Four Seasons: Variations in American Vitalist Film Comedy
by Paul H. Grawe and Robin Jaeckle Grawe
© Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies 2018
Summer Vitalism: Roman Holiday
Having considered two films, Student Prince and Sound of Music, as Spring-variant vitalist comedies, we now turn to Roman Holiday. It is worthwhile noting that Roman Holiday shares much thematically with The Student Prince. Both screenplays are centrally concerned with the extraordinary life limitations placed on a monarch. As Prince Hal puts it in his father’s death bed scene of Shakespeare’s play, “Heavy lies the head that wears the crown” (2 Henry IV). The theme running through all three of our vitalist films concerning monarchs is the same. Henry IV and Henry V, however, are not Vitalist Comedy whereas Student Prince represents Spring vitalism and Roman Holiday represents Summer vitalism. (The King and I, which we will not be investigating, represents an even more complex, two-season vitalism.)
Roman Holiday starred Gregory Peck, one of the well-established great stars of the 1940’s screen. It introduced Audrey Hepburn, cast evidently, among other reasons, for being a new (and therefore less expensive) talent, for a black-and-white, low-budget film directed by William Wyler, shot entirely in Rome, using Rome’s monuments consistently as free backdrops, and accessing Paramount assets frozen in Rome. In the midst of all these pecuniary considerations and amidst equally difficult political realities of the McCarthy era, one of the great classics of cinematic theatre came forth. By the time the picture was released, Peck recognized that Hepburn had become one of the major talents of Hollywood fully deserving star billing.
The story line was basically simple: Princess Ann, heiress apparent to an eastern European throne, is making a good-will tour of Western Europe beginning in London, moving on to Paris, and from there on to Rome. By the time she arrives in Rome, Ann has been overwhelmed by a daily schedule that has no real rhyme or sense to it but requires her to give at every point the set speech most appropriate to the moment and the appropriate royal gestures thereunto. At midnight, she revolts in the midst of her countess-attendant’s businesslike recital of the next day’s “schedule” (pronounced optionally either in American or British English fashion. The option of pronunciation seems to be the biggest opportunity for personal choice and expression of individual personality available for the next day.)
To quell Ann’s tantrum, a doctor is called in to administer a mood-elevating sedative. When her attendants have retired, Ann jumps out of bed and manages to escape from the embassy to the streets of northern Rome, where she soon falls asleep on a curb-side bench, happy both chemically from the injection and psychologically from experiencing some of the daily life of outdoor-café Rome.
There, incognita, she is found by Joe Bradley, an American journalist assigned to the Rome bureau. Ann becomes something of a tar baby that Joe can’t get rid of in her seemingly inebriated and somnambulant state. He eventually takes her back to his apartment, lets her sleep in his pajamas in his bed; (she’s always been required to wear a nightgown). He sleeps contorted on a small couch. They both over-sleep her 11:45 press interview which he has been assigned to cover.
Joe leaves Ann asleep and goes to his news office where he tells his boss that he has attended the news conference. This is a bald-faced lie but also a palpable lie because the embassy has reported Ann to be sick and has cancelled her schedule for the full day, including the news conference. Joe for the first time gets to see a picture of Ann as princess in the paper, realizes who it is he left asleep in his apartment, negotiates with his boss for an enormous ($5,000) payment for an exclusive interview with the princess, and accepts his boss’s $500 bet that he can’t pull it off.
When Joe gets back to his apartment, Ann is still asleep, and he is able to confirm that she is the princess by her comments when not yet fully awake. Joe calls in his friend, Irving, a photographer (played by Eddie Albert) with a camera disguised as a cigarette lighter. The anticipated story will be worth quite a bit more with pictures. It becomes obvious that Ann wants to experience the “real life” of Rome, but she dismisses herself from Joe and ventures out into the streets of Rome, Joe discreetly following. She squanders the money she has borrowed from Joe (about $1.50) on trinkets, a gelato, and a hair cut in the bobbed au currant Roman fashion. The enchanted barber invites her to a dance on a barge on the Tiber opposite St. Angelo’s (Hadrian’s Tomb).
