In Roman Holiday, Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) gets bored with all the ceremonial duties she has to perform and runs away. Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) is a reporter assigned to cover a boring press conference with Princess Ann for his newspaper, but he runs away from his duties as well. They meet without knowing who each other are. It begins when Joe finds her sleeping off a sedative on a public bench. He eventually lets her sleep it off in his apartment. The next morning he finds out who she is and plans to cash in on his good fortune by writing an exclusive story on her. They spend the day together end up falling in love instead. In the end, he forgoes writing that story as she returns to her duties as princess.
At one point, Princess Ann alludes to the Cinderella story by saying, “And at midnight I’ll turn into a pumpkin and drive away in my glass slipper,” which, of course, mixes up the elements of the fairytale. In similar way, the movie itself is a Cinderella story with the elements mixed up.
Cinderella was a lady by birth, but forced into servitude by her wicked stepmother. For one night, she is able to dress up like the lady she really is. Princess Ann is a commoner by nature, and for one day she is able to dress up like the ordinary person she really is. At the end of the fairytale, Cinderella comfortably slides her foot into a glass slipper; at the beginning of the movie, Ann slides her foot out of the shoe that is bothering her. Cinderella marries the prince she has fallen in love with; Ann does not marry the commoner she has fallen in love with.
We expect there to be a moment when she finds out that Joe is a reporter, causing her to feel hurt and betrayed, believing that he tricked her for the sake of a story; and that he will say that was true at first, but now he is in love with her; and then she will say she does not believe him, and so on. That is the formula for movies when there is deception about someone’s identity. In The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), for example, when Princess Flavia (Deborah Kerr) finds out that the man she fell in love with is not King Rudolf (Stewart Granger), but just an impostor, she jumps to the conclusion that his courting her was part of the act, and thus she feels betrayed. In Roman Holiday, however, it is refreshing that Ann trusts Joe so much that one brief assurance from him is all she needs.
As with Princess Flavia, Princess Ann gives up the man she loves for the sake of her royal duties, but we have to wonder why. The Prisoner of Zenda was written in 1894, back when monarchs still mattered. And in the movie, much is made of the danger of letting someone like Michael (Robert Douglas) seize the throne. But by 1953, monarchs had pretty much become ceremonial, kept around as tourist attractions. After all, when King Edward VIII of England abdicated his throne to marry Wallis Simpson, civil war did not break out, so it is hard to believe that Princess Ann could not abdicate without precipitating some kind of political disaster.
In fact, I have my suspicions about King Edward VIII. The story is that he loved Wallis Simpson so much that he made the great sacrifice of giving up his throne for her. But I think he was just using her as an excuse. The idea of being a titular monarch, with no power but lots of ceremonial duties, might have been maddeningly tedious to him, and he was glad to get out of it. Just to say, “I don’t want to be King, because it’s boring,” would have been a great insult. But everyone understands that love conquers all, and with that as a cover story, he made his escape.
And this brings us back to Princess Ann. She clearly hated her duties, and she loved Joe. How easy it would have been, when Joe indicates that he will not publish what happened between them in the newspaper, for her to immediately renounce her position, and say she intends to marry him, the two of them walking away together to live happily ever after. As it is, we sort of feel that the boring life she has resigned herself to is just what she deserves. It is a pointless sacrifice.