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Paramount’s classic “Roman Holiday” gets a 4K update for its 70th Anniversary

Updated: Aug 13, 2023


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS

4K Ultra HD vs. Blu-ray: (top) The new HDR grading is darker than the 2020 Blu-ray (bottom), and both were sourced from the same 4K master, a second-generation dup negative and fine-grain elements. Newcomer Audrey Hepburn won the Academy Award for Best Actress as Princess Ann in William Wyler’s “Roman Holiday.” Gregory Peck plays American journalist Joe Bradley.


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“ROMAN HOLIDAY: 70TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION”

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy; 1953; Not Rated; streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV (iTunes), Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: YouTube “Restoration discussion with Leonard Maltin and Andrea Kalas”









SEVENTY-YEARS AGO this month the world fell in love with Audrey Hepburn. The former Belgium/Dutch ballet dancer whose slender body and trademark eyebrows first starred in the Broadway production of “Gigi” (1951) before heading to Rome to take on her leading role debut as the sheltered Princess Ann in William Wyler’s “Roman Holiday.”

Originally, Wyler (“The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Ben Hur”) considered Elizabeth Taylor (“Father of the Bride,” “A Place in the Sun”) and British actress Jean Simmons (“Great Expectations,” “Black Narcissus”) for the part. But he pushed for the then-unknown Hepburn, so the audience could fully embrace a naive young princess, unsupervised and on her own in Rome. Wyler ordered a screen test of Hepburn while he prepared for production in Italy. They purposely loaded the camera with a 1,000-feet of film to capture her beyond the test performance – also filming her natural and relaxed. Wyler was enamored by the 23-year-old Hepburn, finding her a delight – charming and innocent, as she talked about her experience in German-occupied Holland, struggling to survive with little food and hiding in a cellar during Allied bombing raids.

“Roman Holiday” became the first Hollywood movie shot entirely on location. Over the last 70 years, it has become a classic for all generations. It’s easy to see why everyone became immediately enchanted with the waif-like actress.


(1) The Paramount production cost $1.5 million to make in Italy. (2) The film opens with newsreel footage of the young princess. (3&4) Princess Ann is introduced at the Embassy gala and to Monsignor Altomonte.



 



Hepburn plays the young princess from an unnamed country, who is on a sort of diplomatic tour. We meet her in Rome, where it’s clear she’s fed up with the endless obligations, rules, and restrictions her position requires. One evening, she looks longingly out her window at an outdoor dance, and plans an escape. In the dead of night, she leaves the embassy to wander the Roman streets until, exhausted, she falls asleep by a fountain wall. That’s where she’s found by Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), an American reporter, who manages to get the semiconscious young woman up to his modest apartment, where she can safely sleep. It just so happens that Joe has been assigned to interview Princess Ann the next morning.

When he sees her photo in a newspaper the next day, and realizes that’s who he’s rescued, he tells his photographer friend (Edward Albert) about it. The two devise a scheme to show the princess around Rome without telling her they’re journalists, planning to get a story and photos with the potential to earn them lots of money. Everything goes according to plan – or does it?

Under William Wyler’s savvy direction, with a story and screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, and cinematography by Henri Alekan, “Roman Holiday” is a smart, charming, timeless romantic fairytale without a scintilla of sentimentality. The Academy voters agreed, and the film received ten nominations and three Oscars – for Hepburn (best actress); for Trumbo (story); and for Edith Head (costume design).


(1) In the middle of the night Princess Ann escapes from the embassy. (2) Joe Bradley and photographer friend Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) play poker late into the night. (3) After the card game, Bradley finds the half-asleep princess on a bench at the Via della Curia, Fori Imperiali. (4) Bradley takes the young woman up to his modest apartment, where she can safely sleep.




 


VIDEO/AUDIO

Since the original black and white 35mm camera negative (1.37:1 aspect ratio) was unusable, second-generation duplicate negative and fine grain elements were scanned in 4K for Paramount’s frame-by-frame restoration. It’s the same master used for Paramount Present’s 2020 edition, which looked quite good on Blu-ray. But, here with the lesser resolution elements, the video playback is lowered than an original camera negative (OCN), making the on-screen clarity between the 4K and 1080p disc nearly identical.


