Audrey Hepburn clings to Gregory Peck as they ride a motorcycle in Rome

Why Save the Cat! Analyzes Classic Films

Blake Snyder did not invent story beats. Blake studied screenplays—including ones written before he was born—and discovered how brilliant writers inherently hit the same beats film after film. And so Blake codified these similar story beats, gave those beats easily remembered names, and offered his analysis of structure to help writers (who might not be as inherently brilliant as Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter, and John Dighton) create the foundations for their tales.

See how Oscar®-Winning Roman Holiday hits the Save the Cat! story beats!

Directed by: William Wyler

Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton

Genre: Since Roman Holiday is billed as a romantic comedy, it fits into the Buddy Love genre (an incomplete hero, the counterpart who makes that completion come about, a personal or ethical complication), but at its heart, the film is a lovely Rites of Passage creation (a primal life problem, a wrong way to attack the problem that’s usually a diversion from confronting the pain, a solution that involves acceptance of a hard truth: the hero must change, not the world around him/her.)

Trivia: Roman Holiday was shot in black and white so the characters wouldn’t be upstaged by the gorgeous images of Rome, and Gregory Peck insisted on equal billing for the newcomer, Audrey Hepburn, so he wouldn’t be upstaged by looking like a fool when she received the Oscar® he was certain she would win. Which she did, of course.

Opening Image: A loud and busy newsreel of Princess Ann’s “goodwill tour designed to cement trade relations between her country and the rest of western Europe” leaves her country of origin a mystery, but does give us a very clear image of what this trip entails: endless smiling, waving, and dedicating of orphanages and ships.

Theme Stated: The newsreel reporter states cheerfully, “the smiling young princess showed no sign of the strain of the week’s continuous public appearances.” This film will explore the painful gap between Ann’s image and her reality, the battle between doing what she longs to do and doing what’s expected of her.

Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann in pajamass
Princess Ann wearing a pajama top

Set-Up: The seemingly perfect princess is required to stand with grace and dignity for hours greeting dignitaries, but an amusing Save the Cat! moment (the weary Ann secretly takes one shoe off underneath her gown and then can’t find it) foreshadows all the things that need fixing. Despite her pedigree, Ann is really just a mischievous teenager who longs to sleep in pajamas, “but only the top part,” wants to dance all night down on the barges, and is annoyed at being served crackers and milk in bed like a toddler.

She is also deeply exhausted and utterly overwhelmed. When her assistant, Countess Vereberg (Margaret Rawlings) lists all the absolutely vital but deadly dull duties that are required of her, Ann has a sobbing meltdown; her thesis world has become a prison in which she is forever locked by virtue of her birth.

Catalyst: Doctor Bonnachoven (Heinz Hindrich) is called and Ann is given a shot of some new type of sedative that will make her relaxed and “a little bit happy.”

Debate: Confined to her bed, Ann struggles to submit, at turns promising to be a dutiful royal and then bursting into anguished tears. Finally, she begs to leave just one light on and the good doctor says, of course, because “the best thing I know is to do exactly what you wish for a while.” This little statement, combined with a syringe full of happy drugs, puts a crazy idea into Ann’s head: could she do exactly as she wishes for a while?

Break into Two: Ann sneaks out of the palace and escapes in the back of a delivery truck, watching with delight as the prison doors (palace gates) close behind her.

B Story: Ann’s relationship with reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) will not only enable her to experience a desperately needed day of joyful freedom, it will give her a love to treasure as a stepping stone to maturity.

Ann leans on Joe on a bench in Rome
Ann in a stupor as she meets Joe

Fun and Games: Ann careens into her antithesis world and it’s bright and exciting and terrifying and… the drugs kick in. When she passes out on a park bench, the jaded and perpetually broke Joe Bradley finds her and thinking she’s a random drunken teenager, takes her home until she can sleep it off. When Joe realizes just who he has on his uncomfortable couch, he makes a bet with his editor that he can get an exclusive interview with the princess.

