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Friday Film Review: Sabrina

Sabrina (1954)
Sabrina – either B&W or color (The Centennial Collection)
Genre – Romance

This is the version I first saw and the one I fell in love with. When the 1995 version was released, I watched it but didn’t initially care for it as much though I’ve come to appreciate it for itself. However, when I think of the title “Sabrina,” it’s the Audrey Hepburn edition that immediately comes to mind.

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It’s a simple Cinderella plot. Sabrina, the daughter of the chauffeur of the ridiculously wealthy Larrabee family, has been in love with the younger son of the family for years. David’s a young, handsome playboy who’s been married three times, has a different date each night and who barely even remembers that Sabrina lives on the estate. It’s not that he’s mean or cruel, it’s just that she’s not in his social circle or as sophisticated as the women he’s used to dating.

In an attempt to break her of her infatuation, Sabrina’s father sends her to cooking school in Paris. Two years later she returns, a well dressed, polished and sophisticated young woman. She and David meet at the train station and he, not recognizing her, offers her a lift home. When she directs him to his own house, he finally realizes who she is and impulsively invites her to a party the family is hosting that night.

When she arrives, David can’t keep his eyes off her to the consternation of his older brother, Linus. The family closes ranks, not because they hate Sabrina but because fooling with the daughter of a servant is considered in poor taste and the family, or make that Linus, has arranged a marriage between David and the daughter of another wealthy family, the Tysons, in order to facilitate a business merger.

Linus engineers a slight accident that will keep David out of commission for a few days until his wedding. In the meantime, it’s up to Linus to entertain Sabrina and attempt to lure her into a romance with him before gently paying her off. But as they spend time in each others company, who is falling for whom and how will it end?

Sabrina starts out as a dreamy romantic. Reaching for the moon and messing up at cooking school since she’s unhappily in love, as a fellow student tells her. Then she arrives home, so sophisticated and supposedly grown up yet she starts again with David and her dreams of their romance. But it’s not reality and doesn’t live past her few encounters with Linus – a man she’s never dreamed of and was actually a little afraid and in awe of while growing up. With him she quickly realizes she’s found the real thing and it scares her. She’s desperate to get away from him and back to David. That is until the night when she thinks she discovers that Linus loves her. Her reality crashes down on her when Linus can’t keep up the charade and reveals all.

Linus is all business and businessman. There’s a hint of a past romance gone bad but since then, he’s strictly about Larrabee industries. He has a line that reminds me of one of the 90s computer tycoons who said that if business was only about making money, it would hardly be worth coming into the office. For Linus it’s about changing the world around him for the better – about creating new things and bringing prosperity to those who’ve never had their slice of the pie. But with Sabrina, he finds himself thawing into a romantic. First he plays the part and then the part becomes him. Oh, he’ll never be a David, all suave and a playboy, he’ll reserve his soft side for his family, but he allows his inner romantic to show a little to the world and a lot to Sabrina.

And is David finally growing up? He’s on his way and looks to be stepping forward into the family business. He’s willing to force Linus’s hand and make his brother acknowledge his true feelings for Sabrina. Which highlights one of the nice aspects of the film – namely the relationship between the two brothers. It’s obvious that Linus has always taken the lead, cleaned up David’s messes as a big brother would. But the affection between them is real even if Linus gets exasperated at times.

Today, we’ve seen more of this lifestyle from TV shows and magazine spreads but in its day, the Larrabee estate on Long Island must have made an impression on movie goers. The expensive cars, the servants – though not so many as I’d expect – the lavish parties, the women’s gowns and jewels, the Larrabee Building – all must have been seen as glamorous. The class difference isn’t great today since film stars and singers can become staggeringly wealthy in a short amount of time and begin to lead this lifestyle but then, in 1954, the jump in class would have seemed greater and Fairchild’s comment about life being a car with a front and back seat and a window in between would have been more important.

Audrey Hepburn plays the dreamy eyed romantic beautifully and when David begins to pay her attention, I see it as her due as a lovely young woman instead of as a scheming, hard nosed gold digger. Even after Linus breaks her heart with the truth of his scheme, she still just takes one ticket for the ship back to France instead of all the swag the family had planned to buy her off with. She’s basically a good person who truly was in it for love and not what she could get. So when she ends up getting it all – love and the lifestyle, I can cheer and smile.

Humphrey Bogart turns out to be a marvelous choice to play Linus. The first time I saw the film, I’d never heard of it, didn’t know the plot and was taken aback that Sabrina is supposed to fall for him. For this old guy when she’s got a handsome, younger brother in love with her? By the end of the film, I would have felt cheated had she not gotten Linus. Bogart plays the role wonderfully. He’s supposed to be slightly stiff and the one who’s allowed himself to stodgify over the years. But he can also turn on the, slightly clumsy – or is?, charm and slowly chip away at Sabrina’s calm and her belief that she loves David. Bogart never pushes the role, as Linus also never pushes Sabrina. Everything is slow and steady. What Bogart does masterfully is to allow us and Sabrina to see what’s inside him. But is that longing for a woman of his own an act or real? We’re not sure and Bogart’s performance keeps us guessing until the end.

