- Rated NR
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
udrey Hepburn’s status as a princess for adult fairytales got its second workout in this very popular comedy from Hollywood’s master of cheerful cynicism and heartbroken romanticism, Billy Wilder. Remade profitab from a time when such films were often good, that nevertheless falls short because of a single piece of unfortunate casting – but more about that after the obligatory plot synopsis.
Based on Samuel Taylor’s Broadway hit, “Sabrina Fair,” the film version brings us Hepburn as Sabrina Fairchild, the once-gawky daughter of a chauffeur (John Williams) working on the estate of a super-wealthy industrialist (Walter Hampden). The two sons seem bent on portraying a human version of Aesop’s tale of the Grasshopper and the Ant. The all-work/no play ant would be the curmudgeonly Linus Larrabee (Humphrey Bogart), while the all-play/no work grasshopper would be the significantly younger, but often married, David Larrabee (William Holden). Sabrina, naturally, falls head-over-heels for the handsome and carefree grasshopper, but he is too busy courting other insects to pay attention to a gawky teenager, even if she is Audrey Hepburn. That changes when Sabrina returns from an extended trip to Paris where she has learned cooking, “the ways of the world,” and the wisdom of wearing dresses designed by Hubert de Givenchy. This time, David quickly takes notice of the beautiful ex-ingénue – threatening both his impending next marriage to an attractive heiress (Martha Hyer), and the multi-million dollar business deal that goes with it. The presumably cold-blooded Linus will do anything to make sure the deal goes through, including using himself as romantic bait.
And, that, my friends, is where “Sabrina” starts to run into some problems. Thanks to a lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking, and a puss that wasn’t all that pretty to begin with, Humphrey Bogart (a hasty replacement for the somewhat younger and far better preserved Cary Grant) was an ultra-craggy 55-year-old who was expected to be a convincing onscreen flame to a girlish, though sophisticated, 25-year-old over the still-youthful heartthrob, William Holden. True, the middle-aged Bogie and the 19 year-old Lauren Bacall became a legendary on-and-off-screen couple in “To Have and Have Not,” but that was 1944, not 1954.
By most accounts, Bogart’s own insecurities and general irascibility got the better of him during the making “Sabrina,” driving his better-behaved fellow cast members and his friend, Billy Wilder, to distraction. This could be a case of a reviewer knowing a bit too much for his own good, but the dislike that made the film a tough slog for the cast and crew really seems to show in a lack of acting chemistry -- not only with the radiant Hepburn, but also with Holden as his brother and even with character actor Walter Hampden as his martini-obsessed father. Bogart has never seemed more isolated, and not in a good way. And the fact that the rest of the group got along quite well (romantically so, in the case of Holden and Hepburn) couldn’t have helped. A certain amount of self-loathing seems to be built into the Bogart persona, and it worked for him brilliantly in performances as diverse as “Casablanca,” “In a Lonely Place” and “The Caine Mutiny,” but here, it curdles both the comedy and the romance. And it wasn’t all age or looks – Bogart was the first of a string of ridiculously older costars for Hepburn, and most of them actually worked out pretty well.
The irony is that just about everything else in “Sabrina” is excellent. Billy Wilder (in this reviewer’s opinion) is by far one of the greatest writer/directors to ever work in Hollywood. He was in turn a huge admirer and something of a protégée of the hugely revered comedy director, Ernst Lubitsch, a cinematic genius starting from the silent era and a specialist in deceptively airy romantic comedies with complex hearts like “Ninotchka” (co-written by Wilder) and “The Shop Around the Corner.” Despite the fact that they were both Jewish émigrés from Hitler’s Europe, Wilder’s style was tougher and far more American and brassy than his older role model. He never quite outdid Lubitsch when it came to concocting gently sexy cinema soufflés, but he only rarely got closer than he did with “Sabrina.”
In particular, the Oscar-nominated screenplay is funny and structurally solid as a rock. That’s not a surprise given that Wilder, himself one of the movies’ greatest writers, worked on it with original playwright Samuel Taylor and rising newcomer Ernest Lehman. Taylor would go on to pen Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and Lehman was poised to become one of the biggest names in screenwriting history for his work on “Sweet Smell of Success” and “North by Northwest,” among many others.
And, of course, the non-Bogart cast is about as good as it can be. Holden, who had only really established his tough-guy persona the year before in Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” proves equally adept at playing a jovial gladhander as the hedonistic David Larrabee. As Sabrina’s tolerant, loving, and deeply conservative chauffeur father, English-born character actor John Williams is touching and funny.
And, of course, Hepburn gives one of her iconic performances. Playing a lovesick teenager turned equally lovesick adult sophisticate, she once again effortlessly wins us over with a sophisticated beauty and girlish vulnerability. Bullz-Eye isn’t Vogue, but it’s worth mentioning that “Sabrina” was also the start of Hepburn’s hugely influential career-long partnership and friendship with fashion designer Givenchy. He received no screen credit on his first film go-round, and was therefore deprived of any share in the film’s sole Costume Design Oscar, which joined Edith Head’s massive collection of Oscars instead.
All in all, “Sabrina” is an intelligent, mildly entertaining also-ran. With so much talent on hand, it just stands as proof that even some of the greatest actors in Hollywood history, working with one of the movies’ greatest writer-directors, can often fall short. Even if you’re a great, it turns out that making great movies is kind of hard.
Centennial Collection DVD Review:
The second disc in this set contains a number of video shorts. Fashion mavens will dig “Audrey Hepburn: Fashion Icon,” which takes a look at the actress’s still lingering influence on the world of couture, and includes interviews with such top designers as Isaac Mizrahi. “William Holden: The Paramount Years” profiles one of the cinema’s greatest tough guy actors (who started out as anything but a tough guy). “Supporting Sabrina” takes a somewhat chirpy look at the film’s strong supporting cast that includes such familiar TV faces as Ellen Corby (aka Grandma Walton) and Nancy Culp (aka Miss Jane of “The Beverly Hillbillies”), as well as the great international French-Jewish actor Marcel Dalio (“The Rules of the Game,” “To Have and Have Not”) and aging silent screen superstar Francis X. Bushman (the original “Ben-Hur”). “Sabrina’s World” looks at the film’s Long Island, New York setting – but somehow fails to mention “The Great Gatsby,” by far the most famous tale of decadent Long Island wealth. The set is filled out with a series of glorified commercials for Paramount, one of which is also available to the unsuspecting on the recent “Roman Holiday” DVD.