#545) Sabrina (1954)

#545) Sabrina (1954)

OR “The Michael Douglas Scale: The Motion Picture”

Directed by Billy Wilder

Written by Wilder & Samuel Taylor & Ernest Lehman. Based on the play “Sabrina Fair” by Taylor.

Class of 2002 

The Plot: Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is the daughter of a chauffeur (John Williams, not that one) for the upper-class Larrabee family of Long Island. Sabrina has had a crush on younger brother David Larrabee (William Holden) since childhood, but David is oblivious to her feelings. After a suicide attempt, Sabrina is sent to Paris by her father to study at Le Cordon Bleu. Two years later, Sabrina returns to Long Island a cultured, sophisticated beauty, catching the eye of a now-engaged David. To prevent David from ruining his engagement (and therefore an important business merger), older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) pretends to be interested in Sabrina to get her away from David. But of course, fake feelings turn into real feelings, as so often happens in rom-coms like these. Who will Sabrina end up with? And how old is everyone exactly?

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is primarily a plot synopsis, followed by the assessment “Not one of Wilder’s most hilarious or thought-provoking, but still charming and entertaining”.

But Does It Really?: Yeah, I’m with the NFR on this one. There’s nothing inherently wrong with “Sabrina”, but it does pale in comparison to Wilder’s other classics. The three leads are all charming and funny, but I couldn’t get over the massive age gaps between everyone. Ultimately, “Sabrina” is a minor classic: iconic enough for eventual NFR inclusion, but not tops on anyone’s list.

Shout Outs: Linus calls David “Scarface“, one of two Wilder movies to reference that gangster film.

Wow, That’s Dated: Among the bits of early ’50s culture referenced throughout “Sabrina” are Mickey Spillaine, Adlai Stevenson, the Kon-Tiki expedition, and the play “The Seven Year Itch”; soon to be a major motion picture.

Title Track: While the film maintained the play’s title “Sabrina Fair” in its international release, the US version was shortened to “Sabrina” in order to avoid confusion with “highbrow stories” like “Vanity Fair“.

Seriously, Oscars?: Although “Sabrina” missed out on a Best Picture Oscar nomination, the film’s six nominations included Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress for Hepburn. “Sabrina” lost five of these nods to “On the Waterfront” and “The Country Girl”, but Edith Head took home her 6th Oscar for Costume Design.

Other notes 

  • The idea to adapt the play “Sabrina Fair” to the movies was either Billy Wilder’s or Audrey Hepburn’s. Either way, it was going to be a vehicle for Audrey from the start. Playwright Samuel Taylor was hired to co-write with Wilder, but quit after Wilder’s extensive rewriting, and Ernest Lehman was brought in as a replacement. Due to scheduling issues with William Holden, production was moved up, and the film began shooting without a finished script. Lehman would find himself occasionally writing scenes in the morning that would be filmed that afternoon.
  • Alright, let’s get this out of the way: there is quite an age gap in this movie’s love triangle. During production in 1953, Humphrey Bogart was 53, William Holden was 35, and Audrey Hepburn was 24. We know that the character of Sabrina is 22 years old when she returns from Paris, but we’re never told how old the Larrabee brothers are supposed to be. It really overshadowed my overall viewing experience.
  • This is another one of my “sixth sense” movies, where I can divine a movie’s behind-the-scenes struggles without knowing about them beforehand. In addition to the film’s truncated shooting schedule, Bogart apparently did not get along with his director or co-stars (he was aware that he was only cast as Linus when Cary Grant turned it down). In addition, Holden and Hepburn had a brief affair during filming, and Ernest Lehman suffered a breakdown from all the re-writes.
  • Audrey Hepburn is being ignored by every man in sight? This must be fantasy.
  • It was during Sabrina’s suicide attempt that I realized just how many Wilder movies feature suicide attempts as a minor plot point. Are you okay, Billy?
  • Much of the supporting cast is comprised of future TV stars. Linus’ secretary Miss McCardle is played by Ellen Corby, aka Grandma Walton. Both Nancy Kulp and Raymond Bailey make uncredited appearances here a decade before their teaming on “The Beverly Hillbillies”. And blink and you’ll miss Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham on “Happy Days”) as one of Elizabeth’s friends at a party.
  • Age issues aside, it’s fun to watch Bogie and Holden play against type. Bogart trades in his stoic lowlifes for a straight-laced businessman, while Holden takes a break from his cynical dramatic leads to play a more light-hearted cad.
  • Sabrina doesn’t look too different after two years in Paris, besides her haircut and wardrobe. Side note: Most of Hepburn’s dresses were designed by Hubert de Givenchy, but were actually made by Edith Head and the Paramount costume department. Because Givenchy went uncredited for his designs, Edith Head received the Oscar for Costume Design.
  • Once again, you are all so lucky that Audrey Hepburn is so charming. Her natural star power really smooths over this movie’s major problems.
  • There are times when Bogart sounds like Edward G. Robinson. Even he doesn’t remember which gangster he was. And while I’m still grossed out by the Linus/Sabrina shipping, if anyone could successfully charm a significantly younger woman, it’s Bogart.
  • “Suppose I was ten years younger and you weren’t in love with David.” Nope, still gross.
  • As you can probably guess by now, I don’t have a lot to say about “Sabrina”. It’s pleasant, but there was definitely a barrier between me and this movie. I found myself biding my time until this film’s inevitable happy ending, which is…sweet?

Legacy

  • “Sabrina” marked the end of Billy Wilder’s 12 year contract with Paramount Pictures. Wilder’s next movie would be with 20th Century Fox: the aforementioned “Seven Year Itch”.
  • This film was the first collaboration between Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, who would go on to design Hepburn’s iconic wardrobe in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s“.
  • “Sabrina” has had a few remakes over the years, most notably an American remake in 1995 by Sydney Pollack. Despite a cast led by Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond, a score by that John Williams, and some good notices from critics, “Sabrina” never rose above the inevitable comparisons to its predecessor.

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