William Holden portrays the happy go lucky playboy in a way that allows us to laugh with him and not hate him for not loving Sabrina from the beginning nor be angry that he’s cheerfully planning on jilting the otherwise charming young woman Linus has picked out as Mrs. David Larrabee the fourth. After all, it’s not David falling in love with Elizabeth Tyson – it was Larrabee industries merging with Tyson. So when David kicks over the traces, we’re actually hoping that he does escape into the arms of a woman he truly loves. But in the end, we see that David still isn’t quite the man Linus is and thus we’re happy that he seems to be willing to marry Elizabeth – as Linus says, it was only a matter of time before David would eventually have proposed to her anyway.

The humor of the story isn’t forced and is both visual and linguistic. The image of Mr. Larrabee standing in Linus’s closet in order to hide his smoking from his wife is one I always remember as are his efforts to get that last olive out of the jar for his martini. Linus realizes the image he must be cutting as the much older man squiring the luminous Sabrina about town – and mockingly shows it to us by trying on his old college letterman sweater before he takes Sabrina out sailing. But the story also has hauntingly romantic scenes such as Linus and Sabrina waltzing around the indoor tennis court to the strains of “Isn’t it Romantic.”

The last scene is fantastic. Understated and all the more powerful for it. Linus shows that he’s been listening to Sabrina tell him what he needs to do in Paris – turn down the brim of his black Homburg hat and ditch his umbrella – and he does so before opening his arms and his heart to her.

Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy both do amazing jobs with the costumes for Hepburn. Head makes her look like the innocent, sheltered, pre-Paris, young woman while Givenchy and Hepburn begin their long association here with the stylish and sophisticated couture Sabrina displays upon her return from the City of Light.

Everything about the film is elegant and simple. I think it’s aged fairly well though it does show its age by what must have been state of the art technology then – watch for the dictaphone which Linus uses in his car while being driven into the city. Plus all the secretaries at Larrabee industries are women and Linus’s office is all modern glass and chrome.

The dialogue is rapid fire and intelligent with Linus tossing off puns that float right over his brother’s head. Perhaps Cary Grant might have been more believable as a man whom a younger woman would fall for but the fact that Humphrey Bogart can pull off a performance in which I believe that Sabrina would choose him says much about his acting ability.

As Roger Ebert says, the movie is about escapism and fairy tales. I can believe them a bit more in 1954 before women’s lib than I could in 1995. I can believe that Sabrina doesn’t immediately think Linus is trying to coldly seduce her though I can see the questions that occasionally flit across her face as she wonders. I can believe that a gruff, older Linus falls for this young woman and she for him, all in the space of a few days. And I can believe in them sailing off to their HEA as the lights dim and “The End” flashes on the screen. B+

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

23 Comments

  1. ShellBell
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 04:39:19

    The Audrey Hepburn version is my favourite one – she is just magical as Sabrina. I totally agree with your comment that everything about the film is elegant and simple – and they are words that just do not describe the Harrison Ford version. I’ve only seen that version once, and that was one time too many as far as I’m concerned whereas I’ve watched the Audrey Hepburn version on numerous occasions!

    I feel the same way about the Audrey Hepburn version of Roman Holiday – far superior to the Catherine Oxenberg TV movie.

  2. Sami
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 05:02:51

    Why oh why do they remake great old movies when the originals are so freely available? I’m a fan of Harrison Ford ordinarily, but his version of Linus seemed sleazy in a way that Bogart’s wasn’t. The age difference also bothered me more in the 95 version than in the original, don’t know why. And that party dress of Audrey’s! So stunning it doesn’t date. Nothing should look that luminous in black and white.

    I also love Mr. Larabee’s character, who provides so many of the moments of the film that ‘stick’, just as you described. That pesky olive! The way Bogart smashes the bottle makes me double over every time, and shows just how utterly Linus is unravelling as the film reaches its conclusion. A great example of how significant an impact can be made by supporting characters–something I’ve never forgotten and that I try to apply to my writing as best I can.

    Thanks for plugging this great old film.

  3. Jayne
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 05:48:07

    The age difference also bothered me more in the 95 version than in the original, don't know why. And that party dress of Audrey's! So stunning it doesn't date. Nothing should look that luminous in black and white.

    It bothered me more too! And I also don’t know why. It’s not that you can’t tell the age difference between Bogart and Hepburn. I did love one line that Linus has in the 95 edition when he tells Sabrina that one of his co-workers described him as the world’s onlly living heart donor.

