© 2013 by James Clark
Sometimes luck has a lot to do with it. Feeling it was time to translate the many confusing intimations, in current films, about tempering the sense of other people as hell (an axiom of Robert Bresson’s brand of Surrealist discovery), along comes a show (at our Design Exchange) involving artisans from the Hermes corporation of breathtaking design. Their actions concerning the crafts per se and their interactions with us were so redolent of regal brilliance and passionate love for creation that I was encouraged to put aside misgivings and undertake a context of filmic magnanimity, namely, the Audrey Hepburn movie, Roman Holiday (1953), which had appeared in my eyes to have as many minuses as pluses. That the minuses of the Hermes enterprise—clustered about a marked indifference, in its horsey set market focus, to the twenty-first century and its cues toward prodigious leaps—could be brushed aside by their pluses become (somewhat incongruously) alight, gave me the shove to allow Audrey to strut her stuff.
The term, Hermes, refers to the ancient Greek god of wit and invention, a bearer of news about moving aright. Its function entails a calling from the divine to mortals. The purveyor of deluxe goods we had the privilege to make close contact with rather immodestly (but quite aptly) uses that name to sustain the company’s offer of remarkable value to the client, by way of artisans closely attending to the calling of divine invention. In Roman Holiday we have a young purveyor of immodest (and very uninspiring) ancient wisdom, Princess Ann, direct heir to a powerful monarchy and increasingly troubled about pursuing the family business. We first meet her as she completes a round of state visits to European capitals, pronouncing that cooperation between people and nations not known for their peacefulness would be nice. She also declares that the youth of these lands are important and will surely effect a happy future. Watching her having to make many speeches along those lines (and other ritualistic gestures thus informed and duly sent out in grainy black and white cinematography to a presumably edified world at large) prompts a newsreel reporter to sing, “The Princess shows no sign of the strain…” The glad tidings tour soon arrived at Rome, there is footage of an elaborate welcoming parade, including a rapidly running band of trumpeters, their (hopefully) parading gusto amounting to near-clownishness. (These guys showed up two earlier in Fellini’s The White Sheik, to a more straightforwardly comedic outcome.) The newsreel calls them a “crack” unit. This brings us to a gala reception at the Embassy, where Audrey politely greets the Papal Nuncio and other dignitaries and shows us her linguistic versatility; then it’s on to the dance floor where she whirls expertly (no problem for a student of ballet and music hall dancer) and towers over dwarfish octogenarian partners, and then, to round off the festivities, dances eye-to-eye with an ashen-faced presumed relative of Count Dracula. Up to bed, and she declares herself fed up with a shapeless bulky nightgown. “I’m not two-hundred years old!” she complains to her lady-in-waiting. She goes on to the provocation, reflecting, despite what you read in the papers, some strain, “Did you know that some people sleep wearing nothing at all?” The in-house antiquarian replies, unsurprisingly, “I rejoice to say I don’t;” and she segues into the chaste satisfactions in store for them next day: speeches, at apt venues, on “Youth and Progress,” “Youth’s Sweetness and Dignity;” and when to say, “No, thank you” [to the gift of a car, perhaps a competitor of one of her country’s manufacturers] and, “Yes. Thank you” [to the gift of flowers]. The heavy dosage of predictable dullness and patent phoniness brings her to the point of screaming out in pain and anger toward her constant and geriatric accessory, “A bouquet of very small pink roses!”
This melodramatic climax has, as we’ve seen, been prepared by a welter of narrative and scenic design features—the Embassy is shown to be close to imploding from a surfeit of Baroque opulence in its furnishings and its startlingly ornate walls and ceilings—to an upshot of Princess Ann’s hearing from Hermes a calling which is in major conflict with what must be going on with her family, her retinue, her subjects and the world at large. This seems to be the makings of wild, scary and punishing stuff—stuff we’ve all seen in many recent films—but it’s not quite so. If there were full-strength dissent, it would be another movie. Then what kind of movie is Roman Holiday?
