When Romance Met Comedy
With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
If movie genres were ice cream flavors, romantic comedies would be vanilla: Simple, satisfying, and unchallenging. You can jazz it up with toppings or mix in other flavors, but at the end of the day, it’s the comforting familiarity that’s the selling point. That being said, there’s a massive range in quality between a handcrafted artisanal pint and a two-gallon bucket of artificially flavored gloop. There’s an art to making a truly great romantic comedy, just as there’s an art to making a truly great vanilla ice cream. And on the high end of that spectrum sits Roman Holiday, perhaps the finest vanilla gelato the rom-com genre has ever served up.
Like Harold And Maude or When Harry Met Sally, Roman Holiday is one of those romantic comedies that’s inspired so many copycats that the original can almost seem too familiar to first-time viewers. Three years after Disney canonized our shared image of Cinderella with its 1950 animated classic, Roman Holiday popularized the “reverse Cinderella” romance—the story of a glamorous high-status woman who falls for an everyday guy, often while one or both of them is in disguise. Ironically, Disney would then regularly start to pull from that template, in movies ranging from Lady And The Tramp to Aladdin and Tangled.
Itself inspired by screwball comedies like It Happened One Night, Roman Holiday would go on to influence rom-coms ranging from Notting Hill and Chasing Liberty to Overboard, Long Shot, and Shakespeare In Love. The “reverse Cinderella” formula is a little bit fairy tale, a little bit Twelfth Night, and a little bit fish-out-of-water comedy (and not entirely dissimilar from the adventure romance subgenre either). The thrill comes from seeing two people who otherwise never would’ve crossed paths thrown together into a deeply intimate setting. And the romance comes from the way they shape each other for the better, even as outside forces conspire against them—or their own deception puts them at a moral crossroads.
What makes Roman Holiday special is how sweet and simple it is. In her auspicious, star-making American debut, Audrey Hepburn plays Princess Ann, a young royal on a goodwill tour across Europe. Exhausted by her endless public duties, and lightly hopped up on a sedative, Ann flies the coop in Rome, looking to finally experience the real world for herself. When she gets in over her head, however, she’s rescued—first reluctantly and then self-servingly—by Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), an American journalist hoping to score a big payday with a story about the princess’ wild day out.
Shot entirely on location in Rome, Roman Holiday unfolds over the 24 hours or so that Joe and Ann spend exploring the city together. Though it’s a splashy studio film, it has an unhurried, observational tone that calls to mind Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset as much as a classic plot-driven romantic comedy. The stakes are high in the sense that Ann’s public dignity hangs in the balance should Joe publish his story. But Hepburn also gives Ann a refreshingly self-possessed competence underneath her naïve exterior. You get the sense that she’ll be okay no matter what comes of this Italian adventure.
Indeed, Roman Holiday is a coming-of-age story as much as anything, one where we witness the birth of Hepburn’s movie star persona in a sequence where Ann trades in her pumps for flats and cuts her long bushy hair into a short, stylish bob. Roger Ebert once referred to Hepburn as “the last of the silent stars,” thanks to her incredibly expressive eyes. And they’re on full display in Roman Holiday, where one glance can tell a whole story unto itself—a quality Hepburn would continue to bring to her next decade and a half of stellar rom-com work.
In fact, while romantic comedies are traditionally driven by rat-a-tat patter, Roman Holiday’s story is foremost told visually. Working from a script by John Dighton and Dalton Trumbo (the latter fronted by Ian McLellan Hunter due to Trumbo’s place on the Hollywood blacklist), director William Wyler fills Roman Holiday with physical comedy beats worthy of a silent film. Take an early scene where Ann slips out of her high heel under her bustling ballgown, and then quietly panics when she can’t find it again. Everything you need to know about the contrast between Ann’s dignified exterior and her playful humanity is immediately captured in that simple, wordless gag.
The same goes for an extended sequence where Joe tries to find a place for an inebriated Ann to sleep, or any number of gags involving bohemian photographer Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) and his attempts to covertly capture Ann’s adventures. And then there’s the iconic montage where Ann and Joe zoom around the city on a Vespa. You can watch this movie with the sound off and it works almost as well, thanks to the beauty of the location and the intimacy of physicality that sells the romance. During the famous “Mouth of Truth” scene, Peck and Wyler reportedly conspired together to prank Hepburn by having Peck pretend to lose a hand to the statue. The way she almost melts into his arms in relief when she realizes what’s happening is a perfect rom-com moment of actor and character chemistry becoming one.
Yet what elevates Roman Holiday from good to great—the secret ingredient in the gelato, if you will—is its ending. The movie wanders such a whimsically familiar path that it’s easy to assume you know where it’s going. But in place of a conventional happily-ever-after, Roman Holiday swerves to something more poignant. One of my favorite movie-going memories is of attending an outdoor screening of Roman Holiday back in college with a friend who had never seen it before. Her absolutely flabbergasted reaction to the fact that—nearly 70-year-old spoiler alert!—Joe and Ann don’t end up together was a perfect reminder of how much a great movie can still pack a punch decades after it’s released.
It’s here where the simplicity of the film really pays off. Where other versions of this story give their characters a big climactic fight when the truth is revealed, Roman Holiday takes an understated, dignified approach worthy of its royal protagonist. Joe and Ann’s mutual attraction slowly builds, until the bittersweet moment Ann decides to leave him behind to recommit to her royal duties. In the final scene, Joe attends a press conference with the princess as a way to reveal his real identity, reassure her he won’t write about their time together, and say goodbye—even as they can’t let anyone else in the room know that they’ve met before.
If this movie made Hepburn a star, I’m convinced it’s the final scene that won her the Academy Award for Best Actress (one of Roman Holiday’s 10 nominations and three wins). Shock, worry, and anger flash across Ann’s face when she spots Joe among the press. And yet, there’s something like relief in the fact that she wasn’t the only one keeping a secret during their whirlwind romance. Though they can’t speak openly, Joe and Ann finally meet as their true selves for the first time. And befitting the often wordless nature of their courtship, they find subtle ways to communicate just how much that day together meant to both of them.
Asked which European city she enjoyed visiting the most, Ann breaks with her stock diplomatic answer to speak honestly: “Rome. By all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here, in memory, as long as I live.” The lovely idea buried at the heart of Roman Holiday is that relationships don’t have to last forever to be meaningful. It’s the antithesis of the message that fairy tales and rom-coms often sell us, and it rings all the truer for it. Joe and Ann’s perfect Roman day wasn’t enough to upend their lives over. But it was transformative for both of them.
More than anything, Roman Holiday is about love’s influence as a maturing force. Ann gains the confidence she needs to assert herself more in her carefully managed royal life, while Joe comes to realize there are principles that matter more to him than money. It’s an ending that’s romantic for its realistic poignancy, rather than its wish-fulfillment fantasy—the sort of perfectly calibrated finale that many romantic comedies aim for, but few actually manage to achieve.
“Everything we do is so wholesome,” Ann sighs in frustration at her royal handler early in the film. But Roman Holiday understands there’s value to the “sweetness and decency” that Ann initially scoffs at. Simplicity isn’t a bad thing, so long as it’s made up of the finest ingredients. The best romantic comedies prove that. And Roman Holiday remains one of the genre’s most perfectly balanced treats.
Next time: We Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!