    A great example of how significant an impact can be made by supporting characters-something I've never forgotten and that I try to apply to my writing as best I can.

    I also enjoyed seeing John Williams as Sabrina’s father, Fairchild. Another great role to go along with those in “Dial M for Murder” and “To Catch a Thief.”

  4. Diana Peterfreund
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 06:22:02

    See, this is one of those movies where the remake appeals to me so much more than the original. Partly because I can’t really sympathize with Hepburn’s Sabrina after her suicide attempt, and also, cooking doesn’t seem to be anything she really likes or explain why she suddenly has all these designer clothes — as a chef? Really? Whereas the remake’s photography internship not only carries through into Sabrina’s character and purpose throughout the rest of the film (it seems to make her into her own person with her own future independent of the Larrabies — rather than just coming back to keep working as a servant), but it also makes her foray into fashion much more understandable.

    Additionally, the David in the original really is a stone cold bastard who is willing to marry someone for money? Yuck. Whereas the David is the remake is a nice guy who really over his doctor fiance before he knew about the merger and his interest in Sabrina is just some cold feet. Played as cold feet, Harrison’s Linus doesn’t seem like such an asshole for trying to split them up — yeah, it’s important for business, but he ALSO realizes there’s really nothing going on with him and Sabrina and he just needs David to snap out of it. Also, the age difference bothered me a lot LESS in the remake, possibly because Julia Ormond doesn’t play Sabrina as such a naive little ninny as Hepburn does.

  5. mdegraffen
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 06:44:02

    I actually saw the Harrison Ford version before I saw the Bogart version. I prefer the newer version because I am buying Ford’s eventual vulnerability more. But they are both wonderful and how can you fault Hepburn? Did you know that it was Ford’s idea to remake the movie as a tribute to Billy Wilder and that much of the dialogue is identical to the original?

  6. Jayne
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 06:49:01

    Whereas the remake's photography internship not only carries through into Sabrina's character and purpose throughout the rest of the film (it seems to make her into her own person with her own future independent of the Larrabies -‘ rather than just coming back to keep working as a servant), but it also makes her foray into fashion much more understandable.

    And this is one of the areas that I appreciate in the newer version. I was so happy they’d updated Sabrina’s career to something more modern but I can accept the older version since fewer women had careers then. But this shows that the 95 version isn’t just a clone of the original.

  7. joanne
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 07:31:45

    Thank you Jayne for a great review of a favorite movie.

    Just two things to put it in perspective of the original movie’s time:

    Two years later she returns, a well dressed, polished and sophisticated young woman.

    Actually it was that she came back looking like Audrey Hepburn, lol! I can’t explain the fascination so many of us had with her except that we thought she actually walked around in ‘real life’, even in her own home , wearing Givenchy! She was one of those movie stars that looked like a star.

    didn't know the plot and was taken aback that Sabrina is supposed to fall for him. For this old guy when she's got a handsome, younger brother in love with her?

    By the time this movie came out Bogart had already wooed and wed the teen aged Lauren Bacall so it was probably more believable since he had lived that part of the story in real life.

    The re-make, although I thought it was well done and nicely made, never impacted me with the kind of magic those two actors brought to the original story. Thanks again for the reminder of a great film!

  8. Kalen Hughes
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 08:55:45

    This movie has always been a miss for me. It’s the casting. Bogart gives me the heebie-jeebies (it’s that slack, wet, grouper mouth *shudder*). Sometimes it's just impossible to overcome your own personal reaction/feelings (or it is for me; there's a certain actress who used to date a friend of mine and she was such a nasty piece of work that I can't watch anything with her in it).

  9. Jayne
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 09:06:12

    LOL, too funny Kalen. I don’t think I would have wanted to kiss Bogart either. Good thing for me that the only movie I like that certain actress in is “Beautiful Mind” and I mainly like that movie for Crowe’s work and Howard’s directing.

  10. Jaci Burton
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 09:39:01

    I love Sabrina. It’s ranks as one of my top 10 favorite classic movies. Then again, I’m a huge fan of Audrey Hepburn. I thought Bogey did a brilliant job in the part and showed his vulnerabilities. That being said, I also loved the remake, though Harrison Ford was just as vulnerable and Julia Ormond was breathtaking in the role. Not Hepburn, of course, but she was still beautiful and vulnerable.

    As far as Cary Grant, I loved him and Audrey Hepburn in Charade, another one of my favorite classic romantic comedy/suspense movies ever. And he definitely played the older man falling in love with the younger woman in that one and in fact their age gap is even mentioned, but I bought it hook, line and sinker and fell madly in love with him in that movie, as well as Hepburn, of course.