Joe, who has had enough of surreptitious surveillance, arranges to “bump into” Ann on the Spanish Steps. (Ann has indicated her preference for the British Romantic poets but is unaware how close she is to the stuffy chambers in which Keats died. This conjunction is at best a small point and not necessary for the vitalist appreciation of the film. It does, however, suggest that there can be much more in a movie than meets our sense though it does meet our eye. Perhaps a full essay or even a book could be written on the subtle literary qualities in all the Roman “backgrounds.”)
Joe manages to suggest that Ann take the day off to enjoy Rome, himself as her companion. Most of the movie is taken up with seeing the various sights, including the Wall of Wishes, a communal shrine of plaques commemorating answered prayer. Along the line they visit the Coliseum, get arrested when Ann takes off with Joe’s motorbike, and the like, all surreptitiously photographed by Irving, whom Joe has strategically intercepted at a sidewalk café where Ann off-handedly ordered champagne. (Happily, Irving has money from last night’s poker game which Joe peremptorily borrows.)
The day ends up at 9 p.m. on the dance barge. Unfortunately by then, Ann’s government has sent in several squads of “plain-clothes” secret-service goons, some of whom spot Ann. Irving is there to photograph a general mêlée in which the princess incognita clobbers a secret-service agent with a guitar and Ann and Joe escape by jumping into the Tiber.
As the two dry off, it becomes clear that Joe and Ann have come to deeply care for each other and that Ann considers Joe and Irving to be kindly, unselfish creatures beyond her experience or comprehension. This estimate, of course, contrasts sharply with what Joe knows of his own profession and motivation. Ann tearfully asks to be returned to an alleyway and there makes Joe promise he will not try to follow her as she makes her way through an archway back to the embassy.
The next day the press conference is rescheduled for 11:45 at the Gran Sala Galleria. Joe has already told Irving he will not write a story, and Irving has gotten to show Joe the pictures that are worth a small fortune. Both attend the press conference in the front row, both having separately decided that Ann is not the “fair game” which royalty normally provides for journalists.
Having resumed her official role, Ann enters, recognizes both without showing it, makes absolutely flawless and trite responses to the press’s trite questions. She then indicates that she wants to meet the press, and beginning at her right greets each member of the front-row press (played by real Rome journalists). When she is almost at the end of the line, she meets Irving, who introduces himself and gives her the negatives and pictures in an envelope, calling them souvenirs of her stay in Rome. Joe, who has already signaled in a comment that he will not betray her, gets to formally introduce himself to royalty he has held in his arms and kissed simply as Ann.
Ann retires from the hall amidst courtiers and embassy staff. Irving and the press depart in the opposite direction. In the final protracted scene, Joe stands still, looking at the dais chair in which Ann sat. He slowly retires the length of the hall flanked at intervals by liveried attendants. At the end of the hall, he looks back to the empty dais, and the film ends.
This plot synopsis suggests little of the vitalist techniques and dynamis, with the exception of Roman monumentality which evokes Awe. But even this suggestion of vitalism is seriously qualified when we realize that the film was shot in black-and-white expressly to minimize the grandeurs of Rome that otherwise might overpower the story.
In the previous chapter, we considered vitalist technique before considering vitalist dynamis. Here we reverse that order to consider dynamis first, particularly to consider where dynamis becomes apparent.
In Student Prince and in Sound of Music, the vitalist dynamic emerges suddenly in the last moments of the film. That is perhaps most typical of Spring vitalism. It is atypical of the dynamics we shall be considering from this point on.
Since the dynamis or dynamic is an emotional response elicited by the work as a whole, it is almost impossible for the dynamis to be fully realized while the plot is still moving forward. As sophisticated audience, we recognize that one last twist of plot can seriously alter any dynamic in the process of becoming, and therefore, because we are sophisticated, we inhibit our own commitment to what may seem to be a dynamis in the making.
But if a play has a long denouement, a coda ending, or a substantial anti-climax, the same sophisticated theatre audience can be expected to sense that plot has essentially ended. From that point on, a dynamic can be building. There is no inherent artistic superiority of sudden dynamis over building dynamis or vice versa. To investigate dynamis carefully, however, we need to establish when dynamis is either suddenly triggered or when it is allowed to begin its growth.
