Of course, the non-threatening pleasant but not pleasurable aura of charm that Hepburn cast in Roman Holiday that allowed her to win her Best Actress Oscar was something that the studios wanted to exploit and replicate as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Never create what you can recreate.
Director Billy Wilder took up this challenge with an adaptation of the then-recent play "Sabrina Fair." Bringing the light touch he'd brought to comedies like Midnight and The Major and the Minor, Wilder relishes the opportunity to not only spin a silly story but to further solidify Hepburn's place as an engaging leading lady.
Sabrina is the story of a chauffeur's daughter on Long Island who is sent to Paris for cooking school; she leaves an awkward adolescent and returns a cultured and chic swan. So much so that the playboy she'd spent her life lusting for doesn't even recognize her when she arrives at the train station, though that might be because he's seeing the dress and not the woman underneath.
He's David (William Holden), one of the Larrabbee brothers. Their family is rich, belonging to one of those movie corporations that has its finger in every pie and a silly old matriarch to bungle around on top. Most of the day to day business is in the hands of the other brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart). Linus is no nonsense, David is all nonsense. That they still live in the same mansion as their parents do speaks well to their mutual pragmatism.
David discovers a sudden fascination with Sabrina that could ruin a business deal that Linus had arranged (and sold David for), leaving him no choice but to swoop in and seduce Sabrina away.
Wilder is probably at the height of his Lubistch sensibilities here; weaving this story with the highest fairy tale sensibilities he can manage straight down to the wistful opening narration, every frame of Sabrina glows with tightly composed shots of sheer elegance.
He touches upon some of his favorite gags too, like the pomposity of the Larrabbee matriarch. The crusty old business man who can't get to the olive at the bottom of a jar; he ends up making a martini in the jar instead.
When it comes to my problems with Sabrina, though, first and foremost has to come from its casting. Hepburn is perfect for the part-- she never lets her character's romantic underpinnings become creepy or desperate, and the struggle she displays choosing between the two men has enough depth for the audience to buy it.
The problem I've had comes from her pairings. Bogart has his charms, but I can't say playing a romantic bon vivant is one of them. As the crusty old business minded son, he never seems to get into the proceedings, always holding back more than the movie wants us to believe he is. Holden is good as the more carefree brother, but still looks and seems too old for someone who seems to be romantically entangled with a teenager.
Not that both men don't bring their game, it's just too subdued here to work as effectively as it should. Where the audience should be rooting for Bogart, they instead kind of wonder if it still wouldn't be better if Holden gave it another shot.
But that small niggling feeling couldn't sink this film. The sheer pleasure Wilder evokes from turning the business world upside down with one chauffer's daughter leaves a palpable feeling of errant joy. It's a fairy tale for grown-ups, happy ending and all.
As for Hepburn's career, Sabrina is far from a misstep, but, watching it immediately after Roman Holiday, it suffers in comparison. While we're still pretty far from the apex to her career, she's obviously more comfortable here than she was in Holiday and more than able to hold her own against two of iconic stars.
If it seems like she's repeating herself, well, next time we'll get to see her in a completely new guise-- like it or not.