Thursday, January 14, 2010

The 1950s Princess - Part 1

For the next three posts, concluding next Thursday, we’ll discuss what could be a social phenomenon, or maybe just a passing fad…the 1950s princess.

Three films we’ll use to examine our '50s princesses are Roman Holiday (1953), The Swan (1956) here, and Anastasia (1956) here. There are similarities, and there are differences, but there may yet be a thread that links the three films, the three stars, that possibly has to do with the last years of a lumbering paternal Hollywood machine, and society at large in the last decade or so before feminism became a social force.  Maybe you have some thoughts about this.  I look forward to your comments.

The three princesses are Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Ingrid Bergman, icons of that decade. One would obviously note at this juncture that Grace Kelly distinguished herself among this group by actually becoming a real princess, but that is not the only instance where make-believe blurred with reality in these three films. There is cozy melding of fantasy with reality, rather than usurping it, that may determine the uniqueness of the 1950s princess, something apart from any other kind of Cinderella story from films of previous decades.  We never go too deeply into fantasy.

It could be said that the 1950s was an era obsessed with princesses. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 marked a profound response by media and fascinated commoners around the world newly linked by fast developing communications technology.

What part the backwash of World War II could have had in this fascination is intriguing. There are several factors to consider. First, in the United States at least, there was a fairy tale aspect to the swarm of returning veterans building suburban dream houses for sweethearts who had waited for them, women who had now left the grind of the war plant to set up housekeeping in long planned for and idealized homes of their own with modern gadgets. Peacetime at the end of several years of hardship, worry, and terror, was the happy ending. Americans have always been addicted to happy endings.

Home, and the children who followed in the happy ending, were considered primarily feminine concerns, a woman’s realm, but the post-War woman seemed determined to avoid being the kind of household drudge she may have regarded her mother. Gadgets and modern appliances were part of the modern woman’s campaign to keep her station elevated, but there was something more. It had to do with fashion, and icons, which perhaps had to do with advertising.

The 1950s were a time of breakneck manufacturing, selling, and advertising. Cars were big, and women’s skirts were long and full. The new muscular economy brought forth a woman with an idealized feminine wardrobe, elements of which, like the cinched waist and full skirt dress, petticoats and evening gowns which allowed for bare shoulders, had not been seen for nearly 100 years, when such styles would have been comfortable at any mid-19th century cotillion. 

Or, as one ad in the New York Times in November of 1951 described a "breathtaking" nylon tulle dress, "feminine allure of bared shoulders, sculptured waists, skirts that whirl forever." 

Other elements in 1950s society were forward-looking, modern, Atomic Age. Women’s fashions, however, were receding to a romantic past. For a time, even the tiara became standard decoration from brides to debutantes. And these princesses had princess phones.

Roman Holiday sets us in this post-War paradoxical world, with a modern princess from a fictional country. The country is never named, even to give it a fictional name, and this adds, curiously, to the film’s realistic veneer. We may well imagine it is one of any number of small locales in Europe previously unknown to Americans until the GIs came through. Names of countries we, in our self-absorbed manner, never bothered to learn.

The film begins with a kind of Citizen Kane jolt of realism with a pseudo-newsreel opening. Audrey Hepburn, as Princess Ann, attends various functions on a European tour to promote trade for her tiny country.

The movie was filmed on location in Rome, and this is one of the best things about Roman Holiday. It has all the adventure of the many location films produced in the 1950s and afterward, but there’s a subtle post-war European just-getting-back-on-their-feet quality to this film. It’s not just a travelogue; it’s a look into ordinary lives that are not terribly hip despite the Vespa scooters.

Like our cliché American not needing to know which country the princess comes from because we will likely be ignorant of it anyway and who cares (when Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco, Americans went scrambling for their atlases), is the occasional reference to the Italian lire as being extremely devalued compared to the American dollar. On a few occasions, Gregory Peck flips through large bank notes worth thousands of lire and notes with a smirk it is worth about a dollar and a half. Such commercial observations brings the fairy tale and the travelogue to a halt.

Its being shot in black and white probably adds to this suggestion of realism compared to later films of this similarly lighthearted vein shot in Italy, like Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) and Summertime (1955), which were more like picture postcards with a plot.  (Ten-year-old Jackie Coogan remarked on a visit to Rome and an audience with the Pope in 1924 that Rome was "the best place in the world for shooting pictures, after Hollywood."  Out of the mouths of babes.)