In the scene before the Gran Sala scene, Joe and Irving are bamboozling Joe’s boss, examining Irving’s stunning photographs, and ruefully considering how much money would be lost by an honorable decision. This is no place for dynamis. As the scene ends, Joe is still telling Irving that, while he won’t write copy, Irving is free to sell his pictures. Plot is still moving forward, and a different decision by Irving here would make a different movie.
But at the start of the final scene as Irving and Joe work their way into the front row, certainly as Ann comes in and recognizes them in the front row, the same sophisticated audience has reason to know that the plot has ended. Joe and Irving have the exposé of the decade. They don’t need to flaunt it by facing Ann down from the front row. So evidently they are no longer planning on the exposé.
Ann recognizes them without giving herself away, and there is no reason for her to do so subsequently.
This tableau of the press conference is the quiet climax of the play. Everything after is increasingly anti-climactic. Yet in that anti-climax, the dynamis can build through recurrent close-up shots of both Ann’s expression and Joe’s as well as in Ann’s regal procession down the line of journalists.
One might think that such a long-building dynamis or elicited emotional response to the whole would end on Ann’s exit. In fact, the direction of the film is to even further extend the anti-climax by Joe’s remaining in place and by his slow withdrawal down the entire length of the Gran Sala.
The subject of this book, dynamis, virtually requires the reader to have experienced the film for herself or himself, perhaps even to have reviewed the film. In any review the reader may decide to undertake, it is centrally important to notice in oneself the building dynamis throughout this final scene.
We have not yet established that Roman Holiday is strongly vitalist in technique. Assuming that point for the moment, however, this is a particularly apt time to notice a characteristic of vitalist dynamis, whatever its seasonal variant. Vitalist dynamis moves strongly to emphasize either the solitary individual or the individual in quite extraordinary relationship.
In Student Prince, the final moments show Karl and Juttner in a receding carriage while we hear the distant voices of the student corps. Karl and Juttner are together, but Karl is rigidly face front, staring out into nothing. In the preceding scene with Kathie, Kathie almost consistently has a far-away look, gazing out past Karl, avoiding looking him in the eye. This pattern of Karl’s aloneness is very strong in the final two scenes but was anticipated by his standing alone before his grandfather’s bier.
Contrastingly, in Sound of Music, the final scene pans a family of nine people climbing a steep ascent to the top of the Alps. These people have been extraordinarily forged into a loving family through the course of the film as a whole.
At the same time, the entire film has worked to present Captain Von Trapp as a man who stands alone against the entire Nazi movement in Austria and the rule of the Brown Shirts afterward. The decision to resist, to escape Austria rather than to be co-opted into its military is presented as entirely Captain Von Trapp’s independent decision. And in that light, it is clear that Maria has been independent as well, accepting her calling, creating a loving home, recreating Georg as a feeling human being.
Because vitalism is about extraordinary life, the vitalist dynamic or dynamis of the whole is routinely somewhat dependent on being either a dynamic of the solitary, isolated, or independent self or a dynamic of the intensely-related self or of the two paradoxically joined together.
In Roman Holiday, it is not simply Joe Bradley as a man who makes a decent, moral, and honorable independent decision for himself and to his self-detriment. Irving also has made a similar personal and individual decision with much less provocation than Joe’s deep emotional attachment for the princess.
And of course, Ann may leave the Gran Sala surrounded by staff, but she leaves ultimately alone, committed to her duty but with the experience of a lifetime to sustain her. Like Karl of Karlsburg, Ann can only look forward to a life of dutiful civility to the state and to her people. But like Karl, she can face that future with a beautiful memory. Both films’ dynamics inherently emphasize the individual alone.
Surprisingly, this similar presentation of the personal reality of royalty does not mean that the two films have the same seasonal vitalist dynamic. We must return to the techniques employed in Roman Holiday that allow and, in fact, demand a quite different variation of vitalist dynamic.
In terms of moment-by-moment vitalist humor, the main driving force of Roman Holiday is Langerian Performance vitalism. The moments of risibility in the play are virtually all performances: Ann escaping the embassy in the back of a garbage truck, Joe’s landlord on duty with his WW II rifle drill outside Joe’s apartment, Joe moving a sleeping Ann from bed to couch and back again, Irving’s fishing games with his model, Ann driving a motorbike for the first time through Rome’s crowded streets and eventually picking up a police escort, a hand eaten by the Mouth of Truth, a Western bar brawl complete with beer bottles and guitars to the head transplanted to the banks of the Tiber overlooked by Hadrian’s Tomb.