It’s a movie written by Dalton Trumbo, who got his start with Vogue magazine, a powerful design colleague of Hermes. Before that, he worked the night shift wrapping bread at an LA bakery. By day he wrote about the “antithetical qualities” of humankind. From 1943 to 1948, he was a member of the Communist Party; and he was blacklisted and jailed in the McCarthy era. He wrote the story of Roman Holiday on being released from a prison term leaving him broke. Unable to work directly in films, he was fronted in the annals for our film by the screenwriter McClellan Hunter, who picked up the Oscar for Best Screenplay, and didn’t hand it over to Trumbo (who settled into distracted hack work). It’s also a movie “directed” (implying some level of creative traction) by William Wyler. Though drawn to vehicles (never written by him) such as The Best Years of our Lives, showing the elusiveness of sterling affinities for others, the hallmark of his career comes down to bankable entertainment where, whatever illumination may obtrude, would be factored into the cinematic equivalent of a “good read.” True to form, then, was his installing one John Dighton as the on-site screenplay enhancer—a figure who had specialized in George Formby movies. It’s also, however, directly delivered by the 24-year-old actress already quite pegged as being a journeyman entertainer. Perhaps a sign that her more rounded skills were detectable, there was Colette’s choosing her for a Broadway tour of Gigi. The former’s expertise, about lives almost entering the realm of shambles, might have detected in the youngster—emaciated from a volatile upbringing behind Nazi lines during World War II, hanging on by a thread by virtue of her mother’s threadbare aristocratic family, after being abandoned by an ardently Nazi father (whom she, after becoming solvent, supported till his death, though never being welcomed by him)—a capacity to manage that treacherously difficult migration from arts dabbler (Colette’s father being one) to artist. (Also on hand was Gregory Peck, an avatar of handsome, self-effacing piety and a Hollywood go-to-guy in getting big numbers on the board.)
As they say at the roulette tables, it was “Faites vos jeux” [Make your play—Place your bets]. And so, coming to this filmic gambling table, we see two delicate devotees of the predictable, one jaded dabbler and one very determined gate crasher. (They wanted Elizabeth Taylor.) Though the table had been rigged to yield a “classic romance comedy;” and though Audrey was, unbeknown then, fast-tracking it to becoming a fashion-plate, world-wide movie celebrity and humanitarian saint (and life-long friend of Peck, a priest-manqué), the crasher would, at this once-in-a-lifetime moment, leave behind a peculiar beauty-mark upon the senses, of “classic,” “romance” and “comedy:” the germ of excruciating ambivalence that may still open eyes in the supposedly tough twenty-first century. Temperamentally and professionally, Wyler and Peck, soon into production, found themselves fostering the Roman candle going celestial in their midst. And that leaves to us an appreciation of what got on film as entailing an extraordinary synthesis of the sublime and the ridiculous.
As jigged by the conventions of lucrative film tranquillization, Trumbo’s scenario wafts to us hints of a thread of dangerous intent performed in such a way as to assure the customers of smooth sailing in safe and shallow waters. During that reception at the Embassy, Ann, having walked and stood in high heels all day, and now positioned on a dais, meeting notables in her tent-configuration gown, steps out of those painful confinements, one shoe at a time, and she spreads her toes in delicious relief. A little multi-tasking glitch leads to one wayward shoe keeling over and eventually popping into view. But no one notices, her aide-de-camp comes forward and gets her on an even keel and the pointedly geriatric experience proceeds. Similarly, after her outburst and some tranquillization from the doctor (the needle causing the General/aide-de-camp to faint), she, now tipsy from the drug, easily leaves the security-conscious premises, happens by a food van about to clear the gates, and lands up at one of the City’s many glorious fountains (filmed on-site—such a consistent factor countervailing against the many cardboard propensities here), where Gregory Peck’s Joe finds her sleeping on a bench. He, one of many newspaper reporters in this saga-mad movie, assigned to do a story on her, like the myopic seniors at the ball missing the Cinderella’s slipper, fails to notice he’s stumbled upon a figure as hard to miss as the Lady Di. So ensues his taking her home, since the alternative is her being arrested. Her whack of good stuff now at a boil, he mistakes her “Happy…I’m so happy!” as resulting from heavy partying (if only!) and tries to ditch her by way of a cabbie who subscribes to domestic predictability. Amidst such vapidity, there is the stabilization in Peck’s warm worldliness and Audrey’s vaguely unnerving iconoclasm—“Where do you live?”