Wilder: Sabrina (1954) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Wilder: Sabrina (1954)

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Linus (Humphrey Bogart) and David Larrabee (William Holden) are the two sons of a very wealthy family. Linus is all work -- busily running the family corporate empire, he has no time for a wife and family. David is all play -- technically he is employed by the family business, but never shows and has been married and divorced three times. Meanwhile, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is the young, shy, and awkward daughter of the household chauffeur who has been infatuated with David all her life, but David hardly notices her. That is until she goes away to Paris for two years, and returns an elegant, sophisticated, beautiful woman. Suddenly, she finds that she has captured David's attention, but just as she does so, she finds herself falling in love with Linus, and she finds that Linus is also falling in love with her.

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

[Note: Danny reviewed this one for his watch through Audrey Hepburn's films a couple of years back. You can read that review here.]

Oh, Sabrina. It's so hard not to love this movie.

Billy Wilder decided to tackle a fairy tale again, wisely avoiding Bing Crosby and setting the whole thing up with some fantastical narration and creating an enchanting mood with some absolutely sensuous black and white photography. He grabbed two of the best actors of the day for the romantic leads and dialed up the charm to an absurd degree. And to top it off, he's made it a ringer by selecting the perfect princess to build his story on.

Audrey Hepburn, barely a few years off her Academy Award winning turn in Roman Holiday, runs off with another picture. I actually went over Sabrina before when I was reviewing all of her films a while back, and I can't say my opinion has changed greatly from my other thoughts.

I have to say that Humphrey Bogart impressed me more this time through. His Linus gets a lot of play as the man completely clueless at love, and Bogart's attempt to regress to a younger state are subtle and fun. I appreciated the haunted moment he has on the balcony of his office this go around, where he realizes he cares more about Sabrina being happy than his business deal. He sells that switch with such a muted sadness that it reminds you that his overtures to Sabrina earlier about his lost loves may not have been such an exaggeration as he seemed to want to believe.

Outside of the acting, this is one of those movies you have to show people who don't like black and white movies. From the opening shots of Sabrina up in the tree to the darkened office building where Linus uncovers his true feelings, this movie plays with lighting and contrast deftly and elegantly. There's a warm glow to most of it, further emphasizing the storybook structure.

The movie's structure is surprisingly based on its music. The songs "Isn't It Romantic?", "La Vie En Rose", and "Yes! We Have No Bananas" (seriously) all get their turns as we use them to represent the different characters-- David, Sabrina and Linus respectively-- and take the spotlight to show what characters change and when.

There's a lot to like about this. Well, in my opinion, anyway. Ryan, is your souffle burned-- or did you remember to turn on the oven?

While I have always liked and not loved this film I have to agree about this being one of the best examples of a black and white film. The movie is alive and vibrant and breaks all the myths about how a b&w films "looks." I think the film is 100 times more colorful than something like Emperor Waltz even though that film was in technicolor.

I also like how you mention that he picked the perfect girl for this movie because that is very true. Two actresses from this time period went from being actresses/stars to becoming larger than life icons and Wilder had his finger on both of their rises. With Monroe he gave her the best film she was in with Some Like It Hot and also THE image of her in Seven Year Itch. With Hepburn, he cemented her modern day princess vibe by giving her the perfect film character where Sabrina at one point seems like the classiest woman alive and also the girl next door.

When it comes to her two leading men, this is where the movie loses me a little. I think this is one case where knowing the film and its place in history before watching it hurt my experience. This is one of those movie that have consistently been named as one of the most romantic films ever made yet I felt the chemistry was lacking between Holden and Hepburn and Bogart and Hepburn's best scenes are when he is treating her like a kid sister and not a love interest. I like the film and I bought into everyone falling in love with Sabrina but I never believed the love triangle.

Getting back to the music, is there a better use of a song like "Isn't It Romantic" than in this film? I can't think of one. That song is David's "getting it on song" and he has almost a pavlovian response to it. My favorite scene in Sabrina is, after the build up of what the song means to David, he is hurt and unable to meet Sabrina at his special place. When he hears the song starting he makes a wounded noise that makes me laugh out loud each time I watch the film. This is a scene that works wonderfully thanks to all of the different parts from the script, direction and acting.