But the realism in Roman Holiday is occasionally delicately swept aside by the fairy tale. Audrey Hepburn plays the reverse of Cinderella. She is a princess overburdened by the responsibility of representing her tiny country and runs away to escape her troubles and wander the city as an ordinary person. Her tour guide is Gregory Peck, who is partly her fairy godfather and partly her charming prince. By the end of the film, Miss Hepburn’s character changes from a sad girl to a sadder-but-wiser woman of authority. The story is at turns funny, romantic, occasionally breathtaking.

Some elements of realism in the story are hidden, part of the backdrop of which we, in our own innocence, may not be aware. For instance, some of the royalty attending the embassy ball were real minor European royalty, wearing their real jewels. At the end of the film, many of the journalists introducing themselves at the press conference were actually working European journalists playing themselves, not actors. It may not be important to the story that we know this, but knowing it adds depth to the legacy of this movie and the blurring of reality.

Most of film is populated by some terrific Italian character actors, such as Paolo Carlini, who plays the barber who cuts Audrey Hepburn’s hair, turning her long, girlish tresses into a short, modern, 1950s style. Audrey is not just a princess, she’s a modern princess, a 1950s princess.

There are many delightful moments in the film which have director William Wyler’s imprint on them: when Hepburn loses her shoe in the receiving line and her anxious staff must find a graceful way to retrieve it for her. We see that royalty, like William Wyler, lives in a world where attention to detail is foremost, and perfection is a subtle quality sometimes to be worked at, and sometimes only chanced upon.

But the ball is dreary for a young person. Retiring for the evening in the ornate bedroom of her country’s Roman embassy, Audrey stands on the enormous bed, moping and brushing her hair, dressed in a voluminous and somewhat old-fashioned nightgown, looking like a pouting child, “I hate all my nightgowns and all my underwear, too.”

It is the first line we hear her speak after several minutes of princessly posturing for the public in her finery, and most charmingly disarmed, we are clued in immediately to the troubled mindset of this young woman.

She is overwhelmed and overtired, depressed and anxious, ready for a breakdown, as every moment in her life is booked up. Her youth, her charm is perhaps her beleaguered country’s ace in the hole. She is sent on the public relations tour, doing the work of seasoned diplomats, but completely unarmed for the rigor of being both politician and icon.

Margaret Rowlings plays the Countess, her lady in waiting who has the charge of Audrey and, like the rest of the staff, plays her role with splendid warmth and tightly controlled comedy. Needing to get the nearly hysterical girl calm, she first pleads,

“Control yourself, Ann.” Then she barks, “Your highness!” not as a gesture of respect, but as a reminder to Audrey of her station in life and duty. It comes as a slap in the face. 

The phrase "your highness", as much as it is a respectful grand gesture, will always carry a glint of dismal foreboding in all these three films, a reminder of the limitations of being a princess.

She is remorseful, “I’ll bow, and I’ll smile, and I’ll improve trade relations!” but asks if she can keep just one light on when the doctor gives her a sedative and puts her to bed, like a child again. But, the child will run away, as children sometimes will, (and something princesses occasionally seem to do, as we’ll see in our next two posts) dressed and clutching her white gloves, before the sedative knocks her out, and will return in 24 hours a princess of maturity and authority.

Mr. Peck is a journalist, one of the typical movie newshounds who chases stories and is always hard up for cash. He discovers the now tranquilized and loopy Audrey Hepburn on a bench, takes her home to sleep it off, and only discovers the next day that the street person is a princess. He intends to exploit her for the story of a lifetime, and so this leads to both romance and screwball comedy.

But if this had been filmed in the 1930s, the golden age of screwball comedy, we likely would have had a different story. We would have had a studio back lot Ruritanian setting, not the real streets and warm velvet night of Rome. We would have had more Cinderella and less trade relations. We would have had a different ending. This is the 1950s when life, and especially princesses, has to be taken more seriously. After World War II and the atomic age, you can’t really go back to fairy tales and believe them.

More great moments: The funny bit when loopy Audrey, being taken home by him, is about to knock on a neighbor’s door and he grabs her wrist just in time.

“Is this the elevator?” she wonders at his dingy one-room apartment with sleepy dignity. She speaks with precise diction, and gentle awareness of her difference to people who are not royal.

“I’ve never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on. With my dress off, it’s most unusual.” Her line is delivered in a manner not coquettish, just pondering, which makes it all the funnier.

When Mr. Peck tosses the now sound asleep Audrey off his bed and onto a smaller, hard couch, it is a funny slapstick moment. So much for chivalry. When the next morning he discovers he has harbored a princess, he awakens her with a respectful implied request for her to admit her identity.

