December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Once upon a time

By |2023-08-02T19:03:02+02:00September 20th, 2011|Features Archive, History 102|
Hepburn and Peck: Not the original choices.

ome! By all means Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I shall live. — Princess Anne in William Wyler’s “Roman Holiday”

The cinematic siren song called “Roman Holiday” has lured visitors to the Eternal City ever since Paramount Studios released it in 1953. Starring exquisite newcomer Audrey Hepburn and handsome everyman Gregory Peck, director William Wyler’s timeless romantic comedy is as much a love story between its stars as it is a valentine to postwar Rome. Yet the back-story behind the Cinderella story in reverse is a far cry from the movie’s charming, breezy tone.

The ephemeral romance between Hepburn’s character, the Ruritanian Princess Anne, and American reporter Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck, was originally slated for filming in Hollywood with an entirely different cast and crew. Frank Capra, the Oscar-winning director of golden age classics “It Happened One Night” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” acquired the script through his independent production company, Liberty Pictures, and envisioned Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant as its stars.

But Capra eventually dropped the project amid fears that it would tarnish his stellar career. The script, inspired by Princess Margaret’s headline-news affair with Royal Air Force officer Peter Townsend, had been written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the original Hollywood Ten who was blacklisted during the Second Red Scare that swept America after World War II.

During the dark days of the McCarthy Era, Trumbo, at one time Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter, was dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and pressed to confirm his ties to the American Communist Party. Trumbo, who had belonged to the party but had renounced his membership by the time of the committee’s notorious hearings, was uncooperative. His contempt led to an 11-month jail sentence.

With a family to support from jail, Trumbo hammered out “Roman Holiday” before entering prison and convinced his friend and fellow screenwriter, Ian McLellan Hunter, to take credit for it. With his name on it, Hunter sold the script to Liberty Pictures for $50,000 and immediately turned the loot over to Trumbo. When Capra learned of the screenwriter’s true identity, he immediately dropped the project.

Capra’s small production company was eventually gobbled up by Paramount. That’s when “Little Foxes” and “Wuthering Heights” director Wyler signed on. Wyler had no problem working with Trumbo’s script, but he did have reservations about filming in Hollywood since his own liberal stance meant that he, too, was on HUAC’s watch list. Seeking distance from the witch-hunts, Wyler insisted on shooting in Rome. Paramount, eager to use up some frozen Italy assets and financially motivated to work in the cheaper lire, agreed.

With Capra out and Wyler in the leads were recast. Enchanting ingénue Hepburn won the part of the princess. Cary Grant, who considered himself too old to play the 24-year-old Hepburn’s love interest, passed on the project, replaced by Peck in what would be his first comedic role.

Filming began at Cinecittà and went ahead throughout Rome during a broiling summer. Despite local strikes and political unrest, the show went on, and “Roman Holiday,” as the opening credits brag, became the first American movie shot entirely in Italy. Italian actors and extras were put to work, and authentic Italian nobility appeared in the movie’s opulent ball scene. The latter donated their salaries to charity.

The picture catapulted Hepburn to stardom, earning her Oscar Best Actress honors in her first major film role. But she wasn’t movie’s only breakout star. Postwar Rome with its splendid ancient ruins, sumptuous palace interiors and bustling street life shines every bit as much as the stars. Wyler shot the film in black-and-white (as opposed to the by-then-standard Technicolor) so that the beauty of the city would not upstage Hepburn and Peck.

Beginning around 1950 and into the mid-1960s, Italy’s economic and social development was booming. From Princess Anne enjoying her first taste of freedom in the sweet form of gelato on the Spanish Steps, to the iconic scene of Peck’s hand being swallowed up by the Mouth of Truth, “Roman Holiday” captured a vital, stunning and majestic Rome that had come to symbolize Italy’s remarkable triumph after its Fascist legacy and World War II Nazi occupation

Wyler’s decision to shoot on location honored the spirit of Trumbo’s script, which Hunter again fronted for when it won the 1954 Best Screenplay Oscar. (Righting its wrongs decades later, in 1993 the Academy awarded Trumbo a posthumous Oscar and his name was restored to the opening credits).

Aesthetically and symbolically, Rome was the perfect place for a princess to liberate herself from the prison of royal protocol, to shear off her locks, zip around on a Vespa, fall in love with a commoner, and incite a bust-up at a boat party among men. Had “Roman Holiday” been filmed on a Hollywood soundstage at the height of the Red Scare, it never would have achieved such magic.

About the Author:

Jennifer Theriault's "History 102" column ran from 2010 through 2015.