/ “The Coliseum…”—in its overt sensual hunger. (Leaning on him as he goes across the courtyard of his pensione, she misses the stairway and, then, being redirected by him, she is about to hammer on someone else’s door when he catches her at the last moment. Such clowning comes at us as something to factor into the out-of-bounds physical subtext grabbing the lion’s share of our attention.) Once within his all-purpose studio—pulling from her the golden quip, “Is this the elevator?” (coinciding so magically with our navigation route)—there is Joe’s All-American straightness about being a (slightly miffed) Good Samaritan in keeping her off the streets until she sobers up—nobly deflecting her, “Would you help me get undressed, please?” and insisting, to no avail, that she must sleep on the couch—and, in addition, her savoring the sexual precincts her daring and drugs have taken her to. “I’ve never been alone with a man before. I don’t seem to mind…”
On being, in her opulent bed, injected with the stress-buster, Ann observes, “I don’t feel any different…” The doctor tells her, “You will.” And, after she claims to be not feeling like sleeping, he goes on to say, “The best thing is to do exactly what you want to do.” She’s now at a portal (however cinematically contrived) to show us what she wants to do. And the remainder of the movie—inviting (at some level) our participation in disregarding the narrative’s “classic” architecture—comprises Audrey, amidst the ancient stonework of the “Eternal City” (unwittingly maintaining eternal benightment), and conveying how different change and innovation are, from the precious missives of august diplomacy. She performs this upshot within a farcical intrigue by Joe (finally noticing her, from a snap in a front-page story about her officially reported “illness” and withdrawal from the tour) to, along with a photographer colleague, make a career-coup by staging an illustrated newspaper serial upon “the private and secret longings” of the world’s most recognizable woman. (Joe is in good company, in his incredible myopia, namely, all of Roma, as she manages to wonder its streets, get a new, radically streamlined coiffure and party on a crowded barge without attracting any autograph seekers.) As Joe and his photographer pal, Irving (using a tiny camera hidden within his cigarette lighter) show her the town and capture juicy highlights (by way of a series of clownish assaults by Joe upon his friend to prevent her learning that he’s a journalist), Ann shows a wellspring of joy that traces out to magnanimity not about studious duty but earthy gusto, in a social setting well suited to that avenue of physicality.
It takes a while for her, once wakened by a now itchy newshound, to come close to regaining the effervescence while drugged; but the study of being at liberty she subsequently spreads out before us is a sumptuous gift indeed, and remarkably rare in cinema history. The register of pushing the envelope in a rather dainty way is established at that awakening. A now doting Joe let’s her know in the gentlest of terms that she’s been asleep with him all night. After a second of anxiousness she smiles that startlingly harmonic smile and then laughs. And then she adds, “How do you do?” and shakes his hand (a curious reprise of the official routine), all the while Gregory Peck the picture of warm, wholesome gentility. Half alarmed and half pleased to be, while bathing—Joe stepping out to round up Irving—invaded and scolded as if she were a tart by the cleaning lady, she’s on the rooftop when he returns and she puts down the day’s premise, “It must be fun to live in a place like this…” Going through the motions of politely bidding her farewell, he stalks her through streets animated by farm produce stalls and follows her as far as the hairdresser’s (where he, sounding and looking like a dirty old man—a bit of off-tuning that keeps us on our toes about a darkness stalking the stalker and the Princess, whose countrymen are as quick to go on predator mode as Joe is—tries to borrow a schoolgirl’s camera). At that moment she’s hitting it off with the smitten and uncalculating proprietor. “All off?” he asks (suddenly becoming aware of the potential intimacy of his position). “Off, off, off!” she