Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) remains the quintessential modern day derivative of Charles Perrault’s classic fairy tale, Cinderella brought surreptitiously to life. The film is, of course, more directly based on Samuel A. Taylor’s lushly quixotic Sabrina Fair – the pluperfect romantic comedy about a waifish wallflower desperate to be recognized by a flamboyant heir to the manor born. In supplanting the traditional Gothic European castle for a moneyed Long Island estate Taylor’s acclimatization of Perrault’s literary genius has lost none of the original’s zeal for glamorous wish fulfillment. Moreover Taylor has tweaked the formula enough to yield a refreshing, utterly joyous – and slightly unpredictable – ‘feel good’; the discovery of our ‘happily ever after’ this second time around in the arms of an unlikely stranger.
After all, the prince in this story isn’t exactly the budding young stud in cod piece and tights or even the rakishly handsome, platinum tress playboy David Larrabee (William Holden) whom the princess in rags – in this case, the chauffeur’s daughter, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) -has been mooning over and pining for ever since she was old enough to recognize the differences between boys and girls. David knows about this difference too. Only he just can’t quite see the proverbial forest for the trees in Sabrina; the girl who lives right over his garage. No, Dave’s into debutantes – superficial, flaxen-haired goddesses with trust funds who frequent the elegant parties his family gives during moon-lit warm summer nights. These mannequins have no staying power. Then again, David isn’t particularly interested in them either…at least, not for too long. He’s much too self-absorbed to take life or love seriously; the pleasures of privilege having corrupted his sense of both chivalry and commitment to anything outside of having a good time.
David’s ‘what me worry?’ complacency isn’t exactly embraced by his father Oliver (Walter Hampden). But it is rather cynically abhorred by his elder brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart) who has assumed control of the family’s empire from a front office in downtown Manhattan and/or shouting orders to his secretary on a Dictaphone from the backseat of his chauffeur-driven limo. Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman’s brush up of Taylor’s prose play upon the social sacrifices Linus has made in order to pick up David’s slack. “Look at me,” Linus muses with a chronic sadness, “Joe College with a touch of arthritis!”
Bogart was, in fact, much too old to play even the elder son in this lithesome romantic fantasy. Moreover, he was already in poor health and even more ill-spirits by the time production began – a last minute replacement for Cary Grant. It’s unknown exactly why Bogart took such an immediate aversion to his co-stars. But he most definitely did not get on with Audrey Hepburn – the pair frequently at odds once cameras stopped rolling. Ironically, and thankfully, the malaise of their backstage bickering never seems to affect their on-screen chemistry. Bogart is at his best as the self-deprecating mature man caught unawares by Cupid’s arrow after his initial plan to merely buy off the chauffeur’s daughter to avert a nasty – and frankly, expensive – scandal goes hopelessly awry. And Hepburn manages to probe a softer side to Bogart. The two just feel comfortable and natural in each other’s arms, unexpectedly so, proving a genuine surprise to the audience, though arguably never to Bogart who continued to carry around a certain animosity.
Asked by a reporter to qualify his working relationship with Audrey, Bogart is rumored to have said, “It’s alright if you don’t mind doing twenty takes.” As for Holden, Bogart was singularly unimpressed by the actor’s approach to his craft. Holden had been considered something of a has-been when Billy Wilder cast him as the unscrupulous screenwriter in Sunset Boulevard (1950). The 1950’s would prove to be the zenith of Holden’s movie career – much sought after and appearing in many high profile movies throughout the decade. Holden’s approach to acting was arguably as legitimate as Bogart’s. But Holden never took himself seriously. “For me,” Holden explained in an interview, “…acting is not an all-consuming thing, except for the moment when I am actually doing it. Movie acting may not have a certain kind of glory as true art, but it is damn hard work.” As for Holden’s opinion of Bogart, years later the actor exclaimed, “I hated that bastard.” Bearing in mind that the reality of Hollywood is far greater than its mythology, Wilder found himself playing ringmaster between these three artistic temperaments to sooth the behind-the-scenes bickering. And Bogart did eventually come around to Hepburn at least, choosing to play Linus as a true cynic unencumbered by any romantic notions with just a hint of his trademarked glibness seeping through his performance.
Wilder opens his movie with some sumptuous stock footage of, among other locations, the Doheny/Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills subbing in for the Long Island abode of the Larrabees. We’re introduced to the family, Oliver, Maude (Nella Walker), Linus and David gathered together for a family portrait, ironically posed beneath another taken when both Linus and David were just boys. Not much has changed in the interim, except that David has traded in his fascination for fast rides (he’s depicted on a rocking horse in the portrait hanging over the fireplace) for even faster and more disposable, casual affairs. Currently David’s courting a very flashy socialite, Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer) whom both families hope he will eventually marry – since the Tysons could prove a very fruitful alliance in Oliver’s latest venture into plastics.
