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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Runaway Roman Romances

"This film was shot entirely on location on the streets of Rome, Italy." That's the intertitle of Roman Holiday (directed by William Wyler, 1952), the Audrey Hepburn/Gregory Peck classic, the first American movie made entirely abroad, from filming to the final print. A poster for the film, with Hepburn and Peck scootering around the Eternal City on a Vespa, can be found in virtually every tourist shop, telling the story of the princess's love affair with Rome. The poster at left is NOT the one found in Rome shops, and the woman Gregory Peck is kissing doesn't resemble Audrey Hepburn, but at least there's a scooter.

Wyler had less fun making the movie. "Our business here does not attract the better element," he wrote from Italy, and he described the "madhouse" that was Rome when whenever Gregory Peck was on the set. "The police are absolutely helpless," he lamented, "as the people of Rome have a very great sense of independence and will not be pushed around. They live on the streets and they own them."

Wyler's comments are from a new book by film scholar Robert R. Shandley, who sheds new light on the familiar topic: American film-making in Rome. The title, Runaway Romances: Hollywood's Postwar Tour of Europe (Temple University Press, 2009), has two meanings. On the one hand, it refers to "runaway" films--that is, films such as Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur (Wyler, 1959), Spartacus (1960), and Quo Vadis? (1961) that fled high production costs in southern California for the cheaper services and lower wages of Europe, and especially Rome, where in 1961 more films were made than in Hollywood. Most were filmed on sound stages at Cinecitta', the famous studio founded in 1937 under Fascism and located just outside the city center. The exterior of Cinecitta' is on Itinerary 1 in Rome the Second Time.

On the other hand, "runaway" refers to protagonists in a series of films set in Rome and elsewhere, 1950s women in flight from suburban boredom and uninspired marriages (or being single, or threatened with spinsterhood), hoping to find a husband, a lover, or maybe just life inspiration, in the romantic spaces of Rome or Paris or even Berlin.

Among the romantic travelogues (these films usually have at least one travelogue sequence that offers the host city's major attractions) filmed in Rome, Shandley presents The Indiscretion of An American Wife, which opens at modernistic Stazione Termini, continues at Piazza di Spagna (romantic encounter with Giovanni Doria, played by Montgomery Clift [neither Italian nor heterosexual]), and features this delightful explanation of the consequent affair: "It was you, it was Rome, and I am a housewife from Philadelphia."

The young women in the widescreen (better for the travelogue part) film, Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) are unmarried secretaries in search of Italian husbands (a volatile combination even today, we hear). The secretaries would normally have trouble meeting classy Italian men but, being from America, a classless society, they ignore the social boundaries of the Old World and get their men. Stazione Termini appears in this one, too.

Both sides of the runaway phenomenon unravel in the early 1960s. Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minelli, 1962), a film about filmmaking, presents Cinecitta' as a lousy place to make a film, and Rome (quoting Shandley here) "filled with washed-up (and overweight) former Hollywood stars." The travelogue Romance turns dark, dangerous, and deadly in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), in which the Spanish Steps become a creepy place occupied by Rome's homeless and potential stalkers.

Robert Shandley's Runaway Romances explores these and other films at length and with sophistication, and it contains a chapter on Roman Holiday. It is available for purchase at


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