“Your royal highness?”

“Yes, what is it?” she sleepily responds, and we sense Peck’s triumph because he’s now sitting on the story of the year. In a way, we share his glee, because she is a real princess, and we hear the soft mist of some middle European folk theme playing in the background, which we associate with the young princess. She is who she is. As royalty, she is her own destiny.

When at last she is aware and jumps at his voice, she learns she has spent the night in his room. A look of indecision, concern, alarm, melting into a sort of naughty glee as she erupts with a luminous smile and an infectious giggle. Princesses are humble as they are proud. It is a joyful surprise when we learn they are also human. They are one of us.

But we don’t really want them to be one of us. We want them to be special, perhaps only so we may exploit them.

Another interesting play on reality versus fantasy is that throughout their day’s adventure together of sightseeing in Rome, Mr. Peck pretends not to know she is a princess, and allows her to pretend not to be one. Ostensibly, his motive is to catch her with her guard down, but as the day progresses, it becomes a kind of courtesy they extend to each other, not to shatter their pleasant outing with the hard truth. This is much better than if she had revealed at the beginning she is a princess out for a spree. It is a secret we share with both of them separately. We, too, want to see her let her hair down, but we don’t want to see her hurt.

More fun moments: the cleaning woman played by Paola Barborni berating Audrey in Italian for her loose morals, having found her wrapped in a towel in Gregory Peck’s bathroom. Also the janitor, who suspiciously frowns at Mr. Peck when he thinks Audrey is a prostitute.

Though the movie is less concerned with the setting than the plot, we do get glimpses of the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum. We get a more profound view of what it is like for a princess, who never carries money, to have her hair cut or buy an ice cream. She is helpless in the real world, princesses are. We have to take care of her, shelter her. Keep her as an inspiration, a muse, but never let her do for herself. Keep her from being independent, but for her sake or for ours? How many sheltered 1950s American suburban princesses brooded over the same thing about themselves?

Her first independent action, in having her hair cut, is to change her own appearance. She wants to be different, even if only the illusion of being different.

Eddie Albert is wonderful as Peck’s beatnik photographer buddy. He joins them on their madcap spree around Rome, taking secret candid photos of the princess living her dream of escape.

The climax of the movie occurs that evening when they attend a dance on a river barge. Her country’s secret service, having been dispatched to find her, suddenly catch up with her. A brawl erupts in the tradition of slapstick mistaken identity plots, and Miss Hepburn and Mr. Peck escape by jumping into the river and swimming away.

A sweet romantic moment becomes instantly erotic when they climb out of the water, sit on the riverbank, dripping wet, laughing over their adventure, and suddenly kiss. Instead of the usual movie violins swelling, and throwing their arms around each other for another kiss, reality sets in. They pull part, staring at each other, droplets of water dripping down their faces, surprised at what they have done, and the fantasy takes another realistic turn. There are consequences.

Back in his apartment, she is in his paisley bathrobe, primping in his bathroom, waiting for her clothes to dry, where the disapproving cleaning woman had earlier accused her of naughty things. Gregory Peck has changed into dry clothes, a freshly knotted tie around his neck, because real men wear ties.

They listen to a radio bulletin about the sick princess. The palace has issued a fake report hiding the fact that she is missing. It seems a modern touch, this simple spin doctoring, this manipulation of the media. It is her first inkling that people are worried about her, that others might suffer for what she has done.

They turn the radio off, because each still wants to protect the other, and make the fairy tale last a little longer.

We learn the Princess has been taught to cook, and sew, and clean, and iron as part of her education. “I just haven’t had a chance to do it for anyone.” She never will as a princess, unlike her American suburban princess counterparts.

They nearly confess both their love for each other and their real identities, embracing with longing and desperation, but with an ultimate self discipline that keeps them from doing either. What they share will end forever the moment they talk about it, and they know that.

He takes her back to the embassy in a car, and it is a leaden goodbye, until they kiss again in a farewell that grows tragic. When she greets her staff, and they remonstrate her for running away, she demonstrates instantly that she is now in charge, and is no longer their charge.

“Were I not completely aware of my duty to my family and my country, I would not have come back tonight, or indeed, ever again.” Her commanding voice shakes at the last bit with barely repressed emotion. She dismisses them, not with haughtiness, but with the authority that is her birthright, that she has discovered, ironically, by running away from it.

She is left alone in her room with its baroque accoutrements, walking in a stately manner to the window, not galloping there as a curious child like she did only the day before.

