Roman Holiday hits Blu-ray – but not in 4K
By Jim Bray
A classic William Wyler film has just escaped onto home video wearing a brand-new set of clothes, but it isn't the set of clothes I really wanted to see it in.
It's Roman Holiday, Wyler's 1953 romantic comedy starring Gregory Peck and a young up and comer named Audrey Hepburn, in a performance that ended up winning her an Oscar, one of three the classic "fish out of water" tale took home.
William Wyler created his share of masterpieces over his long Hollywood career, from Wuthering Heights to The Best Years of Our Lives to the 1959 Ben-Hur and, despite its slow start, Roman Holiday is another.
Hepburn plays Ann, a European princess from an always-unnamed country. She's on an official tour of Europe and, once in Rome, the frustrations of the young girl – who really only wants to be an ordinary person – get the best of her and she sneaks away from her cocoon of handlers and protectors. She doesn't mean to stay away long, we think, but she falls asleep on a bench (thanks to a dose of sleepy drugs she was given before she sneaked out) and is rescued by reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) who happens upon her sleeping beauty and, unable to wake her up properly, ends up taking her back to his home rather than leave her at the mercy of an outside world she has never really experienced and is undoubtedly unable to cope with.
At work the next day, while Ann still sleeps in his little apartment, Joe discovers who she really is and cooks up a scheme by which he can use his newfound influence as her saviour to get an exclusive story that'll make him a bundle of much-needed cash. To help, he enlists his photographer friend Irving Radovich (played, very well as usual, by Eddie Albert) and together they convince Ann (who, thinking her identity is still a secret, has called herself Anya) to spend a day sightseeing the Eternal City while Irving surreptitiously snaps shots of her "secret" Roman Holiday.
Not surprisingly for a romantic comedy, while Joe's exploiting Ann he manages to fall in love with her, and this changes everything. No longer does he want to plaster her face all over the pages, under his byline, for a quick infusion of cash and credibility. Nope, he now realizes that it wouldn't be fair to the girl because, despite being a public figure, she's also a real person and a darn likeable one, a fact he hadn't expected.
Meanwhile, she's also falling in love with him but, as with Anakin and Padme in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, they both have their lives and their duties to take care of regardless of their personal desires. I'd tell you if they sneak off and get married the way Anakin and Padme did, but it might be a bit much of a spoiler.
Roman Holiday is delightful, charming, and heart warming. It's a splendid motion picture, one of the finest "rom-coms" ever made and it really must be seen to be appreciated. As I mentioned above, the film does start a tad slowly, but you'll be hooked and reeled in by the time its running time is over. Part of the reason, beyond the stars and director, is a smart and sweet, Oscar-winning screenplay by Dalton Trumbo.
The cast is wonderful and, though Gregory Peck wasn't Wyler's first choice for the role of Joe (Cary Grant was, apparently), he does a very good job here. He's also more believable – in my never humble opinion – than Grant would have been. The cinematography is also splendid, and the Rome locations add a beautiful sense of reality to the fantasy.
The new Blu-ray is a darn fine one, too. Paramount says it's the first time the film has appeared on Blu-ray, and that it's remastered freshly from a 4K film transfer. The 1080p picture is sharp and clean and eminently watchable.
Paramount says the original film was in such lousy condition that they had to reassemble and restore and remaster it for this release. It shows, too; this is about as good a video presentation as one could want – short of the elephant that's in the room: if they can restore it in 4K, why didn't they release it on 4K disc at the same time?
After all, most 4K disc releases I've seen also come with a conventional 1080p Bl-ray in the package, so why couldn't Paramount have offered its videophile customers the best version possible? Beats me.
Anyway, thanks to the restoration and, in part, to the plentiful grain they left in, the image has a lovely film-like feel. Exterior and interior scenes exhibit rich black levels, bright and stable whites, and beautifully varied grays. Contrast and clarity are first rate, showing good depth. Heck, it's so good you can spot Hepburn and Peck's stunt doubles riding the scooter in some long shots.
One thing to note: the film is in black and white, and the "narrow screen" 1.33:1 aspect ratio of movie and TV screens of the day.
The audio has been remastered as well, in this case into monaural DTS-HD Master Audio. It's about as good as you could expect from a movie this old, recorded originally on analogue equipment. Still, it rocks in its own way, from letting us experience the hustle and bustle of Rome, as well as to hear the wonderful musical score. Dialogue is always "front and centre" (of course it doesn't hurt that it's mono to help achieve that effect!). It definitely isn't an exquisite audio experience like you can get from modern movies, but so what?
Paramount has included a reasonable array of extras, though most of them were also included on the original DVD release of over a decade ago. New, however, is an interesting 'Filmmaker Focus' with film reviewer and historian Leonard Maltin, who's always interesting. Other extras include the previously-released look at Audrey Hepburn, Oscar winner Edith Head (costumes) and a bit of a puff piece about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted during the 1950's. There's also a short feature on Paramount Pictures during that decade, a set of photo galleries and theatrical trailers.
Roman Holiday is an excellent movie and Paramount has done it justice with this new 1080p release. They must have thought they had a good reason to not give it the 4K UHD disc treatment, though why they didn't do that baffles me since they admit to having given it a 4K restoration anyway.
I hope they're not planning a separate, 4K version, down the road because that would be, in my never humble opinion, a slap in the face of Roman Holiday fans who want the film in the best video version possible. On the other hand, this is the studio that seemingly comes up with a new version of the various Star Trek series every second week (okay, that's an exaggeration).
Which begs the question: Do Roman Holiday fans who want the best version possible shell out for this version and then, if it does get released in 4K, do it all over again down the road?
I guess that, like so many other things in life, you pays your money and you takes your chances. At least this splendid new restoration means that you won't be watching a sow's ear while waiting for the silk purse version that may or may not ever come.
Copyright 2020 Jim Bray