Romantic Comedy Blogathon: “Sabrina”
Along with the many great movies he wrote and directed, Billy Wilder was known during his 40+ year career in Hollywood as one of the town’s leading cynics. This, after all, is the man who, when informed by his beloved wife Audrey that it was their anniversary, allegedly replied, “Please, not while I’m eating.” Certainly, that cynical outlook was reflected in many of his movies, particularly Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole (perhaps his bleakest movie, and one of his best) and Stalag 17. But I think critics tend to overlook the fact Wilder had a romantic side as well, even a sentimental streak. This was especially apparent in the two movies he did with Audrey Hepburn, and most of all in their first collaboration, 1954’s Sabrina, one of my favorites of his.
Sabrina came out during a transitional period for Wilder. He was the rare writer/director who always collaborated with someone else on the script (he said he wanted the company, as well as someone who spoke English better than he did), and he’d recently ended a long-running partnership with Charles Brackett after more than a decade (their last film together, Sunset Boulevard, came out in 1950). With his work with I.A.L. Diamond still in the future (their first film together, Love in the Afternoon, came out in 1957), Wilder was still looking for a permanent writing partner. His co-writers here were Samuel Taylor (who wrote the play Sabrina Fair that the film was based on) and Ernest Lehman (this was his only second credited screenplay; Executive Suite, directed by Robert Wise, had come out earlier that year). This was also Wilder’s final film for Paramount, where he had been under contract for about 15 years. And for reasons I’ll get to below, this was also a troubled production, but none of that shows up on screen.
Sabrina (Hepburn) is the title character, daughter of Thomas Fairchild (John Williams – the actor, not the composer), chauffeur to the Larrabees, a wealthy family living in Long Island. While Linus (Humphrey Bogart), the eldest son, pursues business with a zeal (in Sabrina’s opening narration, she says Linus’ classmates at Yale voted him most likely to leave the school $20 million), David (William Holden), his younger brother, is more interested in chasing women (he’s been married and divorced three times). Sabrina has had a crush on David since they were younger (he kissed her by accident when he was teaching her how to roller skate, and she’s never forgotten it), but he never noticed her. On the night before she’s supposed to leave for Paris to go to cooking school (her mother had gone there), the Larrabees are having a party (Sabrina watches from a tree in the backyard), and crushed by David ignoring her yet again (and by the fact David is more interested in another woman (Joan Vohs), whom he takes to the family’s indoor tennis court for champagne, dancing and other things), Sabrina impulsively decides to kill herself. She goes to the garage where all the cars are kept, and turns them all on while the garage door is still closed. Fortunately for her, Linus, who heard the noise, opens the door, turns the cars off, and brings Sabrina outside. While he doesn’t buy Sabrina’s explanation (she claimed a spark plug in one of the cars wasn’t working, but she didn’t know which one, and kept the doors closed so she wouldn’t disturb anyone), Linus agrees to keep the matter quiet.
Sabrina does go to Paris and cooking school, but is still glum – her instructor (Marcel Hillaire) doesn’t like her, and she’s still hung up on David (she writes the other Larrabee servants that she’s torn up David’s picture, and then asks for scotch tape so she can tape it back together). Eventually, she does learn to enjoy herself, thanks to Baron St. Fontanel (Marcel Dalio), an elderly former chef who shows her the culture of Paris (as well as getting her to cut off her ponytail, which he says makes her look like a horse). Meanwhile, David is now engaged to Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer),daughter of a sugar magnate Linus wants to merge Larrabee plastics with (when David hears about this, he sardonically asks Linus, “Did you kiss (Mr. Tyson)?”). Sabrina does return to New York, looking and feeling more sophisticated, so much so that when David drives by the Glen Cove train station (she’s waiting for her father to pick her up), he impulsively stops to give a pretty lady a ride. Naturally, Sabrina is delighted to see him; David doesn’t recognize her, of course (once Sabrina realizes this, she refuses to tell him because “I’m having much too much fun”), so he’s flabbergasted when he realizes where she lives and does recognize her (and the other servants and her apologetic father greet her).