This is an impressive list mainly because as directed in the movie these vitalist performances can each and all be expected to get audible laughter out of a normal theatre audience. We have already said repeatedly that Langerian vitalism is often denied any existence at all and that even more often people refuse to believe that they can ever be made to laugh simply in response to extraordinary life. Extensive empirical testing has demonstrated without exception that participants as a whole indicate almost equal preference for Langerian and Bergsonian humor. Yet the same testing indicates that there is little movement to overt risibility in this appreciation of Langerian humor.
Roman Holiday is then a tour de force demonstration that at least the Performance variant of Langerian vitalism can be made not only demonstrably risible but also highly memorable, many of the scenes mentioned having become classics in themselves.
This tour de force demonstration, however, does not preclude the more normal Performance humor evoking an inward smile. The last scene of the film, which we have already argued to be a long anti-climax or coda ending, is replete with this inward-smile humor, captured quintessentially in close-ups of Ann and Joe. Joe’s expression changes hardly at all, suggesting that all of the close-ups were taken sequentially and then interspersed in the actual scene. However the close-ups were contrived, their combined effect in the film is to be a stellar performance of a man who has made up his mind—made up his mind to hurt himself deeply financially, made up his mind to lose his substantial bet and to fall further into wage slavery, made up his mind to desert the normal standards of his profession, made up his mind to act honorably for himself even if his compatriot gives in to the temptation to foil his every good intention by releasing the embarrassing photographs. Considering that this is accomplished without Joe saying a word, this is an extraordinary theatrical accomplishment and vitalist Performance in itself. We are entirely right to be smiling throughout to witness such an exquisite moment of theatre.
Exactly the same arguments for Performance vitalism apply to the close-ups of Princess Ann in this final scene, with the exception that Ann’s expressions are exquisitely yet subtly shifting throughout. Ann is a woman who has made up her mind—made up her mind to hold to duty, to play out the game of choreographed royalty, to embody the grace and charm recommended to Prince Karl in Student Prince.
And as we have already indicated, this consummate Performance is accomplished with the sure knowledge of its enormous cost, its enormous limitation on outward life. For both Joe and Ann, these are Performances of self-abnegation. It takes extraordinary life to do such things, and we are not all up to it ourselves.
But life responds to life, and the inward smile that this scene repeatedly invokes is only the first of several strong emotional responses. It goes without saying that such abnegating Performance typically can be done only by the solitary, independent individual, not by a group. This is perhaps one of the reasons why vitalist comedic dynamis is so often intensely related to a solitary figure.
Moving on within variants of Langerian vitalism, it is important to note that, in contrast to Student Prince and Sound of Music, Roman Holiday either eschews Potential vitalism or denies it as soon as it appears. Ann, after all, has no potential for developing her reactions to life as normally lived either in the sidewalk cafés of Rome or anywhere else. She certainly is not demonstrating potential for a life of barroom brawls much as she wields a nasty beer bottle and guitar.
Joe gives some indication that he might be a competent paparazzi, and Irving’s camera suggests American ingenuity toward just such Potential. But the flow of the whole film is entirely in the opposite direction. Joe’s entrepreneurial Potential, Irving’s technical Potential, and Ann’s human Potential are not the glorified subjects of this movie; they are rather the necessary victims of honorable and serious Performance that finally has to come from the heart and must be judged by the heart of the performer. With the strong denial of Langerian Potential vitalism, there is no possibility for the film to fulfill our definition of a Spring vitalist dynamic growing out of a Spring combination of vitalist humor techniques.
A very similar conclusion is quickly reached when we turn to strong Regain forms. While Student Prince and Sound of Music had dominant senses of Re-creation form, Re-creation is not only absent as a dominant Regain form in Roman Holiday, it is a thoroughly rejected form for the action.
Ann is not reborn in Roman Holiday. She begins the film a princess on a goodwill tour. She ends the film as a princess much more deeply committed to her goodwill mission because it is part of the greater duties she has confirmed and accepted.
