If you didn’t read Saturday’s installment of the Golden Age on the Silver Screen I direct you to it here. I recommend it as watching Sabrina inspired me to watch this and let’s just say the two didn’t exactly mesh (in hindsight I apologize for my fangirl rant in that review…a little bit). Either way today’s film is the 1954 romantic comedy Sabrina. I hold Sabrina up as a fantastic example of what a romantic comedy should be (let’s just say the standards for a rom-com are incredibly low in this day and age) with its blend of nostalgic romance and comedy. The leads are slightly miscast (sorry Bogie) but who isn’t charmed by Audrey Hepburn, whether you’re a fan or not, or of the brotherly relationship between Bogie and William Holden (hello Bill!). Sabrina easily makes my top 10 favorite movies of all time!
Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn) has grown up on the sumptuous Larrabee estate as the daughter to the family chauffeur. Since she was a child she’s been in love with dashing playboy David Larrabee (Holden) who sadly doesn’t know she’s alive. When Sabrina goes to Paris for cooking school she returns home a gorgeous woman of the world and finally ensnares David’s affections. Unfortunately David’s business minded brother Linus (Bogart) has plans to marry his brother off to an heiress and decides to romance Sabrina himself as a means of getting rid of her. Things get complicated when Linus starts falling for the girl himself.
Despite being a charming romance the making-of this movie was anything but. Let’s just say our three leads weren’t on the best of terms with Bogart being a last-second replacement after Cary Grant left the project. Bogart didn’t want to do the film as he wanted wife Lauren Bacall in the role of Sabrina and felt Hepburn couldn’t act. He also despised William Holden, feeling Holden didn’t know how to act. On the other side critics have been divisive on Bogart’s casting as he looks old enough to be Hepburn’s father (Hepburn would play opposite significantly older men throughout her career) and it’s been said that Holden should have played Linus with another, younger actor playing David. The one saving grace is that Holden and Hepburn did fall in love while making this film to the point that Holden was vowing to divorce his wife for Hepburn. Sadly Holden couldn’t have children which was a deal breaker for the actress (with all due respect Ms. Hepburn you were an idiot….sorry).
All that hostility worked though as Sabrina is adorable and I’m usually the one who abhors these fairy-tale type films and it is a fairy-tale, completing with a “once upon a time” opening with Sabrina firmly in the role of Cinderella. Sabrina starts out the film child-like, hearkening back to the fairy-tale opening, and idealizing the Larrabee’s. In her words “they were as close to heaven as one could get on Long Island” (love that line). To contrast her school-girl notions is her father Thomas (John Williams) who believes one should work towards gaining respect and not love. Despite being an employee to the Larrabee’s he’s respected by Linus although the whole master/servant thing is a bit uncomfortable but never focused on for any amount of time.
The script, written by director Billy Wilder, playwright Samuel Taylor (who staged the original play Sabrina Fair), and Ernest Lehman is instantly quotable and continues to showcase that blend of the romantic with the comedic that Wilder and crew are known for. I kept getting shades of I.A.L. Diamond with this film especially considering my recent review of Cactus Flower as both films open with a suicide. In this case Sabrina decides to kill herself since David doesn’t love her. Her suicide note is sufficiently child-like with the hilarious addendum to not invite David to the funeral because he probably wouldn’t even cry! Also similar to the scene in Cactus Flower is the creativity of the suicide itself. In this case Sabrina goes to the garage, locks herself in and proceeds to turn on all 15 cars (thereabouts) in the garage. It’s ridiculous and hilarious which lessens the dark impact of Audrey Hepburn trying to off herself within the first ten minutes.
After the suicide attempt Sabrina goes to cooking school and comes back an adult which is where the film truly hits its stride. The love triangle comes into focus in this second act and there’s non-stop comedy to go along with it. The scene stealer of the group is Walter Hampden as Oliver Larrabee, Linus and David’s put-upon father. In a sense he’s more frazzled by his sons than Sabrina’s father is by her! He has so many amazing lines, mostly at the expense of his children, the monologue where he details all three of David’s failed marriage is my favorite. Once David starts to put the company merger in jeopardy by falling for Sabrina, Oliver becomes even more concerned but not about his family but about his money, “I see Elizabeth with 2,000 gardenias spelling disaster.”
