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Sabrina (1954)

Some Hollywood films, especially those that involve the collaboration of several distinct talents and egos, can be considered happy accidents. In the case of 1954's Sabrina — one of the most beloved films from Hollywood's golden age — it's a wonder that it was ever completed at all. Director Billy Wilder, having finished Stalag 17, was uncertain what his next project would be until he settled on Samuel Taylor's popular Broadway play Sabrina Fair. Before long, 24-year-old Audrey Hepburn was attached to the project, fresh off her Oscar-winning debut in Roman Holiday. William Holden and Cary Grant were signed to play the two leading men, but just days before shooting Grant inexplicably backed out, forcing Wilder to find a replacement — and only a handful of men in Hollywood had Grant's maturity and appeal. Fortunately, Humphrey Bogart signed on (for a then-astronomical $200,000), but Bogie was at odds with everybody almost as soon as the cameras started rolling (he had nothing nice to say about his co-stars, and before the film was completed Bogart reportedly told a journalist that it was "a crock of shit"). Wilder — who preferred to have a collaborator on screenplays — began working with Taylor to adapt his Sabrina Fair, but the playwright soon quit in exasperation over Wilder's ceaseless re-writes; Ernest Lehman was brought in to take Taylor's place, but he suffered a nervous breakdown and had to leave the production. The legendary Edith Head was to handle Hepburn's wardrobe, but she was brushed aside (by Audrey herself) for the continental elegance of Hubert de Givenchy, which left Hollywood's top designer none too happy and created all sort of problems for Paramount. And it was a poorly kept secret that the married Holden and the much-younger Hepburn were spending quality time with each other off-camera. What a joy it is, then, that Sabrina transcended so many of the least attractive things about Hollywood — egos, arguments, budgets, personalities — and delivers the greatest thing any glittery studio production can offer: Two hours of movie magic with three charismatic leads in a modern Cinderella story. Hepburn stars in Sabrina in the title role, the daughter of Thomas Fairchild (John Williams), chauffeur to the wealthy Larrabee family, with its industrious elder son Linus (Bogart) and his younger sibling, the playboy David (Holden). Sabrina has been in love with the handsome David since she was a young girl, but she herself is barely noticed by anybody at the massive Larrabee mansion — she's just the shy chauffeur's daughter who would sooner hide from adults than speak to them. But, upon reaching adulthood, Sabrina is sent by her father to Paris to attend a cooking school. She returns to the Larrabee household two years later, but with an air of sophistication that nobody expected — especially David, who cannot even recognize her when he meets her at the train station. David falls for Sabrina almost immediately, which doesn't go over well with the family. The familial patriarch (Walter Hampden) insists that it's entirely improper for his son to be cavorting with a servant's daughter; the more practical Linus, however, has already arranged that David marry the daughter of another wealthy family in order to close a $20 million merger.

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Fans of Audrey Hepburn can be grateful that Sabrina was completed, despite complications, as it helped to solidify her status as both an actress and a film personality — indeed, by the end of 1954 she had become America's sweetheart, and such a description could not be applied to many other leading ladies of the day. The model female at the moment was Marilyn Monroe, the platinum blonde with giggles and curves, and many B-actresses, such as Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield, capitalized on the Monroe mystique. But the slender Audrey, as Wilder and others noticed, could be just as alluring as a blonde bombshell, although her appeal was vastly different than Monroe's. Instead of selling sex, she toyed with contradictions: Hepburn was sexy, but also physically slight, and not busty like most other actresses; she could appear sophisticated and worldly, and yet never lose her essential innocence; and while clearly of European stock (with her throaty, rich English accent), there was something about her that seemed quintessentially American — spirited, resolute, and fiercely independent. Cast alongside the burly Holden and cynical Bogart in Sabrina, Hepburn effortlessly plays off both character types — Holden's David Larrabee is a scoundrel and fun to flirt with, but the now-sophisticated Sabrina can see him for what he is and play along (informed of his engagement, she notes that "he's not married yet.") Bogart's Linus Larrabee is a throwback to the insular, apathetic Rick Blaine in Casablanca, and when he begins courting Sabrina to get her away from David, Hepburn's sentimentality has echoes of Ingrid Bergman's a dozen years before. Both faces of Sabrina are completely believable because she — like Hepburn — is a beautiful puzzle. For women, Hepburn has become one of Hollywood's most appealing icons, particularly for her complexity and her freedom. For men, she represents something at once immediate and unobtainable, the goddess and the girl next door. And while she had the range to star in such films as The Nun's Story and My Fair Lady, it is her winsome turns in Sabrina, Roman Holiday, and the evergreen Breakfast at Tiffany's that will always define the Hepburn charm. Paramount's DVD release of Sabrina features a clean transfer (in the original 1.33:1) from a black-and-white source-print that has excellent low-contrast details, with only some flecking occurring in the first couple of reels. Audio is in the original mono (DD 2.0), and is crisp and clear. Also on board the disc is an 11-minute short on the making of Sabrina, although the fluffy doc mostly glosses over all of the on-set tension. Photo gallery, keep-case.
—JJB



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