Joe is not reborn in Roman Holiday. He began the film as an upstanding member of the press corps, perhaps a little too prone to playing cards the night before a big assignment. He ends the film an upstanding member of the press corps, although a member of the press corps who has had a fairly unique opportunity to write a small and tawdry chapter of history.
Irving is not reborn in Roman Holiday. He began the film as an easy-going, womanizing, talented professional photographer. He ends the film as the same, though a photographer with the experience of honorably giving away some of the most saleable photos he will ever take.
By these descriptions alone, Re-creative themes are clearly rejected, not merely minimized, by Roman Holiday. Just as much, Re-construction themes are everywhere present. Ann returns to her goodwill tour a much refreshed, much more alive-to-real-life princess. Joe returns to wage slavery aware that he has bought something very precious with his freedom. Irving returns to professional photography with the clear ideological position that royalty are “fair game,” but also with the knowledge that he has chosen in honor to be something considerably more than merely a professional photographer.
Each has been re-constructed into a higher form of the self they already possessed. All three had progressed before the beginning of the film to a certain kind of respectability. But any of the three would be rightfully highly insulted by the idea that they had not progressed substantially beyond that kind of respectability by the close. Ann in her returning, late-night confrontation with the embassy staff becomes the symbol of that “having moved beyond” status when she faces down her counselors and indignantly rebuffs any suggestion that she does not have an exalted sense of her “duty” to family and state. “Your Excellency, I trust you will not find it necessary to use that word again. Were I not completely aware of my duty to my family and to my country, I would not have come back tonight... or indeed ever again!”
Re-construction in the senses just mentioned is fairly easy to accept. There are, however, deeper aspects of Re-construction that deserve some theoretical attention in order to recognize the artistic depth of Re-construction as formative to Roman Holiday.
Re-construction can encompass many other Re-s. It can, for example, come in the form of retraining, redirection, or reinvigoration. Rebalancing, however, has a special right to our attention, particularly because it is so foundationally related to the biological Re-constructions of summer.
To explicate this point, let us consider a quite ordinary vegetable plant. In spring, it suddenly shoots up as a germinated seed, typically as a di-cotyledon. It spends a good deal of time in this stage. But as summer approaches (again, we are putting the first day of summer in early May), the plant takes off into a series of stages that we can all recognize with the naked eye as separate acts of growth (perhaps we can think of separate stages as including stalk development, flower development, and the like).
For our purposes here, it is not important how we define these steps. What is important is that at every step the plant must first be alive in a former stage in order to have the slightest chance of moving on to the next stage. And thus at every moment until we willingly concede that it has fully achieved that next stage, it is involved in two seemingly opposed activities: 1) it is maintaining itself alive in whatever stage it currently exists, and 2) it is moving beyond itself, taking a piece away here, resetting a piece there in order to get to the next stage.
Thus, the multiple stages of summer have in common that they are all balancing acts or rather rebalancing acts constantly performing opposite imperatives together in order to move higher. Like walking for human beings, this movement from stage to stage is a constant jettisoning of balance only to strenuously regain that balance only to jettison balance yet again.
Roman Holiday makes very extensive use of balancing and misstep metaphors. Ann started the film off balance, having gratefully relieved herself of one high-heeled shoe under her floor-length gown. Other examples early in the film include Ann’s repeated loss of balance due to the injection she has received and the beautiful misstep of Joe climbing the stairs to his apartment while Ann, somnambulant, walks on level ground next to the railing, still holding his hand.
Joe also begins the movie with the misstep of overbidding his hand in poker and later claims to his boss that he has attended a royal press conference which was in fact cancelled. Meantime, he executes a conspicuously awkward balancing act to move the sleeping Ann from bed to couch. A prominent misstep occurs when Joe carries Ann from the wrong side so that she must be laid on the foot of the bed not the head.
Here we are again in the presence of Bergsonian or Bergsonian-Langerian-ambiguous humor variants which set up by contrast the Langerian Performance successes later on, a movement we noted earlier in both Student Prince and Sound of Music. This movement from Bergsonian to Langerian is signaled in the high-heeled shoe incident. It begins in Ann being off balanced and inwardly embarrassed. It ends in Ann and her attendants moving gracefully to a recovery of shoe and balance.