So is Sabrina worth losing one’s company over? I’d say yes for the most part. Sure Audrey Hepburn made my Hall of Fame and I’ve seen several of her films but I wouldn’t call her my favorite actress (she currently ranks 11 in the Hall of Fame). Here though is where she truly shines playing a precocious young woman on the edge of adulthood. Hepburn never had sex appeal in my opinion and in numerous biographies it’s been said that Hepburn knew very little about sex even in her 20s so it’s not surprising that you don’t expect Sabrina to sleep with either David or Linus, probably what makes her so attractive to them in the first place. She has strong chemistry with Holden for obvious reasons and their just so damn cute together. Despite Holden dripping sex appeal in this movie (I’ll get to him in a second) their relationship is like that of prince and princess, they just belong together (sorry Bogie). That’s not saying she doesn’t work well opposite Bogart, it’s just not necessarily romantic.
I fail to connect with the love story between Sabrina and Linus, mostly because Bogie is just too much of a curmudgeon in this. His relationships opposite someone like Bergman or Bacall worked on the fact you didn’t expect him to change too much. By the end of Casablanca he was still Rick, just able to do the right thing. In To Have and Have Not he didn’t change, Slim (Bacall) was just the woman who understood him. Here you expect him to soften significantly in order to be with Sabrina. Thus why he says that “Paris is for lovers, that’s probably why I only stayed 35 minutes.” When Sabrina and him do end up together it’s, creepily enough, like a little girl able to melt the heart of the grumpy old man. Not exactly how you want your love story to end. There’s still something charming about them (Linus is aware that Sabrina “doesn’t belong above a garage”), particularly Hepburn singing that damn banana song I can’t get out of my head and Linus does acknowledge their age difference, something I’m not recalling in any of Hepburn’s other movies with her older leading men such as Gary Cooper and the aforementioned Cary Grant.
If anything the relationship between David and Linus is better, A) knowing that Holden and Bogart hated each other and B) that their competing for the same woman although David doesn’t know this. To start, Holden is simply rehashing his character from The Moon is Blue which came out the year before this. He’s the Lothario known for bedding several ladies, all with the same routine although I wouldn’t mind hanging out on an indoor tennis court with Mr. Holden. Here though that’s supplemented with his tendency to be a man-child who hates working and doing anything he’s told to do. When he goes to the company office to see Linus and can’t get in he throws a tantrum and threatens to use Linus’ secretary as a battering ram.
Famously, David is finally going to meet Sabrina in the tennis court (making her dreams finally come true) but is distracted by Linus and unwittingly sits on the champagne glasses in his pocket. Waylaid for several weeks with stitches in his backside, hilariously stuck in a hammock with a hole in the bottom, Linus spends time making fun of him. I honestly can’t think of any other old movie moment that Humphrey Bogart poking William Holden in the ass? I really can’t (although Humphrey Bogart jumping up and down on a slab of plastic, also in this movie is pretty funny). Linus, literally, is a pain in David’s ass and taking into account these two hated each other I can only imagine what was said when the cameras were off. Of course by the end David has a sudden attack of conscious that I never felt worked with his character. Why at the end does he decide Sabrina isn’t worth it or that she’s better off with Linus? And for that matter, this is a man stupid enough to sit on champagne glasses but he’s able to see Linus loves Sabrina even though he hasn’t seen them together but once? The ending truly feels like the director didn’t know how to end it and let things go.
Despite the flaws in the relationship Sabrina is a delightful film. It never fails to put a smile on my face or make me believe in romance if only for an instant. And I forgot to mention Hepburn’s stunning Givenchy gowns! I can’t imagine Hepburn has better gowns in another movie, I just can’t. Holden and Bogart are equally good even if the romance is a tad weak. It’s an amazing movie and while I refuse to see the remake (you expect me to believe Greg Kinnear has the flair of William Holden?), I’m sure it pales in comparison.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.