It was the perfect fairy tale: A princess escapes from her keepers and finds love with a commoner during a twenty-four-hour tour of Rome. And even if they couldn’t share a final clinch, they had changed each other deeply, each coming out of the relationship more mature, better able to face the adult challenges of their social roles. And the timing couldn’t have been better. In the early 1950s, the world was gaga for royalty. Princess Elizabeth’s marriage had already inspired an MGM musical: Royal Wedding (1951). Her sister Margaret’s doomed love affair with an army officer had ruled the headlines for months. But with all that going for it, what finally made Roman Holiday (1953) a hit was the pairing of lanky, robust Gregory Peck, making his comedy debut as the cynical journalist who originally sees his royal playmate as just another story, and newcomer Audrey Hepburn, shooting to stardom as the impressionable Princess Anne, a tabula rasa waiting for the world to write its lessons on her.
The Dalton Trumbo story had initially been planned for Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor, with Frank Capra directing. When Paramount balked at the estimated $1.5 million budget, Capra walked. William Wyler came on board and managed to convince the studio to pony up the money for a location shoot. By that point, Grant had left, too, concerned about romancing the much-younger female lead. Fortunately, Gregory Peck was looking to expand into comedy after a decade of dramatic hits. Elizabeth Taylor was tied up with other projects, as was second choice Jean Simmons. So Wyler went on a talent search to find a new girl and unearthed one of the screen’s greatest treasures, Audrey Hepburn. During a hot summer of filming in Rome, the two made onscreen magic, so much so that Hepburn won the Oscar for Best Actress for her first leading role. Their perfect teamwork has continued to delight audiences in the United States and overseas. The film became a hit in Moscow as part of a U.S. cultural exchange program in 1960. In Japan, it is consistently voted the most popular American film ever made, thanks to the adoration of female fans enthralled with the Peck-Hepburn romance.