    Thanks for bringing up Sabrina, which made me think about Charade, which made me now want to watch both again. :-)

  11. vanessa jaye
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 10:17:25

    I’ve never seen Sabrina. Either version. ::shame:: Something I’ll look into correcting since I’ve been enjoying quite a few of the old b&w movies shown on the Turner channel lately.

  12. Jacqueline L.
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 11:37:16

    Ah, I love this movie and have it on dvd. I was fairly dismayed when they came up with a remake of it and I haven’t been able to get myself to watch it…not that I particularly wanted to anyhow. I tend to not enjoy remakes.

  13. Kalen Hughes
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 11:42:35

    . . . and who on earth would want to be compared to Audrey Hepburn?

  14. Jayne
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 12:06:28

    Something I'll look into correcting since I've been enjoying quite a few of the old b&w movies shown on the Turner channel lately.

    I love the TCM and AMC channels. They’ve both introduced me to a lot of older movies – many of which aren’t out on DVD.

  15. Moth
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 13:54:40

    @Jaci Burton

    As far as Cary Grant, I loved him and Audrey Hepburn in Charade, another one of my favorite classic romantic comedy/suspense movies ever.

    I LOVE Charade. The best Hitchcock movie he never made. ;P

  16. Cristiane
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 14:47:29

    TCM – Greatest Channel Ever!

    Anyway, Edith Head won a solo Oscar for Sabrina, even though Hepburn’s phenomenally gorgeous Parisian clothes were designed by Hubert de Givenchy. She insisted on a solo credit on the movie.

  17. Evangeline
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 16:17:26

    Ha…I’m born to be contrary. Oddly enough, even before I became a huge fan of classic movies I was never really impressed with Sabrina. Oh it’s all there: sparking cast, gorgeous cinematography, witty script, and a delicious Cinderella story. But that’s it. Perhaps because I’ve never really been a fan of the Cinderella tale (I love Beauty and the Beast b/c Belle was proactive and didn’t martyr herself) is the reason why I find Sabrina superficially romantic. I do love the plot of the movie–tailor-made for the romance genre, IMO–but after reading the original play, I feel the basic heart of Sabrina Fair was eradicated by Billy Wilder turning into a simple fairy tale.

    Forgot to address the remake. I resisted renting it because I generally dislike remakes, but I found the 1995 version refreshing. It still didn’t hit me emotionally, but it was tasteful and classy. I was reading Cameron Crowe’s book Conversations with Billy Wilder and apparently Thandie Newton was considered when they were casting the character “Sabrina”.

  18. Evangeline
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 16:23:18

    @Moth: Lol, because Cary Grant thought he was too old to chase after women young enough to be his daughter, the script had Audrey chasing him.

  19. Jayne
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 18:37:17

    I enjoy Charade too (and own the DVD) but something about the number of aliases that Grant’s character goes through sort of leaves a sour taste in my mouth. The “orange passing” game at the nightclub is a scream though.

  20. Moth
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 19:52:20

    @Jayne

    I enjoy Charade too (and own the DVD) but something about the number of aliases that Grant's character goes through sort of leaves a sour taste in my mouth. The “orange passing” game at the nightclub is a scream though.

    My fav part is probably Cary Grant’s shower scene.

    @Evangeline,

    Lol, because Cary Grant thought he was too old to chase after women young enough to be his daughter, the script had Audrey chasing him.

    Yes, I know this story. He read the original script where he was chasing her and basically said it was squicky so they changed it= BRILLIANT!

  21. Angelia Sparrow
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 21:46:29

    I saw the remake some years back when i was on a Harrison Ford binge. It did almost nothing for me except provide me with a snarky quote:
    They say you think morals are pictures on walls and scruples are money in Russia.

  22. misty
    Jul 18, 2009 @ 10:29:29

    I’m conflicted on this one because I love Audrey Hepburn, and I especially love her in this movie, but I think Bogart was seriously miscast. I didn’t think they had any chemistry and he remained a cold fish until the very end. This movie would have been magic if Cary Grant had played Linus.

  23. Allie
    Jul 18, 2009 @ 22:01:30

    I'm conflicted on this one because I love Audrey Hepburn, and I especially love her in this movie, but I think Bogart was seriously miscast. I didn't think they had any chemistry and he remained a cold fish until the very end. This movie would have been magic if Cary Grant had played Linus.

    Amen. It’s so sad he turned the role down. I love the first half of this movie (and I always watch it on TCM) but once it begins to be about Linus/Sabrina I have to turn it off. HB is just too uncomfortable playing this part. Also, I’m a HUGE William Holden fan and I always wish the movie had been written slightly differently so that he could get the girl. But I still love the fairy tale aspects of the script – Audrey Hepburn’s narration at the beginning is perfect.

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