Finally, I have a question for you, what do you think of David? Is he in love with Sabrina would she have just been his newest conquest?

David's kind of a fun character since he's never much more than a joke. I think it was infatuation, and I think he realized that by the last act. His character begins the film selfish, but by seeing Sabrina and Linus transformed he suddenly comes to his senses. In fact, to go a step further, his brother's change to Sabrina actually inspires him to becomes selfless, agreeing to toss away her love for his brother's happiness.

Of course, that compliments Linus's character arc. What's interesting about him is that he isn't doesn't start out heartless. His desire to expand his family's industries comes directly from a belief that capitalism can make the world a better place-- which may be the most fantastically romantic aspect of the movie. But this makes his transformation more subtle than going from a cold heartless bastard since he was essentially good from the get go. He just had to be woken up.

And then there's Sabrina. Watching it through this time with my wife, she couldn't help but flip out at how simply crazy Sabrina is. Her crush on David is borderline stalker (just how long does she keep watching him on that indoor tennis court?) and, after her makeover, she goes after him even though she knows he's engaged. For such a fairytale story, Sabrina has some wicked claws. It's only after she begins to see Linus's hidden warmth and David's cowardice that her teenage idealism melts away. And the beauty of it is that Hepburn can sell that crazy, and make it look charming as hell.

I think that's what I like about it. It's about growing up, accepting all of your parts, and realizing that there's more to the world than just romance, or no romance at all. There's a warm, tender middle ground, and that's real love.

Anyway, I did want to comment on your casting issues, and it's something that strikes me almost every time I watch it. I do think Bogart looks a bit too old for his part here, but I think he handles the sadness and deadpan perfectly. Look at how he gets his entire secretarial staff on the piece of plastic and bouncing without so much a wink to the audience. I don't think Cary Grant could have pulled that off.

Of course, I should say that Grant was Wilder's first choice for Linus. Grant declined-- though Wilder certainly offered him some choice parts, Grant was at the phase in his career where he only felt comfortable with a handful of directors and didn't want to stick his neck out for Billy. Having seen Charade, I'm sure, do you think Sabrina would have been completely different with a different leading man?

Reading your analysis of the movie has made me appreciate it more so I thank you for that. I think what you said about real love is very true and it is amusing that a movie that is made to look like a fairy tale ends up showing a more realistic love.

I couldn't agree with you more about how crazy Sabrina is and I always thought that and always chalked it up that she was too young. On top of her being a stalker she is also overly dramatic. Killing yourself because a boy doesn't like you is stupid but turning on all the cars in a big garage to do it is stupid and over the top. Maybe she needed someone like Linus over David because she needed to grow the hell up. Love isn't about being crazy the whole time and swinging from highs to lows, if you find someone that you can relax with and be yourself that also makes you happy you have got it down pat.

Cary Grant would have made this movie drastically different in that he would out-glamor the glamor boy played by Holden. They would have had to make the Linus character much different and it would have lost a lot of what we have been talking about. Although Bogart and Hepburn didn't have much of a spark, I don't know if Grant being in the role would have made the movie any better. A time I think that Grant would have drastically improved was another Wilder movie starring Hepburn that we will be getting to soon.

Yeah. A lot of classic film fans always point to certain movies and go "Cary Grant would have made that better!", which, while not always misguided, gets a bit grating after a while.

But, hey, thanks for the compliment. I like that Sabrina is complex under all of its cliches. Every character is living, breathing, and that makes the tenderness work so well. It's not a perfect film, but as a romantic comedy it genuinely hits both of its prerequisite notes.

I'd say more, but I have to get my claws out for next time. I think that one may be a doozy.

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December: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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  1. I really loved this film, but agree that casting Humphrey Bogart as Linus was a mistake…particularly because he and Hepburn had little to no chemistry in the film, notably the closing scene. Great commentary!

    • Like I said on my end, I think Bogart brings a nice sense of melancholy to the role, but I have to admit that his chemistry with Hepburn doesn’t sparkle like hers with Gregory Peck or Cary Grant ever did. Thanks for the comment!

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