Celebrating a screenwriting giant with one of his greatest triumphs.
I cannot let the month of September come to a close without paying homage to the great Dalton Trumbo on what would have been his 115th birthday. One of the most visible and well-known victims of the infamous Hollywood blacklist, the legendary screenwriter spent decades churning out one stellar screenplay after another. Works such as Kitty Foyle, Five Came Back and A Guy Named Joe made him a success at his craft, while his outspoken liberal attitudes meant he was an instant target for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. When his appearance in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee went…as well as it could, Trumbo quickly found himself unhireable. Forced to write scripts under a pseudonym, Trumbo continued to work in secret to keep himself fed and active, leading to a variety of screenplays, some for films more worthy of his talents than others. For many, the bright light during this period of exile for the writer was the romantic comedy Roman Holiday, a romantic comedy which swept the film world by storm, made Audrey Hepburn a star, and showed that nothing could dim Trumbo’s natural talent.
Made about three years into his blacklist-era, Trumbo (under the name of Ian Hunter) created Roman Holiday; a Cinderella tale of sorts that told the story of a European princess named Ann (Hepburn), who is making a diplomatic visit to Rome. Fed up and bored with royal protocol, Ann decides to sneak away from her armed guards and go discover the city on her own. The act leads her straight into the arms of American reporter Joe (Gregory Peck), who immediately recognizes her, but conceals his identity in the hopes that he can get a great exclusive story out of the encounter. What Joe doesn’t count on however, is falling for the one woman he never thought he’d ever meet.
Leave it to Trumbo to craft one of the ultimate romantic comedies the screen has ever known. While the screenwriter made his mark with tales from virtually every genre you could think of, who knew it would be an effort such as Roman Holiday that would endure? But endure, it has. The movie remains one of the ultimate blueprints for the modern romantic comedy. Two people meet and spend some time in each other’s company through a series of circumstances which have pulled them away from their everyday lives. Gradually, the pair finds themselves falling for each other much to the audience’s joy as they wonder whether the harshness of reality will conspire to keep them apart. Trumbo certainly has fun crafting Joe and Ann as complete opposites who thrive off of each other’s respective energies. She is taken by his playfulness and he by her natural effervescence. There’s a natural chemistry between the two stars that director William Wyler manages to capture majestically frame after frame. But it’s Trumbo’s words and his creating of two well-rounded characters who are believable as a pair of strangers from opposite ends of the social spectrum coming together and forming a connection which makes the movie sparkle as much as it does and lays the foundation for many future romantic cinematic pairings.
Roman Holiday has gone down as the film which launched Hepburn’s career, and that’s more or less a fact. The actress had clocked time in a handful of European indies prior to being cast in this star-making role; and though Ann is a lovely character, she’s also a tough part. This is a woman who comes from privilege but feels trapped and stifled by the world of royalty. It’s hard to get an every day audience to believe that such a world would be anything but heaven. Yet Hepburn and Trumbo manage to pull it off by showing just how much of Ann’s life has left her stunted and uneducated in the way life and the world outside. Writer and actress make Ann a great heroine though in the way they launch her into every day society and let her loose to explore. The transformation she undergoes, from a girlish princess, to a woman with a sense of life outside of herself brings with it a worldliness and a dash independence which is inspiring to behold. In a way, Hepburn’s journey as an actress echoed that of Ann’s as Roman Holiday took her beyond the rank of general minor screen player to a major star who could accept or turn down virtually any part she wanted. So rarely have writer and actress enjoyed a more potent and fruitful collaboration with effects as far reaching as they were here.
Where Trumbo is really at his strongest and most authentic in Roman Holiday is in its conclusion. Without going into exact detail for those who haven’t seen it, the movie’s ending bucks the tradition most future rom-coms would mostly stick to. Instead, Trumbo’s script culminated in an ending that’s appropriate and realistic, staying true to the characters and their worlds. There’s a moment as an audience member where you aren’t sure where Roman Holiday is going when it comes to the fate of Joe and Ann as a couple. When the realization hits, the wave of emotion and poetry that washes over is simply too incredible. Anyone can appreciate the fact that Trumbo wouldn’t succumb to the traditional fairytale ending, especially since the entirety of Roman Holiday has been a fairytale unto itself. After the movie has ended, it’s normal to question the fates that the writer gave to his characters and whether or not they feel right according to our wishes and emotional attachment after having spent two hours with them. Regardless of what our preferred ending may be, there’s no doubt that Joe and Ann have been transfixed by one another; he by her innocence and serenity, and her by his groundedness and charm. They have rubbed off on one another, changed one another and left a mark on each other’s souls that ensures they’ll always remain linked.
Roman Holiday was an instant success with critics and audiences. Hepburn won an Oscar and a star was instantly born. In fact, the movie was nominated for a total of ten Oscars, taking home three, including one for Best Original Screenplay. As per unofficial blacklist protocol however, Trumbo’s name was not credited on the screenplay and it would be years before he would eventually be awarded his statue. In the meantime, the blacklist came to a close and Trumbo emerged to do some of the best work of his career with the epics Spartacus, Exodus, The Sandpiper and Hawaii. Never one to slow down or lose his spirit, Trumbo maintained his rebellious spirit into the 70s with the daring adaptation of the war novel Johnny Got His Gun and Papillion. Looking back, Roman Holiday remains the most uncharacteristic Trumbo script ever written. Yet it stands as an example of true beauty and steadfast defiance through its characters, their journey and especially in the man who created them.
Roman Holiday is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD as part of the Paramount Presents collection from Paramount Pictures.