What David does know is he’s attracted to her, and he invites Sabrina to a party his family is having that night, even though Elizabeth will be there. Sabrina is overjoyed and accepts, but her father doesn’t like it (even though, as she tells him, she’s no longer reaching for the moon, “the moon’s reaching for me”). Oliver (Walter Hampden), David and Linus’ father, especially doesn’t like it, and he has Linus pull David away (just as David was arranging to meet Sabrina at that same tennis court) so he can lecture David about his past romantic failings, and how he’s screwing up a relationship the elder Larrabee *does* approve of. Linus, as it happens, also doesn’t approve, but he comes up with a crafty solution; while pretending to be on David’s side (and telling their father, “This is the 20th century”), he notices David has a pair of champagne glasses in his back pockets, and invites David to sit down. Sure enough, when David sits down, the glasses break, and David is laid up. While he recuperates, Linus takes care of Sabrina, taking her out on dates (including meeting her at the tennis court that night) in order to distract her and ultimately get her to go back to Paris, all while continuing to act as if he wants David and Sabrina to get back together (though he doesn’t admit that to either of them at first). What no one counts on is Sabrina and Linus (who once told David he was married to the job) end up falling in love with each other.
As I mentioned above, Sabrina was not a happy shoot. Hepburn and Holden were having an affair, and since Wilder got along with both of them (he had worked with Holden before in Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, and once called him the ideal motion-picture actor), Bogart thought the three of them were excluding him. He didn’t get along with Wilder (according to Wilder, Bogart wondered if Wilder’s three-year-old had written the script; Bogart also didn’t like Wilder’s habit of retooling the script just before shooting the next day, and exploded at Lehman about that), Hepburn (whom he disparaged by calling her, “a good actress as long as you don’t mind 20 takes”), or Holden (even though they had worked together 15 years earlier on Invisible Stripes; accounts differ as to why). However, in my opinion, none of that showed up on screen.
Wilder often received more attention, good and bad, for his writing than his direction (I myself have been guilty of this), but Sabrina does show a visual flair he didn’t always get credit for. In Conversations with Wilder, a book-length interview he did with Cameron Crowe, Wilder admitted he had a bigger budget to work with on Sabrina than he normally did, and he used that to his advantage. Wilder and Charles Lang, his cinematographer (who shot three other films for him, including Ace in the Hole and Some Like it Hot), made the Larrabee estate look magical and inviting, particularly in the opening sequence Sabrina narrates, to give the movie the feel of a fairy tale (Sabrina’s first words are even, “Once upon a time…”). And while Wilder would later treat the business world more cynically in The Apartment, Linus’ workplace looks like a studio apartment or expensive hotel suite as much as an executive’s office. Unusual for a romantic comedy, the film is also often darkly lit; think of, for example, Linus driving Sabrina home in the dark after a date, or the scene in Linus’ office after Sabrina had called him from the library telling him she couldn’t see him anymore.* In contrast to many of the romantic comedies of the time (and even earlier), this helps to illustrate the turbulence of the feelings of both Linus and Sabrina, as they realize there’s something more between them than they could have guessed. The use of music here is important too; Wilder’s films almost always make interesting use of music, and here, composer Friedrich Hollaender (who adapted other songs for the score) makes great use of “Isn’t it Romantic” (the song David has the orchestra at the party play for his tryst with Gretchen; naturally, Sabrina asks for the same song when she and David arrange to meet at the same tennis court), “La Vie en Rose” (Sabrina sings it to Linus on the way home from a date, and it’s used throughout the film), and even the old novelty song “Yes, We Have No Bananas” (when Linus takes Sabrina out on a boat, it’s in a collection of 78’s Linus had from his college days; charmingly, Sabrina thinks it’s a new song she missed when she was in Paris).
