Blogs on Film

Watching the Silent Version of “Roman Holiday”

The other night I arrived at a restaurant about 45 minutes before my dinner companions, which led to an unusually gratifying wait. Above the bar was perched a mega-size high-definition television, but the sound was off and only gentle jazz issued from the speakers in the ceiling. As my shiraz arrived, William Wyler’s 1953 classic Roman Holiday began on the screen.

Perhaps film schools make students watch great sound-era films without sound. If not, they should, it’s a fascinating exercise. The lack of sound highlights the myriad ways that mega-watt stars can convey emotion, tone and character, while drawing the viewer in.

Gregory Peck, the tall dark man of action and romance, turns out to have a tremendous gift for comedy. In the silent version, his jaunty walk, the way he talks rapidly out of the side of his mouth, his gimlet-eyed stares and dancing eyebrows create an explosion of mirth. The fellow a few seats down at the bar, as entranced by the silent spectacle as I, kept bursting into laughter while watching Peck’s silent magic, and I couldn’t stop joining in (not that I tried).

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And then of course the viewer meets Audrey Hepburn. It is hard to imagine now given her international fame, but no one knew who she was when Roman Holiday was released. Yet within a minute, millions of Americans were rooting for her to find that shoe. She doesn’t need words to convey vulnerability and to elicit from the viewer adoration and a desire to protect. As former Stanford University President Gerhard Casper once said “Falling in love with Audrey Hepburn is an essential, civilizing experience for all human beings”