Glenn Erickson November 20, 2008
“Democracy can be a wickedly unfair thing, Sabrina. Nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying somebody rich.” — Sabrina’s father
With 1954’s Sabrina, Billy Wilder ended his preoccupation with hardboiled noir subject matter. Broadway had provided the source material for the dark farce Stalag 17, and Wilder tapped another hit play by adapting Samuel Taylor’s Sabrina Fair. The result gathers all the resources of Paramount into an unbeatable commercial hit. Top discovery Audrey Hepburn was crazy about the Sabrina character and Wilder arranged for Humphrey Bogart to play against type as a stuffy businessman. For balance, Wilder fills the “thankless role” with the handsome William Holden, who accepted in gratitude for the break Wilder gave him four years before on Sunset Boulevard.
The basic story is Cinderella refurbished for the “classless” America of the 20th century. The heroine is Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn), a chauffeur’s daughter driven to distraction by the glamorous doings up at the big house, just a tennis court and swimming pool away from the garage loft she calls home. Sabrina forms a crush on David Larrabee (Holden), a carefree playboy attached to the beautiful Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer), his social equal. Depressed by her lot in life, Sabrina makes a suicide bid but survives thanks to the intervention of David’s older brother, the business-oriented Linus Larrabee (Bogart).
Sabrina is packed off to a cooking school in Paris to forget David and learn a trade suitable for her station in life. But she returns a new woman, utterly transformed by Paris fashions. Immediately smitten, David jeopardizes his engagement to Liz Tyson to spend time with Sabrina. With a business merger at stake, the decidedly un-romantic Linus steps in to distract Sabrina’s attention. He dusts off his Rudy Vallee-era dating paraphernalia and makes a play for her himself.
Sabrina Fairchild: “All night long I’ve had the most terrible impulse to do something.”
Linus Larrabee: “Oh, never resist an impulse, Sabrina. Especially if it’s terrible.”
Everybody loves Sabrina, an utterly charming tale that pokes fun at Long Island swells while promoting the notion that class barriers have no defense against true love — if you’re blessed with the elfin magic of Audrey Hepburn. The show offers Hepburn more variety than her breakthrough Princess role in the previous year’s Roman Holiday. Humphrey Bogart received top billing but reportedly did a lot of grousing about the script, which he called “a crock.” Hearing about Wilder’s two year-old daughter, Bogart suggested that maybe she secretly wrote the screenplay. Wilder swallowed insults from nobody, not even a top star. He answered by telling Bogie to try that shit out on his preferred directors, the ones he could walk all over, like Nick Ray!
The real key to Sabrina is Ernst Lubitsch, the famed director of polished romantic comedies that helped define Paramount in the 1930s. Billy Wilder worshipped Lubitsch and took enormous pride in writing for him on classics such as Ninotchka. Wilder applied his mentor’s lessons to all of his screenwriting, and many of his scripts have a pleasing Lubitsch-like formal symmetry. Jokes aren’t included for their own sake, but to illuminate the personalities of the characters. Anything funny enough to stay in the script was developed and finessed, almost like a running gag in a silent movie. The “decadent” hat in Ninotchka returns several times in dialogue or in person, each time indicating that Ninotchka’s romantic stirrings have been revived. Two examples in Sabrina are a pair of champagne glasses that return to give David a royal pain, and a sheet of super-strong plastic that returns as a special hammock to soothe David’s injured posterior. Sabrina’s father chides her for “reaching for the moon,” a verbal image already made literal in the film’s main title.
Wilder develops his motifs from film to film as well. Linus Larrabee’s hat, umbrella and copy of The Wall Street Journal are further elaborated in his later One, Two, Three.
Linus Larrabee: “Paris is for lovers. Maybe that’s why I stayed only thirty-five minutes.”
Billy Wilder’s films are now almost universally accepted, but Sabrina is one of the titles cited when critics accused him of being a heartless cynic, and especially cruel to his leading ladies. That rumor may have gotten started with Jean Arthur and A Foreign Affair, when Ms. Arthur’s pride was hurt because Wilder favored Marlene Dietrich. The charge of misogyny was also applied because Wilder sets up several of his heroines for humiliations and suicide attempts, notably Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment. But Wilder has a unique gift for sensitivity. At one point Sabrina takes an elevator up to a meeting with Linus, who we know plans to tell her he doesn’t love her. As Sabrina climbs upward, Wilder superimposes the numbered elevator lights over her body, with the last light hovering over her heart.
Paramount’s Centennial Collection DVD of Sabrina is a fine black-and-white transfer that fares a bit better than the old release from 2001, possibly because of improvements in encoding and replication. The 1954 film plays perfectly well at the 1:37 full-frame screen shape, but was surely originally formatted at a wider 1:66. It crops off comfortably on a widescreen monitor.
The audio is a strong mono. Wilder had Sabrina scored with romantic standards associated with the older Lubitsch films, especially “Isn’t it Romantic.” The film premiered just as the culture was catching fire with Rock ‘n’ Roll, but the tunes lend it a sense of timelessness.
The extras will please fans of Audrey Hepburn, starting with a featurette called Fashion Icon that counterpoints designers’ remarks with stunning shots from her Paramount films. Sabrina’s World is a less interesting look at the “Gold Coast” of Long Island and the social whirl that thrived there in the early 20th century. Supporting Sabrina is an attractive new piece on the film’s supporting players that unfortunately synopsizes much of the plot. A piece on William Holden covers only his Paramount pictures, which is to be expected, but glosses over some of the thornier issues of his life. One uncalled-for bit of editorializing mentions “distractions” to Holden’s marriage, at which point the screen ungallantly cuts to an image of Holden with Stephanie Powers.
The making-of documentary is from the older release and isn’t particularly interesting. The same goes for a Paramount in the ’50s piece that’s a thinly disguised promo for other studio product. But Behind the Gates is a worthwhile look at the Paramount camera department through the years. Actual hardware is examined to explain the studio’s adoption of the VistaVision camera system in the 1950s.
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Categories: DVDTags: Audrey hepburn, Billy wilder, Centennial collection, Dvd, Humphrey bogart, William holden