Classic Film Talk: ‘Sabrina’ (1954)

William Holden Centennial

Today we reminisce about

Sabrina (1954)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden

Synopsis

Once upon a time, on the North shore of Long Island, some thirty miles from New York, there lived a small girl on a large estate …

Young Sabrina, pre-Paris

The daughter of a chauffeur for the wealthy Larrabee family, Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn) dreams of only one thing: garnering the attention – and affections – of David Larrabee (Holden). Unfortunately for her, David is a serial womanizer and eternal playboy, making it so that he takes no notice of the plain bobbysoxer. Unable to bear the heartache, Sabrina decides to commit suicide but fails when she is discovered by David’s older brother, Linus (Bogart). Dejected, Sabrina decides to follow in her late mother’s footsteps and train to become a cook. Her father has saved up enough money for her to attend culinary school in Paris so Sabrina packs her bags. Despite a rocky start with her courses, she spends two years there, graduates, and comes back to the United States a new woman.

Arriving home by train, Sabrina is waiting at the depot when David happens to drive by. He stops and offers her a ride, enchanted by Sabrina’s beauty but having no idea who she is even after being given several clues. Once they reach the Larrabee mansion, David realizes who she is and eventually invites her to his family’s annual 6-mile Yacht Race party which is to take place that evening. She arrives impeccably coifed and dressed – a real Cinderella – and she and David dance together, both immediately falling in love. The trouble is that David is engaged to be married for the fourth time to a woman named Elizabeth whose family is about to go into business with the Larrabee’s. To make sure that the plans are not spoiled, Linus decides to vie for Sabrina’s affections himself to take her attention off of David. Though he has no intention of following through with his romantic proposals, Linus finds himself gradually falling in love with Sabrina.

More refined, post-Paris

 

Observations

Sabrina was destined to be a hit film. With three big-name stars and one of cinema’s greatest directors, it was an almost immediate formula for success. The screenplay was adapted from a stage play called “Sabrina Fair” written by Samuel Taylor. Originally starring established film stars Margaret Sullavan and Joseph Cotten, Paramount purchased the rights with the intention of making it a featured vehicle for Audrey Hepburn. Samuel Taylor was commissioned to write the screenplay but halfway through found it too difficult to continue, so Billy Wilder asked his friend and renowned screenwriter Ernest Lehman to step in. The trio of Taylor, Lehman and Wilder all received screen credit for their contributions. Filming took place in October and November 1953 over a period of 7 weeks on a budget of $2 million (approximately $18.63 million today). All else went smoothly and a timeless romantic comedy was born.

The film’s success was – and still is – in large part thanks to the benevolence of Billy Wilder who was an amazingly versatile director. It did not matter whether he was working on a comedy or a more dramatic production; the result was one of quality. One notable characteristic about his comedies is that they always seem very fresh, making you laugh just as much today as they did to audiences back in the day. Sabrina is a light-hearted romantic comedy that is very appealing due to its smart dialogue, stellar cast and beautiful costumes. Young women in particular can still relate to the story while permitting slightly older ones like myself to still dream!

Billy Wilder had not directed a comedy since 1948’s A Foreign Affair and before that 1942’s The Major and the Minor. He mostly stuck to the genres of War and Film Noir thereafter, with the exception of two musicals: The Emperor Waltz and A Song is Born, both made in 1948. Fresh off of the picture Stalag 17, Wilder’s sense of humour and comedic timing had obviously not lost any of their lustre as evidenced by the jokes he incorporated into the Sabrina script. In the scene where Sabrina is attempting to take her own life by carbon monoxide poisoning, one of the car’s engines starts puttering and making a lot of noise, irritating her because it risks revealing her location. The funny bit is how Sabrina tries to hush it, putting her hands on her hips and frowning as if to give a stout warning, seemingly forgetting that the car was otherwise an inanimate object. Another moment comes during the Larabee’s party when all of the men start testing out a slab of plastic by standing, then bouncing on top of it. What a perfectly ridiculous way for millionaire businessmen to entertain themselves!

This was a delightful film that was well-made with good elements to the story. My only gripe is with the portrayal of Paris which, as usual, is pure fantasy at its best. In reality, Paris is not a romantic or magical place and two years of living there is a bit reaching to achieve a makeover to the extent that Sabrina was granted. Alas, Hollywood will still continue to sell Paris in this manner and moviegoers will continue to buy this fabrication while those of us who know and/or live in the city know otherwise. In any case, do not miss the chance to see this unique and lively romantic comedy! 🙂

 

Golden Holden

Playing a character that is both physically and emotionally different from his usual type of role is rather becoming to William Holden. He sports a mane of golden, sun-kissed locks that make him appear quite a few years younger than how he usually appears plus it gives him a sort of playful appeal. David’s personality is less than thrilling, however, as he is very shallow and his only interest in life is nailing all the beautiful girls with whom he comes into contact. His family supports his current, as they have his past mistakes (i.e. – marriages), which makes them feel as if David owes them this highly profitable business transaction with Elizabeth’s family. Linus once says to David, “We’re planning a summer wedding so we can get in on next year’s sugar crop.” When I watched Sabrina for the first time, I sided very much with the Larrabee family and my skin was crawling at Sabrina desiring such a loose cannon as David. The second viewing, however, gave me a chance to absorb the dialogue a bit more and to really allow myself to have a more relaxed attitude towards Holden’s character. While I did not entirely forgive him for being a philanderer, I gradually discovered that he had some thoughtful substance to him after all. Holden played the role of David divinely and had a good knack for comedy.

Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn rounded out the cast nicely and all three had very good chemistry together. Separately, each pair had specific issues on-and off-set. Bogie and Holden did not get along and hardly spoke to one another between scenes. Bogie and Hepburn had a tense relationship because he disapproved of her casting and her lack of experience. Hepburn and Holden had an intense love affair, much to the ignorance of Billy Wilder who said that he had been completely unaware of this until after filming had ceased. Frankly, with these many Hollywood egos in one film, I’m surprised there was not more drama! In all seriousness, Bogie is a fine romantic lead and delivers comedic lines with relative ease. He had reason to worry about being miscast but not because of his usual character incarnations. In my opinion, Bogie was far too old to play the role and to convincingly be Holden’s big brother. Hepburn was lovely and she had radiant chemistry with both leading men. I thought she appeared very mature and sure of herself both as Sabrina and in her own body language. The one thing that I can never get over when seeing a very young Audrey Hepburn is just how tiny she was; so very petite and delicate.

 

Trivia

  • Humphrey Bogart was roiled that his then-wife Lauren Bacall was not cast in the title role. Though Bacall was primarily considered a dramatic actress like her husband, she had the year before appeared in the romantic comedy How to Marry a Millionaire and would later tackle comedic roles in films like Designing Women and Sex and the Single Girl.
  • Ernest Lehman and Billy Wilder scrambled to complete the script and sometimes had just finished writing a scene before shooting took place. One day, Wilder asked Hepburn to feign ill so that he could have more time to finish a scene. She complied and found the situation quite humorous.
  • Cary Grant was Wilder’s first choice to play Linus but he dropped out of the film 1 week before filming commenced.
  • Sabrina was remade in 1995 to mixed reviews with Harrison Ford (Linus), Julia Ormond (Sabrina) and Greg Kinnear (David), directed by the late Sydney Pollack.

 

 

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