Another fun moment is when photographer Eddie Arnold shows up at Peck’s room and they review all the candid photos, thinking up funny cut lines. But, Gregory Peck now changes his mind about publishing a tabloid story about the runaway princess. He wants to forget it.

Arnold pleads, “She’s fair game, Joe. It’s always open season on princesses.”

What might have been written as a comic line carries a hard and unsavory truth to it. Princess Diana would one day discover that, too.

Perhaps the grandest moment of the film is the end, when all the press meet in the ballroom of the embassy where the Princess will hold a press conference. She shows up, her staff in tow, no longer in her fairly princess evening gown, but dressed for business, a 1950s variation on the Juliet cap planted on the top of her short hairdo, a modern stateswoman.

She is shocked to discover Gregory Peck is a journalist, but when she makes a general, but probing, remark about faith among nations and trust among people, Mr. Peck responds in code that she has nothing to fear from him, and he will keep their secret. “We believe that your highness’ faith will not be unjustified.”

Comforted by his gesture of gentlemanly discretion, the Princess deviates from the script when she admits that her favorite city on her tour has been Rome, “I will cherish my visit here as long as I live.” It is a grand declaration, and a personal one. Then, alarming her staff, she presses the flesh with the (real) journalists, just so she can touch Peck one last time. Mr. Albert slips her the candid photos in an envelope. He will keep their secret, too.

“So happy, Mr. Bradley,” giving her standard greeting to Gregory Peck that she had earlier mocked as being one of the most tiresome things she had to say as princess, but there is more meaning in it this time. She gently shakes his hand.

For all its dignity, it is one of the most romantic moments in the film.

Then she moves down the line, and we see him swallow with emotion. The press, captivated, applauds her act of humanness. She has won them over with a handshake. She has done her diplomatic mission by being what people want her to be: a Princess, and yet one of them. A fine line to walk.

She walks off with her staff after one last look. All the press filter away, but Peck remains solidly at the barrier rope, looking blankly ahead. Then he turns and makes his slow walk down the grand ballroom, his footsteps echoing, a mixed expression of pain and pride on his face, pride for what she is. A princess, with a special destiny. They will never see each other again. It is a perfect ending.

Had this been filmed in earlier decades, they might have ended up together, either she giving up her throne or he being discovered to secretly have been a prince all along. Or, a combination of the two. After all, Britain’s King Edward VIII gave up his throne for the woman he loved a generation earlier, but still got to remain a Duke. Having one’s cake and eating it, too.

Had the movie been made in later decades, we might have none of the nobility (not of bloodlines but of spirit), or the heartbreak of self denial. Self denial has long been out of fashion.

Come back next Monday for Part 2 of the 1950s Princess when we have a look at Grace Kelly in The Swan here, which she made while, unknown to her colleagues on set, she was being secretly courted by a prince.

A Warner Pathe newsreel on events leading to the wedding in Monaco is another example of the melding of fantasy and reality; it’s curiously reminiscent of the fake newsreel of Audrey Hepburn’s good will tour of Europe at the beginning of Roman Holiday.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.


Unknown said...

Haven't seen this in ages, but that may change soon thanks to your incisive review. Great job!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, John. I hope you get to see it again sometime soon.

Laura said...

This post was a wonderful trip down memory lane. Like John, I haven't seen this in a long time and your analysis brings it all back. Thank you!

Best wishes,

Millie said...

Great post! Really interesting. Roman Holiday is a favorite film of mine.

I'm also quite exited for the rest of the series. Ingrid, Audrey, and Grace are actually my favorite three actresses ever!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Laura and Millie. What a lucky coincidence, that I happened to hit on your three favorites. I'm glad. I hope you enjoy the rest of the series.

J.C. Loophole said...

Hi Jacqueline- just stopping by to say you have been award the Kreativ Blogger Award- details here.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, J.C. I'll start working on my list of fellow bloggers to pass along the nifty award. Am looking forward to the buffet at the awards ceremony.

Arielle Lee Bair said...

Roman Holiday is easily my favorite movie. I love the acting, I love the setting, and I love that it's in black & white even though it didn't really have to be. It's a beautiful but REAL story and I love that. Thanks for the re-cap of all that makes this film wonderful. Gregory Peck is one of my favorite actors and in this film he is the perfect combination of ass and charmer!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome Arielle, and thanks for sharing your insight, and your love of this film. I love this: "...he is the perfect combination of ass and charmer!"

So true, and well put.

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