Andrea Kalas, head of Paramount Archives, mentions the rarity of shooting a film on location at that time and notes the fact that Rome was “opening up again” after World War II. One of the many challenges faced in the restoration was the fact that Wyler had to use the film labs in Rome, which had “different standards” than those in the U.S., resulting in the original negative being “damaged while the film was being made.”


It’s a tough call, going back and forth between the 4K and Blu-ray, In some shots, the Blu-ray looks sharper, while the 4K has the slightest edge in other scenes. Both were examined with a 4K laser-projected image 4.5 feet tall, explored while standing two feet away. Overall the film grain is more pronounced, but during several outdoor scenes, the 4K film grain is unnatural, with a pointillist circle look instead of raw film grain especially in the sky, while the Blu-ray seems more controlled and natural.


THIS IS only a guess (As a digital archivist, I work with film grain every day restoring 35mm, 2 1/4, and 4x5 negatives), but the person overseeing this 4K grading was unsure about letting the grain be natural or not, especially since the grain is larger than normal, a product of not having the OCN. It seems they may have used some type of software to tone down the grain, with over-dialed controls causing the individual grains to be flattened into a circle-like look, instead of defined sharp edge grain. Check out the black and white 4K restoration by Sony Pictures and the excellent MGM/UA catalog of titles released by Kino Lorber. That’s how you handle film grain.


Another shortcoming is the overall 4K video bitrate. It mostly runs between 30 Megabits to the low 60 Mbps range, a product of encoding onto the smaller 66-gigabit disc. How much better of a picture would we’ve gotten on a 100-gigabit disc? You know the answer.

The biggest difference between the 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray is the added HDR10 and Dolby Vision grading. The overall grayscale is darker and more balanced, giving images more on-screen pop. In some cases, I think the 4K shadows are too dark, but the mid-tones and highlights are more cinematic – especially while viewing in a darkened room.

The mono 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack is flawless and well-balanced, with realistic sound effects and clear, always-intelligible dialogue.



EXTRAS

Bonus features are plentiful on the enclosed Blu-ray, a restamping of the 2020 edition disc, with “A Filmmaker Focus” by film critic Leonard Maltin, while the rest are carried over from previous DVDs: “Behind the Gates: Costumes,” “Rome With a Princess,” “Audrey Hepburn: the Paramount Years,” “Dalton Trumbo: From A-List to Blacklist,” “Paramount in the ‘50s,” “Remembering Audrey,” and some photo galleries.

The best extra is available on YouTube, “Restoration Discussion with Leonard Maltin and Andrea Kalas.” Maltin notes that the original script by Dalton Trumbo was bought for Frank Capra in the late 1940s, but the director had “mixed feelings” about it. When Wyler was offered the film, he said he’d do it, but only if he could shoot the whole thing on location in Rome. He brought his whole family, including his wife Margaret who was pregnant with their fourth child.

Kalas says that the sons of Trumbo and Hunter, the man who became Trumbo’s front due to the McCarthy Blacklist, became close friends and “worked to get credit back for Trumbo for both the story and the screenplay.” The new 4K master has Trumbo listed in the credits as the author and co-screenwriter. Kalas also comments that “The tools for digital restoration are so advanced now … it’s possible to honor the original film grain and get rid of flaws that interfere with the enjoyment of the film.” As for the monaural soundtrack, Paramount chose not to do an “up-mix” and kept it as originally recorded.

Paramount missed a great opportunity to present one of its most treasured films in the highest quality. Thank goodness a Blu-ray copy was included.

— Peggy Earle and Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer


(1) With a newspaper article and picture, Bradley confirms the young woman asleep in his apartment is the princess. (2&3) She and Bradley go to the rooftop for a view of the Eternal City. (4&5) The princess gets a new sassy haircut. (6&7) The 135 Spanish Steps with three terraces referring to the Holy Trinity, lead from the Piazza di Spagna square to the French monastery church Trinita dei Monti. The Princess takes time to enjoy some ice cream on the steps.



 


(1) The princess drives a Vespa through the streets of Rome. (2) She and the guys visit “The Mouth of Truth.” (3) After an evening of eating and dancing and then fighting off her own security guards, Ann and Bradley start to have feelings for each other. (4) The princess realizes she must return to the embassy.




 



(1&2) After returning to the embassy she and her staff have a heated conversation. (3&4) The next morning, Princess Ann meets the press.







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