This of course has led to a particularly unhappy circumstance for Sabrina who has worshipped David from afar all of her life and is heart sore over his relationship with Elizabeth now. In a moment of fitful romantic angst, Sabrina decides to commit suicide by starting all of the Larrabee’s vehicles in the closed garage and waiting for the fumes to overtake her. The plan is thwarted when Linus inadvertently discovers Sabrina lying in between two cars. She lies about having been told by her father, Thomas (John Williams) to check the exhausts in order to avoid Linus’ suspicions. Sensing that his daughter needs grounding, Thomas decides to send her away for a culinary education in Paris. While attending her classes Sabrina meets the kindly middle-aged Baron St. Fontanel (Marcel Dalio) who takes a paternal interest. Time passes and Sabrina returns to Long Island as a lady of culture, imbued with a newfound grace and inimitable class that sparkles like a diamond – in short, a woman much too good for the philandering David. However, as luck would have it, David is now very much interested in Sabrina. But so is brother Linus; not for love, but to steer her away from his pending plastics deal so that David and Elizabeth can marry.
To get David out of the way, Linus arranges for a minor accident to occur. During another Long Island party David sits on a pair of glass champagne flutes he has tucked into his waist band in the hopes of seducing Sabrina on the family’s indoor tennis courts. After the chards of glass are plucked from his backside and the stitches are in place, Linus goes to work on Sabrina, firmly believing that she is simply after David for his money. What he quickly discovers is a lonely and introspective girl who bears no such enterprising and manipulative designs on his brother. Still, Sabrina stealing David away from Elizabeth would ruin Linus’ carefully orchestrated plastics deal with Liz’s father (Francis X. Bushman). But as Linus diligently finagles his way into Sabrina’s heart he unearths unexpected feelings of his own towards her.
Upon his recovery, David challenges Linus to plumb the depths of his affections for Sabrina; this, after Linus has already confessed to Sabrina that he only pursued her to get her away from David. Having completely soured her on the Larrabee family, Sabrina departs for Europe on the Queen Elizabeth. David encourages Linus to take the ferry with all speed to meet the ship already pulling out of harbor. This leads to a reconciliation between Linus and Sabrina. David effectively assumes control of the boardroom and sees the Larrabee/Tyson merger through to completion.
Sabrina is by far Billy Wilder’s most eloquent and frothy romantic comedy. Charles Lang’s sumptuous B&W cinematography lends a moody gloss to the proceedings, as do Hubert de Givenchy’s stunning array of suits and cocktail party dresses that forever solidified Audrey Hepburn’s reputation as one of the undisputed style icons of the 1950’s and 60’s. As an interesting aside: Givenchy’s initial meeting with Audrey was hardly fortuitous. Told by his secretary that he would be meeting ‘Ms. Hepburn’ for an afternoon fitting, the designer mistakenly believed it was ‘Katharine Hepburn’ who was on her way to his atelier. Hence, when Audrey arrived Givenchy paid her little attention, instructing her to make selections off the rack. However, once the misunderstanding had been cleared up Givenchy graciously apologized. Arguably, he had found his muse for designing clothes. For in the years that were yet to follow the collaboration between Audrey and Givenchy established trendsetting glamor that remains as idolized today as it is continuously and most readily copied and/or evoked by other designers.
Sabrina is, of course, about much more than the clothes; the romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart quite palpable and engaging, even if they were considerably at odds with one another behind the scenes. William Holden is a devilish rapscallion, oozing a sort of unapologetic, yet wholly likeable disrespectability that quite convincingly remade his movie image into one of the male beefcake/pin-ups of the decade. Given all of the backstage animosity, Sabrina sparkles as few romantic comedies before or since – its intangible qualities immeasurably married to Hal Pereira and Walter H. Tyler’s stylish production design and Friedrich Hollaender’s lush orchestral adaptations of time-honored and pop songs of the day, blended into a frothy confection of uber-chic full scale classiness. “Isn’t it romantic?” By God – yes!
The good news: Paramount Home Video has remastered and released Sabrina on Blu-ray. The bad news – only in Europe. The good news – this disc is region free. The bad news: Sabrina’s image appears to have been ‘scrubbed’ with DNR. We get an image that teeters very close to being unattractively waxy. The gray scale has been impeccably rendered for the most part, although several shots still seem to suffer from artificial boosting – the mid-grade lacking in fine detail. Film grain is regrettably non-existent. This disc retains the ‘brightness’ of Paramount’s old Centennial Collection DVD, the Larrabee estate shot ‘day for night’ now appearing as though it were merely photographed in broad daylight.
Age-related artifacts are still present in a few shots, but the overall visual characteristic is smooth – too smooth, in fact. It’s not an awful rendering by any stretch, and on smaller monitors the excessive DNR isn’t noticeable. Blown up, however, the image reveals its digital manipulations with painful regularity – a genuine pity. As for the audio, Paramount has cleaned up and remastered the mono in DTS with exceptional clarity. Good stuff. Bad news again. We lose all of the extras that came with the Paramount DVD, including a featurette on Glenn Cove and the decline of the rich estates where Sabrina supposedly took place; another where contemporary fashion designers waxed about the Audrey/Givenchy style alliance and two others on the making of the movie and Paramount’s output in the 1950's. I don’t know why Paramount continues to short shrift its hi-def foreign markets in this way. Licensing can’t be the issue since the studio produced the aforementioned junkets rather than acquiring them from a third party. But this bare bones offering of Sabrina falls decidedly short of expectations for all of the above-mentioned reasons.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)