Of course, Wilder the writer shouldn’t be overlooked either. As every fan of Wilder knows, he was an acolyte of the great director Ernst Lubitsch (according to Crowe, the only sign in Wilder’s office read, “How would Lubitsch do it?”), and would often cite a saying of Lubitsch’s to illustrate what made him great (or what gave a movie “the Lubitsch touch”). Instead of telling the audience, “Two and two make four,” Lubitsch would say, “Here is two and here is two”, and let the audience add it up themselves. That applies to the way some of the gags are set up (particularly the one involving the champagne glasses, and the callback to it at the end, as well as Sabrina’s instructions to Linus when she thinks he’s going to Paris), but also to the more serious parts of the story. Unusually for a romantic comedy, Sabrina and Linus never say, “I love you” to each other, and the only time they kiss each other is at the tennis court, when he gives her a kiss from David (and when she looks at him, shocked, he uses the same line he used to justify his presence and to get her to dance with him; “It’s all in the family”). Not only that, but they never admit this out loud to anyone else; even when Sabrina is telling Linus she can’t see him anymore, she never says it’s because she’s fallen in love with him (the closest she gets is with her father, when she admits she’s cured of her crush on David, but adds, “Now I just have to get over the cure”), and neither does Linus when David (who has figured out the truth) goads Linus into punching him near the end by implying to a roomful of people (including their father and Elizabeth) Sabrina is a cheap gold-digger (David is the one who declares, “You *are* in love with her!”). And Wilder modulates the romanticism of the film with his cynical dialogue, particularly from Oliver (misunderstanding Linus when he pretends to side with David, Oliver throws Linus’ line about “this is the 20th century” back at him and declares, “I could pick a century out of a hat, blindfolded, and get a better one!”). Crucially, that balance was missing from Sydney Pollack’s 1995 remake, and while that wasn’t the only problem with the film – Pollack also removed serious elements like Sabrina’s suicide attempt and made the Paris segment too long; in addition, Julia Ormond (who’s gone on to be a fine actress) was asked to be Hepburn, which was patently unfair to her, and Harrison Ford was surprisingly colorless as Linus – it fatally damaged it.
Finally, there are the performances. Of course, Wilder wanted Cary Grant for the role of Linus, a role he would have been great for, but while Grant was friends with Wilder, he turned the role down (a recurring frustration for Wilder; Grant also turned down Love in the Afternoon, and had turned down the lead in Ninotchka, which Lubitsch directed and Wilder co-wrote), and Bogart was a last-minute replacement (which might have also contributed to Bogart’s rancor towards Wilder, though the two made up in the last days of Bogart’s life). Bogart was thought by many to be too old for the part (though, in fact, he was only five years older than Grant), but this gives him an awkwardness that makes him charming. Not only that, but he’s able to internalize his emotions well; take, for example, the scene on the boat when, after playing “Yes, We Have No Bananas”, Sabrina puts on another record and Linus asks her to take it off because it brings up painful memories. With just the look on his face, Bogart is able to sell that pain. And as much as he may have derided Wilder’s writing, Bogart delivers it well, from Linus’ business jargon to the bantering. Holden was also believed to be too old for his part, but whether it was because of his real-life feelings for Hepburn or not, he’s infectious during his scenes with Hepburn, and he slips into the role of the ladies’ man very easily (the black-and-white photography admittedly helps; part of the reason why he came across as too old in Picnic – at least for me – is the color photography didn’t protect him that way). And I know there are people who are immune to Hepburn’s charms, but I’ve never been one of them. She sells the idea of being a wallflower (or at least invisible to David), but she’s also absolutely radiant throughout, and it’s easy to see why Holden, Bogart, and the camera fall in love with her. Hepburn is also more complex than you’d think; instead of delivering the line of how she has to get over the cure with self-pity, she speaks with a wistfulness. Wilder went to that well of wistful romance combined with cynicism more than he was given credit for (very well in Love in the Afternoon, The Apartment, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti, not so well in Irma La Douce), but never with the same magic as Sabrina.
*-A personal note; the Larrabee building is at 30 Broad Street in New York City, which was later the site of what was then known as the New York Futures Exchange. When my late father became president of that company, he hadn’t seen the movie yet, and though nothing of it when he was asked by those renovating the building could take out the old-style phone booths in the lobby, one of which Sabrina uses to call Linus up to claim she can’t see him anymore. My father always counted that as one of his biggest regrets in life, and claimed if he had seen the movie, he would have kept the phone booth for himself.