Roman Holiday is generally classified as a Ruritanian romance, a term derived from The Prisoner of Zenda, an 1894 novel by Anthony Hope, set in Ruritania, a fictional country of Central Europe. In part, this is because Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) is a princess of some unspecified, minor country in Central Europe; in part, because there is a romance between her, a woman of royal blood, and a commoner, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), as was the case in The Prisoner of Zenda.
Princess Ann is on a goodwill tour of various European countries, arriving in Rome as the story begins. She gets bored with all the ceremonial duties she has to perform and runs away. Joe is a reporter assigned to cover a boring press conference with Princess Ann for his newspaper, but he fails at 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 and 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.
In some versions of the story, 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 down like the ordinary person she really is. Cinderella marries the prince she has fallen in love with; Ann does not marry the commoner she has fallen in love with. 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.
At one point when she slides her foot out of her shoe, it gets away from her. She struggles to get the shoe back on her foot while continuing to be introduced to notable personages. When it comes time for her to sit down, her dress moves back with her, revealing the shoe that no longer has her foot in it. Those around her see what has happened, and they are aghast. Finally, the ambassador asks her to dance, allowing her to stand up and wiggle her foot back in the shoe before moving onto the dance floor. After that, she dances with several men, but not having any fun at all.
The business with Ann’s feet is more than just a link with the story of Cinderella. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Dorothy (Jane Russell), when asked by the manager if he can help her, says, “Certainly. Show me a place to take my shoes off.” To this, Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) says, “Dorothy, a lady never admits her feet hurt.” The same might be said of a princess: to admit her feet hurt makes her seem common. But in addition to that, all this concern by those around Ann about her shoe is an indication of the great matters of state with which she must deal. Her challenge from day to day is to perform ceremonies without making a misstep.
Later, a countess helps Ann get ready for bed. Even when she sleeps, Ann must dress in accordance with her station. She complains that she does not like wearing a nightgown, and she does not like her underwear either. She says that lots of people sleep with nothing on at all, and that she would at least like to sleep in pajamas, the tops only. The countess does not approve of pajamas, and she doesn’t even wish to consider people sleeping naked. And just in case we have not already gotten the point about Ann’s feet and her shoes, she jumps out of bed and runs barefoot to the window to hear some music coming from outside. The much put-upon countess retrieves her slippers and tells her to put them on.
After that, the countess reads to Ann her schedule for the next day, which is one of insipid monotony, all for the sake of trade relations, we are told, as if Ann’s country would not be able to engage in commerce with other countries unless she performs accordingly. As the countess informs Ann of all the places she must go to the next day and things she must do, Ann screams maniacally, saying she wishes she were dead. The countess calls for the doctor, who uses a syringe to inject a drug in Ann’s arm. After they leave the room, Ann decides to run away. She manages to escape the grounds of the embassy, but eventually, as mentioned above, the sedative catches up with her and she falls asleep. That’s when Joe finds her, as he leaves a late-night poker game.
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 1952 movie version of The Prisoner of Zenda, for example, when Princess Flavia (Deborah Kerr) finds out that Rudolf Rassendyll (Stewart Granger), 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. At least, they still mattered in Ruritania, the fictional European country in which the story is set. And in that movie, much is made of the danger of letting someone like Michael (Robert Douglas) seize the throne.
There is a similar theme in Adventures of Don Juan (1948), set early in the seventeenth century, in which the title character (Errol Flynn) and Queen Margaret (Viveca Lindfors) must forgo their deep love for each other owing to the need for the queen to remain on the throne. Throughout the movie, the Duke de Lorca (Robert Douglas again) was acting as the power behind the throne, manipulating King Phillip III in order to bring about war with England, with the ultimate goal of increasing Spain’s power and expanding its territory in the New World. Although Don Juan kills the Duke de Lorca in a sword fight, there is still the fear that if Queen Margaret runs away with Don Juan, someone else will take the place of the duke and lead the weak king astray to the detriment of Spain.
By 1953, however, monarchs in Europe had pretty much become nothing but tourist attractions. Before the movie The King’s Speech (2010) was made, not one person in a hundred could tell you who was King of England during World War II, which, in case you’ve already forgotten, was George VI. (Actually, he was King of the United Kingdom, but who cares?) Most people knew that Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister during the war, on the other hand, because he actually had power.