sings, showing an instinct about the sensual payload of freedom of choice, and its capacity to light up surprising harmonics. “It’s cool, eh?” Mario, her new friend, encourages. “It’s just what I want!” she thrills. Mario invites her to that dance on the barge, and he declares, “If you come, you will be the most pretty of all the girls!” Her smile tells us that this is the kind of homage she can make some sense of. It sets in motion a consideration that the wattage of her smile shines in direct proportion to her readiness (however subliminal) to appal not only the anal advisors and servants but her parents and the country they find gratification in shepherding. Ostensibly having departed Joe’s place on realizing she had seriously messed up the day’s schedule, by the time she makes it into the streets that schedule is of no importance. Joe pretends to bump into her by chance, on the old and grandiose Spanish Steps where she’s enjoying a gelato. She leans back to soak up the sunlight, for the moment no strings attached. But she also feels compelled to tell him that she had rebelled against an authority she was obliged to see as valid. Indicative of the turmoil of her situation is the fabrication that she ran away from “school,” a neat metaphor as pointing to being rid of it one day. (She being, at heart, too cool for school.) Joe, hardly a soul mate in this free fall, urges her (for the sake of his own, far from supportive motives), “Live dangerously. Take the whole day off.” She enthuses, “What fun it would be to have a drink at a sidewalk cafe [She had seen such enchantment, from the back of the produce moto at the outset, where she exchanged warm and carefree waves with a girl on the back seat of a Vespa]…walk in the rain…” At the cafe with him—ordering champagne, but claiming she only drinks it once in a blue moon—she replies in a noteworthy way when he asks about her father’s job: “He’s in public relations… I’d never care for it!” [Asking, in turn, about Joe’s job, he tells her he’s in “the selling game…” [Selling “fertilizer”]. His cynicism here amounts to more dramatic preparation for the downward-tending jist of their endeavors. He proposes writing up a “schedule” for the rest of their day, but she urges, “Let’s just go!”
Thus ensues a round of sightseeing and concomitant eavesdropping deftly framed by some navigational highlights. Joe drives Ann to the Coliseum (traces of conflict and violent antiquity in the air) and their vehicle, a snappy little Vespa, takes us back to her first taste of a freedom both chic and affectionate.. Two landmarks, rather off the beaten path, are visited, and they further speak to the morass she’s really negotiating, while seeming to be carefree. Joe takes her to an ancient stone frieze, in the form of a face, called “The Mouth of Truth,” and he sets up a juicy photo op by telling her that legend has it that if you dare to place your hand in its mouth, it could be bitten off, on its detecting bad faith. “Let’s see you do it,” he dares her, putting her nerve on the spot at a level beyond his reflective capacity. She—half aware that the danger is exaggerated, but having been dragged into a space where her daring is multiply on the line, (playfully) agonizes. Joe swaggers forward to show her how it’s done and pretends to be savaged by that venerable danger, detecting bad faith. Ann screams and desperately tries to pull him free, until he laughingly reveals his untroubled limb (upon someone who is clearly too canny to approach the limb she’s on) and she punches him in a gesture of relief, embarrassment and unpleasant surprise. “You beast!” she blurts out. Next stop, designed by him to recover his good chap self-image, is “The Wall of Good Wishes,” an old stone rampart, covered with tiles upon which are painted testimonials to the generosity of fate, little vignettes about wishing for being spared by bombs landing close-by, during the recent World War, and the like. Ann is touched by the “lovely stories” and when he tells her to make a wish she replies, “Anyway, the chances of it being granted are very slight…” He has thus wheeled her into the disposition of counting on dumb luck, when her real story is all about epochal resolve. (Has Abbas Kiarostami taken note of this ironic juncture in the episode of the golden tree, in his Certified Copy?) Irving leaves them at this point to reload his apparatus; and she having been handed the story that he was a wheeler-dealer in big business, sends him off with. “Good luck with the big development”—a line that speaks not only to the daunting proportions of her own moment of truth, but to how essentially alone her decision leaves her.
