oscar for her debut role. He established Gregory Peck, his counterpart, as a comedy actor. But it’s the Italian capital that’s the real star of the film. Rome was a bright and vibrant city that emerged from fascism and the devastation of World War II. Its streets were swarming with scooters, its cafes were full of stars. Negroni ran, life was dolce and cinema, neo-realistic of course, was everywhere. “In Rome today, everyone seems to be talking about, making, or helping make movies,” according to a 1952 New York Times article. Roman Holiday, published in 1953 but filmed a year earlier, mirrored this city perfectly reflected. which today only exists in imagination. And in the movies.
“It is a very important film for Rome. And to understand its importance, we must position ourselves,” explains Gian Lucca Farinelli, President of the Fondazione Cinema per Roma and Director of the Cineteca di Bologna, over the phone. “The year is 1952, the war has been over for seven years, Italy is making itself known to the world through cinema. Neorealism, the films of Rosellini or De Sica represent the arrival of Italy in modernity. All this gives dignity to the country that emerged from fascism and makes it possible to see it in a new way.”
At the same time, Hollywood is becoming an international industry thousands of miles away. In the 1950s, he made half of his film earnings outside the United States, particularly in Europe. Cinema begins to expand under the watchful eye of Washington, which uses the most commercial films as a propaganda tool. In this context, shooting in Italy is a feat: it’s a way to open up new markets, cut costs, and at the same time put an exotic stamp on the American market. In addition, under the image of gentle comedy hides a propaganda tool in the Cold War scenario. With the story of the princess freed from her obligations, Hollywood wanted to build a story of consumerism and freedom to sell the image that there is a fun, modern and free Europe, a Europe reinventing itself thanks to Marshall’s money Plan .
Audrey Hepburn jokes about the “scooter” on set.getty
This wasn’t the only geopolitical event conditioning the film. In a first version, the mafia kidnapped the princess, but this idea was rejected under pressure from Italy. England also relied on Löffel, who saw in the film’s plot an obvious parallel to a scandal affecting his royal family. Princess Margaret, sister of the current Queen Elizabeth II, had jumped onto the covers of society magazines for a forbidden love affair and a getaway to Italy. Wyler read the articles of that time with pleasure in order to understand what obstacles a young European princess faced. For their part, the English censors urged that the film state explicitly that Anna was the princess of a small European country.
Holidays in Rome was a communist’s American dream, as the one who signed the entire screenplay was Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten who was accused of being a member of the Communist Party and imprisoned for the McCarthyist witch hunt. Trumbo credited his friend Ian McLellan Hunter and his name was not integrated until after the film’s 2002 restoration. And his honor. But Roman Holiday was no exotic American look at a foreign land, the libretto was adapted to Roman reality by two native writers, Ennio Flaiano and Suso Cecchi D’Amico, who later wrote for Fellini, Visconti, Monicelli… “They have on most written of the works of art from the golden age of Italian cinema,” says Farinelli. It is they who give Wyler’s Roman postcard a (neo)realistic patina.
Roman Holiday was shot between June and October 1952 during a particularly hot summer. Hepburn appears in the film in just one dress as she walks around town, but in the production they had several styles of the same dress ready so she could change when she started sweating. The shooting environment was relaxed. Even with several breaks like Ferragosto, an Italian holiday on August 15, when the director stopped filming to organize a beach weekend in the nearby town of Fregene. All of these anecdotes are told by Caroline Young in her delightful book, Roman Holiday: The Secret of Hollywood in Rome.
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in the movie.
“That wonderful Roman summer was probably the happiest set experience of my life,” continued Gregory Peck. It’s easy to guess why. The actor lived with his wife and children in a villa on the outskirts of Rome, surrounded by vineyards. Hepburn, then an unknown actress, stayed at a more modest hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps. The chemistry between the two was instantaneous and evident, so much so that many speculated on a romance that never really progressed beyond fiction. It is mythical and well known that the sequence of the Bocca della Veritá in which Peck pretends to have lost his hand was improvised and Hepburn’s frightened reaction was real. Today, millions of tourists imitate you in this place.