After all, when King Edward VIII of England abdicated in order to marry Wallis Simpson, civil war did not break out. Or, to put it in terms of Roman Holiday, England’s trade relations with other countries did not suffer. So, it is hard to believe that Princess Ann could not abdicate without precipitating some kind of political or economic 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 hated her duties, and she loved Joe. There is no Robert Douglas character in this movie to threaten the kingdom should she abdicate. Besides, what could he do? Screw up the ceremonies? In fact, it is not only the monarchy of Ann’s country that is all show and no substance. When the doctor gave Ann a shot, a general that was also in the room fainted at the sight. Even the military, apparently, consists of men whose rank is just honorary, awarded to men that will never face death on the battlefield.
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. She would have had to renounce her position on account of an unspoken rule, one with which we are all familiar, that those of royal blood must not marry commoners, as if they had cooties. As it is, the boring life she has resigned herself to is just what she deserves, deserves for allowing herself to be trapped by some outdated taboo against exogamy. It is a pointless sacrifice.
But let’s step back from this for a moment. This movie is a romantic comedy, and as such, it should have a happy ending. So, the first question we must ask is whether this is a happy ending. It is not a happy ending per se, but one we are satisfied with nevertheless. Why is that?
Some feminist film critics have pointed out that the movies are often oriented to the male gaze. That is, the movies are filmed with the male point of view in mind, which even the women in the audience are expected to accept. The way women in movies are portrayed as objects of sexual desire is the prime example of this, but it extends beyond that. Let us note that while Ann must return to her boring duties, Joe remains a bachelor. From the male point of view, this is not such a bad thing. In fact, some would say being a bachelor is the ideal state for a man. While we imagine that Ann will eventually have to marry a man out of a sense of duty, Joe will have his freedom and independence as along as he wants. If he remains single for the rest of his life, fondly remembering Ann, that’s fine. But if he does marry someday, it will be to a woman he loves, there being no sense of duty about it.
But suppose we switch the sexes, so that Ann is a reporter trying to get a story on Prince Joseph. If, after they fall in love, he returns to his princely duties, we will feel sorry for her, especially if she never marries after that. We no longer use the terms “spinster” or “old maid,” but the attitudes that led to the formation of these terms with their negative connotations remain. As for Prince Joseph, would we not be contemptuous of a man that would give up the woman he loves in order to continue being a prince? Had Edward VIII remained on the throne, giving up the woman he loves so that he could continue performing all those royal duties, that would never have become the subject of a movie. Or, if it had, people would have left the theater feeling they had wasted their time and money on that one.
This double standard reminds me of the night my dancing partner and I were at a dance studio. During a break in the dancing, we were talking to a male friend of hers. We were all telling of the time in each of our lives when we were in love with someone and almost got married. But in each case, things fell apart, and we were all still single. At one point, this other fellow said, “You know, we’re all talking about the time we thought we were going to get married, but there’s a difference.” Pointing to me, he said, “You and I almost lost our freedom.” And then, pointing to my dancing partner, he said, “But she almost trapped a man!” We got a good laugh out of that one. At least, we two guys were laughing. My dancing partner, not so much.
Suppose we switch the sexes in Adventures of Don Juan. If Errol Flynn is King John, and Viveca Lindfors is Margaret, the woman he truly loves, his refusing to give up his throne for her would have left a bitter taste in our mouths. And this is especially so when you consider that they had sex just before they parted. Margaret would be an abandoned woman in that case. It is standard in a movie that when a woman has sex with a man just once, she gets pregnant, so we would have had to watch Margaret riding away in a carriage while we feared she was in the family way. But without a family. As for the movie as it was, the fact that they had sex is just one more element of the happy ending. Not only does Don Juan remain a bachelor, but he is a sexually satisfied one as well. Queen Margaret, on the other hand, must stay with her husband, King Phillip III, who is shorter than she is and speaks with a lisp, so we know what kind of love life she is resigning herself to. Referring back to the imaginary movie above, in which King John gives up Margaret, the woman he loves, in order to stay on the throne, let us further imagine that his wife, the queen, is as unattractive physically as King Phillip III in the actual movie. For example, imagine that she is taller than King John and has a slight mustache. Such a movie could never be made.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Since Don Juan and Queen Margaret had sex just once, then according to the formula, doesn’t that mean that she will get pregnant, especially by a man with the potency of Don Juan? Of course, but since she’s already married, it’s not a problem. And, as a matter of fact, the real Queen Margaret did have a baby in 1603, just about the time in which this movie was set.
