Not so long ago I was taking some of my contemporaries to task for holding to their youthful dislike of Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) for being a “gyp” with its lack of “real” vampires, and I wondered at the time if this kind of youthful prejudice held true outside of the horror genre. I got my answer about two weeks ago without leaving the comfort of my own head. I had been guilty of it myself.
We had company, and as is usually the case with company, the TV was on as background in case the conversation lagged—and in my experience that’s pretty darn likely with people you don’t see all that often. Now at Maison Cranky the TV being on either means it’s on one of those alleged science or history channels where they spend 58 minutes trying to establish if something is or isn’t Jesus’ paisley shawl and the last two minutes concluding that they can’t really tell, or it’s on TCM. In this instance, it was TCM and they happened to run William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) with Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn and Eddie Albert.
This is a movie for which I’ve long harbored a vague dislike. In the past few years I’ve seen bits and pieces of it—and that scene where Gregory Peck pretends to have his hand bitten off in the mouth of the stone idol I’ve seen far too often. I know its story and am familiar enough with it to have recognized the reference when Satoshi Kon quoted from it in Paprika (2006). But have I actually sat down a watched it in the last 40 years or so? No. And why? Well, it’s partly that I’ve never entirely warmed to Gregory Peck on the screen and the 1950s are one of my least favorite decades of movies. And there’s the Eddie Albert factor. Who—with even the most concentrated effort—can see him and banish Green Acres from the mind? Certainly not I. But none of these are the central reason.
The fact is that I saw the movie long, long ago on TV in a motel room on a weekend family getaway to St. Augustine, Florida. I don’t know how old I was—11 is my guess. I suspect it was on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies because it premiered there in 1966 and because the Riverview Motel TVs were limited to whatever could be received via rabbit ears (ask your parents or grandparents) so it would have had to have been one of the more powerful main stations. I was, in any case, old enough to have been convinced that romantic comedies adhered to certain conventions—most especially that they were supposed to have happy endings where the onscreen lovers ended up together headed toward a lifetime of bliss.
With this in mind, my youthful sensibilities were aghast at the ending of Wyler’s movie. The idea of a bittersweet ending was foreign to me and I felt cheated and even depressed when newspaper reporter Gregory Peck and incognito princess Audrey Hepurn didn’t end up together. I have some slight notion that my father tried to explain why the ending I wanted was improbable to say the least, but I was having none of it. I hated the ending and I didn’t care in the least that the ending of the film was realistic. And I carried a grudge against the movie from that day until two weeks ago when I saw it from beginning to end for the first time in all those years.
The funny thing is that I didn’t even realize that this was the root of my dislike of Roman Holiday until I watched it. I simply remembered that I didn’t like it very much. So here I am watching this movie unfold and being perfectly charmed by just about everything about it. (And that surprises me for another reason, since, however much I admire him for other things, William Wyler is not a filmmaker I generally look to for charm.) Hell, I even liked Gregory Peck, and had no Green Acres moment in watching Eddie Albert. I had, in fact, no significant criticism of the movie, but I particularly liked—yep—the ending, which all these years later strikes me as not only perfect, but more romantic than the ending I wanted as a child.
I was amused to look at the IMDb message boards concerning Roman Holiday and find that people are still being upset by the ending. I would have, of course, agreed with those objecting to it when I was a kid. Now, I find the fact that people would still be arguing about it all these years later a testament to the wisdom of the ending the filmmakers went for.
The experience makes me wonder—and I think this is all to the good—if there might be other films I have a childhood problem with that need another look from an older perspective. It seems unlikely that Roman Holiday is an isolated case, and I know of people who take a dislike to movies or actors for ingrained and even irrational reasons. My paternal grandmother always loathed Richard Widmark because he pushed the old lady in the wheelchair down the stairs in his first movie Kiss of Death (1947). My father nursed a dislike of Casablanca (1942) for 46 years because he didn’t approve of the way the girl he took to see it was dressed! All manner of factors enter into our reasons for liking and disliking something—not all of them related to the thing itself/
My suggestion from this single experience—hopefully the first of several—is simply that you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by giving a movie you’ve disliked for so long that you can’t even remember exactly why another look. It’s only fair. Goodness knows, there are enough movies from childhood that are apt to make you wonder why on earth you ever thought they were good.