Everyone fell in love with Rome, but the one who did it most clearly was Hepburn, who moved to the Italian capital, where she lived for 20 years. There she was spotted having a drink on Via Veneto, wrapped up in her Givenchy (“Your suits are the only ones I’m myself in,” she said) and waving at the paparazzi. Her son Luca Dotti recounts in the book Audrey in Rome that the actress had a warm relationship with the city’s photographers, who captured her beautiful and elegant in photos that would today be classified as staged-robbery. “His friendship with Pierluigi Praturlon, perhaps the most emblematic paparazzi of 1950s Rome, earned him almost awe-inspiring respect from the press.”
Precisely in Via Veneto, a copy of Holidays in Rome was projected in the open air last July to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its filming. “It’s true that this street doesn’t appear in the film,” admits Farinelli, who, as president of the Fondazione Cinema per Roma, was responsible for organizing the event. “But he does it in a very related film. I don’t think La dolce vita would have existed without the Roman holidays,” says Farinelli. “In a way it’s kind of a remake because it tells the same story. He speaks of a journalist chasing a ball, of a princess who is Anitona here [sobrenombre con el que el director Federico Fellini se refería a la actriz Anita Ekberg], the Hollywood diva who lands in town. And together they discover the places, the magic of Rome”. There are other similarities, characters like the paparazzi, a term coined in Fellini’s film but Wyler spoke of earlier. Scenarios are also repeated, such as the Trevi Fountain, which in both cases serves as an improvised swimming pool, once for a group of children, once for a drunk and fascinating diva.
Hepburn walking her dog down the steps of the Spanish Steps in Rome in the 1950s.
It’s not the only film related to this classic. At the time many considered Roman Holiday to be a reinterpretation of Cinderella with the ending reversed, the commoner becomes the princess when the enchantment ends. “Wyler manages to fit elements of this old fable into a city like Rome where the scenery is perfect.” The steps of the Plaza de España act as the staircase on which Cinderella loses a shoe. The dance does not take place in the palace, but on the banks of the Tiber. “Some enclaves of the city become magical places, Rome becomes a legendary city,” he says. From the present, it’s easy to associate it with another Disney classic: Aladdin tells the story of a princess, tired of life in the palace, who falls in love with a commoner with whom she discovers the city. Of course, that inspiration is cannibalized, as Roman Holiday is, at its core, a classic story that fits perfectly into the Disney Princesses universe.
Wyler’s film may have taken local reality into account, although it is still an American production idealizing a foreign city. It offers a sweetened, monumental vision of a Rome where hairdressers overlook the Trevi Fountain, parties take place in front of Castel Sant’Angelo and a humble journalist who can’t afford his rent lives in a beautiful apartment with a patio in the middle. In this sense, Roman Holiday was also a pioneer, establishing a way of selling cities abroad as a series of moving postcards, where the graphic beauty of the settings outweighed the logic of the plot. A model that has become the standard (and profit) in productions of all kinds, from Emily in Paris to the films of Woody Allen.
Many do it, but few achieve mastery of the original, because Holidays in Rome assumes the sublimation of the city in the eyes of the tourist, the pleasure of the spectator who discovers the capital from the hands of its protagonist: by pressing play it becomes Audrey Hepburn, riding a Vespa through the anonymous streets of Rome, wants an ice cream on the Spanish Steps, a glass of champagne in front of the Pantheon. The spectator becomes a tourist and, like them, is surprised by the unfolding of the charm of a magical city. Perhaps because there was no money involved, because Wyler’s love for Rome was sincere. Or because it represents a city in a state of grace. “Any city, in its genre, is unforgettable,” Princess Anna declared in the film’s final scene. “But if you ask me which is my favorite, I’ll tell you it’s Rome.” Audrey Hepburn repeated the phrase word for word in the film’s advertisement. In this way he created a mirror play between reality and fiction, the reflection of which continues to this day, 70 years later.
All the culture that suits you awaits you here.
The literary news analyzed by our top critics in our weekly newsletter
reduced by 50 percent
Subscribe to continue reading