Let us consider this formula more closely. There are movies in which a woman has sex with a man just once without getting pregnant, but the woman is either a prostitute, as in Klute (1971), or the woman is given to having one-night stands, as in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977). Those exceptions aside, this is the reason Joe and Princess Ann do not have sex, even though we think they might when they return to his apartment, fully aware that they are in love with each other. Had they done so, the movie would have ended with the matter of her likely pregnancy being unresolved.
In The Prisoner of Zenda, Princess Flavia is reduced to marrying a man she does not love, while Rudolf Rassendyll gets to remain a bachelor. It is difficult to imagine switching the sexes on this one, what with the sword fight between Rassendyll and Rupert of Hentzau (James Mason), so a lot of reworking of the script would be necessary, more than I care to envision here.
There is no element of royalty in Casablanca (1942), but the asymmetry between the sexes is present here as well. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) runs a café, where he broods over Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), the woman he still loves. One night, she and her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), enter the café. Ilsa never stopped loving Rick, but she feels a duty to her husband, who is important as a resistance leader working against the Nazis. She is ready to throw all that away, however, and leave him for Rick. They make passionate love, and in the afterglow, they agree that Rick will help Laszlo get out of Casablanca with the letters of transit, but that Ilsa will stay with Rick, never to leave him again. But you know how it is. After a night of sex, a man wakes up in the morning and sees things in a new light. Now able to consider the big picture, Rick decides that Ilsa must remain Laszlo’s helpmate, staying with a man she does not truly love so that she can encourage the important work he does. Then Rick and Captain Renault (Claude Rains) head off to the Free French garrison at Brazzaville, to fight the good fight against the Nazis. Once again, we are content. Even though the two lovers will not be able to get married and live happily ever after, Rick remains a bachelor, and a sexually satisfied one at that.
It would be difficult to imagine a reversal of the sexes, but let’s try: Ilsa is single and runs the café in Casablanca. After she and Rick have sex, she tells him that he must remain with his wife, whom he does not love, because of the important work his wife does. Then Ilsa goes off with Captain Renault….
No, it just won’t work. We can’t switch the sexes on this one. But the point remains. When it is the man that gets to remain a bachelor, while the woman is condemned to a boring life, fulfilling her duty, we accept that as being, if not a completely happy ending, at least a fully satisfying one. We would be unlikely to do so if the man resigned himself to a boring life, while forsaking the woman he loved with all his heart.
If it be granted that I am correct, that such movies have a happy ending of sorts, we might ask why the movies did not go all the way, giving us a truly happy ending in which the woman leaves her duties and stays with the man she loves. In The Prisoner of Zenda, once Michael has been killed off, can we really believe that the Kingdom of Ruritania would collapse if Princess Flavia didn’t marry King Rudolf and eloped with Rassendyll instead? If the kingdom can’t survive a princess running off with her lover, it is doomed anyway.
In Adventures of Don Juan, once the villains have been dispatched, why not let Queen Margaret abandon her throne and leave with Don Juan? History precludes that possibility, I suppose, since the real Queen Margaret stayed with her husband until she died of childbirth in 1611, at the age of twenty-six. But it is to be noted that without Queen Margaret’s influence on King Phillip III, Spain did not undergo the horrible political disaster that Don Juan feared, even though the king lived another ten years after her death.
As for Casablanca, we can easily imagine Ilsa wishing her husband the best of luck heading the resistance movement, but telling him that she must remain with Rick, the man she loves. Are we to believe that the Nazis would have won World War II had she not stayed with her husband? And, finally, had Princess Ann abdicated and married Joe, the consequences would have been trivial, about as eventful as her losing her shoe.
The reason, I suppose, is that there must be something inside us that wants order to be restored. Restored from the male point of view, of course. Regardless of a man’s marital status, he can identify with a husband just as easily as with a bachelor. In the movies being discussed, the leading man is a bachelor, portrayed by a major star. Therefore, that is the principal identification for the men in the audience. But still, there will be some identification with the present or future husband, and that may create misgivings. As a bachelor, a man likes it when a woman gives in to her passions for his benefit. But as a husband, a man fears that his wife will give in to those very same passions with some other man. And so, men can enjoy the way the bachelors in these stories are favored with a woman’s love, while at the same time being reassured that these women will ultimately know their place and submit to their wifely duties. As for Princess Ann, we are confident that she is in control of her feelings. We need not be apprehensive about her fidelity in the marriage that will someday be arranged for her. In the movies involving royalty, the restoration of order in the kingdom recapitulates the restoration of order in the bedroom.