Eddie Albert, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck on the streets of Rome
Irving, Ann, and Joe on the streets of Rome

But he has to be cagey about it, knowing the only way he can get Ann’s real thoughts is if she doesn’t realize he knows her true identity. Inviting photographer Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert in a delightful Oscar-nominated performance) to join in the ruse, Joe persuades the newly-christened schoolgirl “Anya” to take the whole day off and do exactly what she likes.

Joe behind Ann as she drives their Vespa
The princess drives a Vespa

On Irving’s dime, the trio embark on a wonderful day of sight-seeing, drinking champagne in cafes, driving Vespas, getting arrested for driving badly on Vespas, charming the police so they don’t go to jail for driving badly on Vespas, and making Ann’s dreams of doing what she wishes come true.

Ann puts her hand in the statue's mouth in Roman Holiday
Ann puts her hand in the Mouth of Truth

Midpoint: At the Bocca della Verita, Joe speaks the statue’s legend: if one is given to lying and puts their hand in the Mouth of Truth, it will be bitten off. Of course, all three of them are lying through their teeth and a sense of unease settles over the group. Joe quickly tries to lighten the moment by playing a prank on Ann (trivia: this scene was done in one take because Gregory Peck hid his hand in his sleeve when he pulled it out of the Mouth of Truth and Audrey Hepburn actually screamed), so a false victory saves the day. Temporarily.

Bad Guys Close In: Both the internal and external bad guys start to appear: the royal family have sent a fleet of their country’s version of g-men in suits to try to find the princess, Ann feels reality break in as she stares at the Wall of Wishes on Viale del Policlinico, and when she thanks Joe for being so kind and unselfish for taking her around all day, his deeply buried conscience (he is a yellow journalist, after all) begins to bother him. As night falls the time clock starts ticking, and when Joe and Ann share a kiss after escaping the clutches of the royal spies, the stakes are raised exponentially.

All Is Lost: Amidst the sexual tension back at Joe’s apartment, they hear a radio report about Princess Ann’s family and country becoming frantic about her absence, putting a real damper on the mood and giving the whiff of death for their relationship. Joe and Ann have a melancholy conversation about life often not being what one would choose.

Joe and Ann embrace in Roman Holiday
The embrace

Dark Night of the Soul: Joe and Ann embrace as she weeps for what might have been.

Break into Three: Still assuming that Joe has no idea who she really is, “Anya” tearfully bids him farewell to return to “school”; in other words, Princess Ann leaves him in the car and makes her way back to the palace.

Finale: Upon her return, Ann literally storms the castle. She gathers the team (all her royal handlers) and executes the new plan: she will no longer tolerate being treated like a child or an obedient figurehead. She has made a real sacrifice for the sake of her family and country and she means to rule now. As they protest, Ann silences them with the threat of abdication, a very real possibility (and one that resonated with viewers who were experiencing the true-life royal drama of Princess Margaret and commoner Pete Townsend’s affair). But it’s obvious that Ann is still in pain; will she get her moment of synthesis?

On the other side of town, in a high-tower surprise that’s not terribly surprising for a romantic comedy, Joe makes the decision to not publish his story about his day with the princess. Yes, a cynical reporter driven by money and ambition gives up the 5K he was promised for a career-making article, and we buy it because of how well this story is structured and acted (and because Audrey Hepburn is freaking captivating, God bless her).

Ann shake's Joe's hand at the press conference in Roman Holiday
The formal handshake at the end of Princess Ann’s press conference

When Joe and Irving show up as newspaper men for the princess’s final press conference, Ann is stunned and looks for confirmation that they will not out her. Irving begins by surreptitiously giving Ann the photos he secretly took during her wonderful day. And when a general question is asked about friendship between nations, Ann says pointedly, “I have every faith in it. Just as I have faith in relations between people” and Joe assures her, “Speaking for my press service, we believe that your highness’s faith will not be unjustified.” Synthesis has been achieved; the untouchable princess and the real woman are now one.

Final Image: We end on a bittersweet note as Ann disappears and Joe stands for a moment in the quiet, empty palace. The lovers have parted for good, for as we all know too well, one can only “do exactly what they wish for a while,” not forever.

The original poster for the film Roman Holiday
The original poster from Paramount Pictures