All these off-balance moments are, however, only preludes to Irving’s “slips” perpetrated by Joe first in the sidewalk café and later in his apartment. The slips, of course, are intended as metaphorical messages to Irving that he is about to spill something important. Irving is quite saturated with spilled wine before he has understood the implied message.
And, of course, there are a variety of spills and pratfalls for just about everyone as part of the barge brawl in the Tiber.
Yet these slips and missteps are more than Bergsonian jokes. Wyler’s production uses each of these slips and false steps as the announcement of movement to a new stage of development, as, for example, Joe’s lie about the press conference announces his movement to the next higher stage of entrepreneurial journalism. The various trips and slips he forces on Irving in his apartment in the penultimate scene signal his continued growth, continued Re-construction, to a man of honor in journalism, while his pratfall into the Tiber is the immediate signal of his awareness of new imperatives in his relationship to Ann.
In contrast, the final scene in the Gran Sala shows Ann, Irving, and Joe all at their poised, balanced best, the fitting symbol of the rebalance and Re-construction which the film has been at pains to demonstrate. It is not accidental that this final scene of perfect balance, a perfect landing if you will, is designed to elicit deep, subtle smiles in response to Langerian Performance.
We come then to Gladness-Impulse vitalism, again defined as the spirit of the whole work. Here Roman Holiday has always been known for Delight, and it is a Spirit of Delight that imbues the work as a whole. Delight, as we have said earlier, is a hidden, interior reality. It can be known on stage only by its results. Scenes like the Mouth of Truth and Ann commandeering the Vespe motorbike are wonderful snap-shot moments of Delight manifest. Indeed, it is Irving’s snapshots which are the best proof of Delight, and among those photos it is the moment of Ann smashing a guitar on the head of a secret-service agent which Irving rightly calls attention to as the ultimate picture.
We will have more to say about the Spirit of Delight in succeeding chapters. For the moment, one central point should be made. Delight is interior, and it is also momentary. Delight needs to be pictured, embodied in one way or another. It also needs to be memorized and/or memorialized because delight is a very high value which must be cherished for more than the moment. Irving’s pictures are the embodiment of both these principals but most importantly the latter, the memorialization of delight, which is also one of the main characteristics of the Spirit of Delight.
As inspired art so often will, Roman Holiday creates a second memorialization of Delight which is at an opposite pole from Irving’s pictures. After Ann has left the dais and the reporters including Irving have left, Joe remains alone, stationary, looking at the dais chair on which Ann sat. He too is memorizing Delight, and after walking the full length of the Gran Sala, he turns back for yet a final memorializing look.
And with that the film ends.
And thus, despite all the seeming similarities in plot and situation between Student Prince and Roman Holiday, these two films clearly do not share the same seasonal variant of vitalist comedy. Roman Holiday is most characterized by a combination of Langerian Performance, Re-construction (especially rebalancing) form, and Delight impulse. Together, these are the components of Summer vitalism.
Summer is the time when the plant world is at full rapid-growth vitality. It is the time when the animal world thrives and fattens. It is a time to be free to do. It has always been a time of relative freedom to move around and explore. Since the Second World War in the United States, it has been increasingly the time to move to higher latitudes and higher elevations, to turn back the clock in so doing and to get to live through the same point in the summer cycle more than once. And in all these senses, it is a special time to remember.
It is also in these senses a time to perform, a time to move from one reconstruction to another to another and to delight in the easiness of maturity and growth.
What then should we expect from a dynamis growing out of plot, yes, but also out of vitalist humor techniques? Again, there will be opportunity to say more when we have seen at least a second example of the variant.
But from what we have already argued, a Summer dynamis should reflect a sense of growth, power, and maturity. And as we watch Joe alone in the Gran Sala, we see that he is a man who has grown immensely in power and maturity since the film opened. And he projects a confident strength of one who is settled in difficult decisions made. And the normal dynamic that is building inside us as a normally sophisticated audience knowing that the real action has ended some time previously is a growing sense of getting on with it, with yet further reconstruction and rebalance, in power and maturity. This is not the newly-springing-forth surge of Spring. It is the settled, powerful, moving-on upswelling of Summer.