“Sabrina” (1954) is deceptively a watershed film. Deceptively because it is simply a Cinderella story, nothing unusual about that, but one which stands out as a turning point in film as part of popular culture, likely because of the three main stars and the film’s director. They all came together, and created something unique, a single definitive moment in time, a picture of the early 1950s.
Director Billy Wilder was at the height of his career and all three stars were recent winners of the Academy Award. The film may have come together in terms of script and casting in a last minute and slap-dash sort of way, but the result is almost flawless and remarkably poignant. This was William Holden’s last appearance as a boyish character, before he went on to more dramatic roles in “The Country Girl” and “Bridges of Toko-Ri”. Audrey Hepburn, fresh from her triumph in “Roman Holiday” and on Broadway in “Ondine” would appear in “Sabrina” with a kind of glowing confidence that she did not exhibit in later films, even films important to her career like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Wait Until Dark” which allowed her to show more range. She ironically appears more fragile in those films, but in “Sabrina” as the awkward girl turned into a sophisticated beauty, she commands the screen every second with a remarkable ease and sureness. Perhaps she is not yet aware she wears the mantle of a star.
Humphrey Bogart had spent the late 1940s and early 1950s comfortably recognized as a major star, and had won the Academy Award in 1951 for “The African Queen” which is all he needed to prove his lion’s position. In three years, by 1957, he would be dead of lung cancer. He had waited a long time in his career to become the romantic hero. This was his last hurrah.
The film makes a picture postcard to us of the early 1950s, a time of post-war opulence and unapologetic yen for the good things in life. The men at the Larrabee’s party are wearing white dinner jackets, to which Mr. Larrabee, played with wonderful crustiness by Walter Hampden complains, “They look like barbers.” It is a time of popular tunes like “Isn’t it Romantic” which haunts Sabrina and marks events in her life, a time before shallow and frenetic rock n’ roll. It is a time when dancing was a social accomplishment and seduction took time. We see it is a time of a single strand of pearls and strapless evening gowns with full skirts. Young people at this period did not want to be young, for to be young was to be gauche. Young people yearned for sophistication and experience, to emulate their elders, as Sabrina does when she spies the party from the branches of a tree on the estate. It was not a time then, as now, of arrested emotional immaturity.
This is so much a film of style that substance, where it exists, is tucked away neatly like a squared-off white handkerchief in the men’s breast pockets. All is well-mannered, like Miss Hepburn’s elegantly intoned speech. When she dances with Holden at the party and reminds him of when they were children, that he stole a kiss from her, she glances up at him with her almond eyes, her face still tilted downward, her voice low and playful, and we can see that he is aching to be alone with her and we do not blame him. The arousal is almost reverent.
When Bogart meets her for the rendezvous at the indoor tennis court instead of the expected Holden, it is a great moment in film. We know, and she suspects, that he is come to head off his brother’s romance with the chauffeur’s daughter which would cause great inconvenience to the family. However their encounter is easy and charming, and soon turns sexy as he pours her champagne and kisses her, telling her the kiss is really only a proxy kiss from his brother David. As she clings to Bogart in their slow, almost somnambulant dance, we see from her expression that he has thrown her off balance emotionally. She finds herself attracted to the older brother instead, something she did not expect or want.
At first it is an unspoken issue for present day viewers of this film (was it an issue for the audience in 1954?) that Bogart’s attitude for young Sabrina ought to seem more fatherly than romantic. It’s laudable, I think, that the film addresses this head on by remarking more than once that Bogart is much older than Hepburn. He even jokes himself when preparing to take Sabrina on an outing, as he looks at himself with sarcasm in the mirror, that he is “Joe College with a touch of arthritis.” This allows us to accept the decades difference in their ages, because they refer to it themselves and accept it.
Bogart is at least hale and hearty enough to carry Hepburn over his shoulder and ascend a flight of stairs with her after her suicide attempt. Does he realize it is a suicide attempt? He makes no comment at the time, it is only later when trying to win her over that he invents a past of suicidal desperation of his own to connect with her that we see he may remember the earlier event and attach some importance to it.
We see early on that though Bogart as the older brother carries the banner for the Larrabee family in responsibility for running their fortunes, he is yet more egalitarian than younger brother David. David is embarrassed at first to have Sabrina attend his family’s party. Bogart runs the business not because money is the means to an end, but because in establishing world trade, “people who never saw a dime before suddenly have a dollar.” He cares about the worth of people in terms of being valuable in their attributes. David is more class conscious.
None are more class conscious than Sabrina’s chauffer father, played by John Williams, who warns Sabrina on her relationship with David, “You’re reaching for the moon.” To which his daughter replies gleefully, “No, Father. The moon is reaching for me.”
So, he is. Some of the films cute moments are when David picks Sabrina up at the train station, not recognizing her after her return from school abroad in Paris, and he marvels that her poodle is called David.
“That’s funny. My name’s David, too.”
Hepburn smiles into the dog’s head for our benefit, “That is funny, isn’t it?”
More tomorrow on "Sabrina".
Sabrina [DVD](1954) DVD