Film Friday: Billy Wilder's 'Sabrina' with Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn & William Holden

By Daniel S Levine,

Fairy tales don't often happen on Long Island, but playwright Samuel Taylor nevertheless picked it for the setting of his fairy tale, Sabrina Fair. After a critically successful run on Broadway that began in 1953, it seemed a natural fit for films. Paramount secured the rights and correctly believed it would be the next big hit for its newest starlet, Audrey Hepburn.

Although writer/director Billy Wilder began crafting the script with Taylor, his changes to the story lead Taylor to leave the project and Wilder worked with Ernest Lehman. The resulting screenplay is surprisingly one of Wilder's best and makes 1954's Sabrina one of the iconic director's best works.

Sabrina is, most importantly, a fairy tale and starts with the immortal “Once upon a time.” We have our Cinderella – Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn) – and the Prince Charming – David Larrabee (William Holden). Sabrina's father (John Williams) is the Larrabees' chauffeur, but she never seemed to impress the Larrabee brothers – David and Linus (Humphrey Bogart). After two years of cooking training in Paris, where she was supposed to forget about David, Sabrina comes back a stunning woman (in Givenchy) on the outside, but still the same child at heart.

While playboy David has finally fallen in love with her, businessman Linus has set David up with the daughter of a plastics tycoon. Linus hatches a plan to get Sabrina far from David by spending time with her. Surprisingly, he begins to fall in love with her, even though he's much older. And as she begins to get over David, she starts falling for Linus.

The key to Sabrina and, I would argue, its most valuable asset, is Humphrey Bogart. Yes, Hepuburn and William Holden are perfect in their roles, but that's expected. Wilder took a chance by casting Bogart in a romantic comedy and Bogart was understandably apprehensive.

However, like the surprising turn of events in the screenplay, Wilder got a nuanced, perfect performance from Bogart. His character is the one that has to go through the most gradual change throughout the film's two hours and Bogart does it as only he can. Linus goes from a father figure for Sabrina to a love interest, a hard twist for any actor. Even Cary Grant (the original choice) may have had difficulty pulling that off. In the twilight of his career (he'd make five more movies in the last two years of his life), Bogart still challenged himself and he succeeds brilliantly. This is just another one of his great turns that deserved an Oscar nod.

Hepburn is also lovely in this film, coming hot off her Oscar win for Roman Holiday the previous year. During the 1950s and early 1960s, she got paired with much older men, so she had the challenge of acting against Gary Cooper (Wilder's Love in the Afternoon), Grant (Charade) and Bogart. In each case, she really does exceedingly well. We may think of her as a fashion icon, but she was more than an actress who looked pretty in dresses.

The last part of the leading trio is Holden, who brings a boyish charm to the role. He and Wilder had just made Stalag 17, which earned him the Oscar during the same ceremony that Hepburn won her's. Coming from a tense, POW prison escape film to a romantic comedy must have felt like a breath of fresh air for Wilder and Holden, so Holden is clearly enjoying himself. Yes, the role of the playboy is pretty one-note until the end, but he gets some of the best laughs in the film.

Wilder really was a genius at subtle comedy and Sabrina was his return to the romantic comedy world after the noir masterpiece Sunset Boulevard, the cynical Ace in the Hole and Stalag 17. His writing is also masterful, taking the idea of Taylor's story, but making it his own. He doesn't go for big laughs in Sabrina, just a few chuckles. “Look at me. Joe College with arthritis,” Bogart says to himself before meeting Hepburn. “I feel so stupid I could kill myself,” David tells Sabrina when picking her up at the train station. “You'll be all right in a minute,” she replies. It's the witty lines like that which prove why Wilder remains the best screenwriter to direct.

On Home Video: As a classic, Sabrina has had several home video releases. The best DVD is the two-disc 2008 Paramount “Centennial Edition,” which has a few interesting featurettes on the film, its supporting cast and Hepburn's fashion sense. The film is presented in the full 1.33:1 ratio, but the Blu-ray – which came out on Tuesday – is the matted, widescreen version. When watching the full-frame version, you can see that Wilder and cinematographer Charles Lang framed the film with widescreen in mind, so you don't miss much seeing it that way.

Sabrina has much more going for it than the novelty of a modern fairy tale. Its story is about growing up to realize that the person you loved while young may not really be the person for the older version of yourself. “La vie en rose” might be the film's theme, but even Sabrina is grounded in reality.

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