The past few weeks have been good for Humphrey Bogart on Blu-ray. The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen were recently rereleased and assembled for the Best of Bogart Collection, and now, Sabrina, one of the legendary star’s final films, has received its first American appearance on the format. Perhaps more importantly, if total number of titles available on Blu-ray is the basis for judgment, Sabrina also marks one of disappointingly few Billy Wilder titles available in the remastered form. That the film also stars the radiant Audrey Hepburn and the remarkably versatile William Holden confirms that the release is worth commending.
From about 1944, with Double Indemnity, to Irma la Douce in 1963, Wilder had an astonishing run in Hollywood, and Sabrina came roughly in the middle of that period. Wilder, by this point, had 12 Oscar nominations for writing or directing. Sabrina would bring him 13 and 14. It was a relatively early picture for Hepburn, just a year after her similarly delightful turn in Roman Holiday, and it was arguably at the height of Holden’s career. He had worked with Wilder on Sunset Blvd. and Stalag 17, winning his only Oscar for the latter. Ernest Lehman and Samuel A. Taylor, who would both have several stellar titles to their credit in years to come (each would do work with Hitchcock, for example), co-wrote the script with Wilder. Finally, with Charles Lang (Charade, One-Eyed Jacks, Some Like It Hot, The Man from Laramie, The Big Heat, Ace in the Hole) as director of photography, it’s easy to say that Sabrina had considerable talent behind it.
Based on Taylor’s original play, “Sabrina Fair,” Sabrina tells the pleasant story of a chauffeur’s daughter who first falls in love with one rich brother then, over time, falls for the other. The brothers are David (Holden) and Linus (Bogart) Larrabee. The waifish girl is Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn). The Larrabees of Long Island lead a life of wealth and luxury, to say the least, the description and presentation of which is done in typically cynical Wilder style. We are introduced to their lifestyle by way of their hired hands and possessions (indoor pools, outdoor pools; indoor tennis courts, outdoor tennis courts). While this may seem comical to the audience, the young Sabrina witnesses the life they lead with extreme envy and wonder. She is particularly smitten by younger brother David, a frivolous playboy. Doe-eyed, she looks on David and the Larrabee life in general with great awe. But it is not to be. They are out of her class. As her father reminds her, there is a front seat and a back seat, and there’s a window in between.
In contrast to David is the financially minded and pragmatic Linus. While David is out spending the family money, Linus is making it. Part of his scheme for profit is to have David married off for business purposes. David is not one to settle down, nor is he particularly worried about the productive merger that would develop as a result of the arranged union. Nevertheless, the engagement is settled and all seems to be going well for the Larrabee clan.
Following her pathetically amusing suicide attempt, spurred on by David’s inattention to her, Sabrina is sent off to Paris for culinary school, where her first lesson is apparently on how to correctly boil water. Away from David for 2 years, Sabrina matures but never truly forgets the love she has for him. Upon her return, that infatuation is rekindled, this time with a twist. The twist is that now grown up, smartly dressed, well spoken, and looking even more radiant, Sabrina catches David’s eye. If only he wasn’t now engaged. And if only the family company didn’t have so much riding on the impending marriage. In any event, Sabrina now enamors David, while the perpetually diligent Linus is more concerned with a newly manufactured plastic. This all changes, however, when Linus schemes to keep David’s focus on the marriage/business proposal and intimately encounters Sabrina himself, becoming equally besotted by her looks and charm.
With Linus, before her true feelings for him are apparent, Sabrina is easygoing and cordial. She doesn’t have to try so hard with him. There aren’t years of infatuation to overcome. Even if Linus isn’t sure of what to do with Sabrina, how to keep her away from David and to not interfere with the marriage/merger, he manages to charmingly entertain her and their relationship grows closer with each diversionary attempt. They even share a troubled suicidal past. Ultimately, both David and Linus fall for Sabrina, no matter how they came to that feeling, how genuine it may be, or how likely their association is.
Like Bogart’s most famous feature, Casablanca, there was supposedly quite a bit of trouble with the Sabrina screenplay, even as filming was underway; like that 1942 classic, one would never know it by the completed film. Most prominent and admirable is the adept balance of romance and drama infused with comedy. Wilder, as he does so well, keenly observes and reveals the subtle humor inherent in even the most dramatic moments, never taking anything too seriously. The smartness of the dialogue is also typical for the filmmaker: after sitting on champagne glasses, David begins composing a poem and wonders, “What rhymes with glass?” All three main performers expertly fluctuate between moments of almost screwball comedy and delightful romantic rapture, and all work particularly well with and against each other. It must be admitted, however, that Bogart does seem somewhat out of place in the film, if only because he’s not typically associated with such a straightforwardly stuffy character. Cary Grant was the original choice for Linus, and Bogie’s casting was the subject of some debate at the time, revolving mostly around his age, despite the fact that he was only about 6 years older than Grant; when taking Sabrina out at one point, Linus dubs himself “Joe College with a touch of arthritis.” He was not pleased by Holden and Hepburn as costars, either (though they certainly didn’t mind each other – they fell in love while making the movie). Bogart apparently wanted his wife Lauren Bacall instead of the young leading lady newcomer, whom he felt wasn’t the least bit talented.
None of this stopped the film from being a success, ultimately earning $10 million, about five times its budget, and garnering a multitude of awards; its only Oscar win was for Edith Head’s black-and-white costume design. Along these lines, a short bonus feature on the disc highlights not only Head’s celebrated work, but also focuses on Hepburn as a fashion icon. Upon Sabrina’s return from Paris, Hepburn’s stylish prominence is evident, particularly in view of Sabrina’s “ugly ducking” narrative transformation.
With solid bit players like these, stars who shined as bright as any in Hollywood, a versatile director who maintained a staggering constancy of theme and wit, and with such an agreeably simple story, Sabrina is a classic of American cinema. It’s an exceptional example of the assured best the studio system had to offer.
— Jeremy Carr