Parked within that exciting insinuation, we have had to wade through standard “oddball” supposed mirth. Audrey accidentally activates the Vespa; they crash through a flea market, ending up at police headquarters; Joe tells the cops they were on their way to their wedding; all is forgiven, the commercante having laid the charges now kissing the happy couple for good luck. (Perhaps relishing her time of liberty, she tells him, when the dust settles, “Don’t look so worried. I won’t hold you to it!”) Relieving this triteness, against which the heart of the project struggles, there is the brief moment when, drawn up before the Chief Inspector, a confused and despairing Princess lifts her arms forward as if about to be handcuffed. This thin thread of illumination lights our way to the silly mayhem and the startling love of the party on the anchored boat and its overwhelming destination. Ann had regained the moment by the time they reached the riverbank, her face going so far as to imply there would be no tomorrow.
They dance cheek to cheek and her eyes are strictly confined to the luck she has been touched by. “I think you’re a ringer” she tells him. (Earlier she had been fed the idea that ringer [as in Irving’s almost saying she was a “dead ringer” for the missing celebrity] means a person with charm. Ringer, of course, means fraud.) “I’ve never heard of anybody so kind…also, completely unselfish!” With this, Joe, chronically slow on the uptake, makes a little start toward realizing this is not business as usual. The clown-show brawl with her country’s secret police supposedly forms a bond based on hyperactive violence—“You were great back there!”/ “You weren’t so bad yourself.” But back at his place the next day—he explaining the lack of kitchen facilities with, “Life isn’t always what one likes;” and she replying sadly, “No, it isn’t”—their eyes meet and he says, “Quite a day!” and she says, “A wonderful day!” She turns off a radio report that the Princess’ parents and subjects are alarmed. “The news can wait till tomorrow…Can I have some wine?” When she quietly decides, “I’ll have to go now,” they embrace and all the passions of a lifetime are distilled in that first and next to last achievement of confluence.
As they proceed to turn their backs on each other forever, there is a vastly intriguing cinematic flashpoint that can be so easily missed. In a movie so eager to pander to crude discernment, the idea of a royal personage being nobly inured to a life of high-end sterility almost becomes a given—like living with a form of physical cripplement. Thereby the shattering of their affections takes on a presence of Greek tragedy, a heady little parting twist to a confirmation that life holds so many rich rewards. Ann’s bowing to this seeming inevitability links, however, to the fragility and brevity of her confidence in Joe, and the fragility and brevity of her own daring. Thus the delicate strengths brought to such lovely evidence by both of these brilliant performers, navigate through a barely visible curtain of defeat, providing a synthesis of almost inexhaustible nuance. Their having arrived in his car at the Embassy, she tells him, with pain numbing her face, “I don’t know how to say good bye.” “Don’t try,” he replies with an equal measure of hopelessness in his voice and his face. Another passionate embrace, their eyes closed in order to see as far as possible; and then, sad smiles and distances impossible to measure.
Joe had on several occasions referred to himself as “the doctor”—as in, “Just leave that to the doctor…” He lacked the pharmaceuticals, but he did, for all that, bring her to a new level of regal tranquillity. The film’s last scene, with Ann meeting members of the press who covered her tour—Joe and Irving having killed their killer of an expose and the three of them experiencing the depths of friendship and love all but buried in protocol—only adds to a poignancy both calculated and conveying so much more than was explicitly bargained for. (Joe formally seconds her dictum about goodwill; and not even the strains of “Onward Christian Soldiers” which accompany his departure [after everyone else has vacated the ponderously ancient and luxurious venue] can douse the flames this strange film leaves us with.)
Before the close encounter of a few select writers and photographers to round out the tour, she had declared, “I will cherish my visit and remember it as long as I live.” After that, she had pulled away from the line of journalists, and now she was back with her retinue. She looks directly at Joe, her face very slightly saddened. Then she musters a smile of special radiance, before leaving.
Noel Coward and David Lean’s sublime Brief Encounter had going for it superior writing and Rachmaninoff, to limn depths of love and their difficult lucidity. Roman Holiday had going for it Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck’s physical virtuosity and a tipsy script that leaves us not with sterling martyrs but with the exhilaration that commoners can be thrilling.