Saturday, June 21, 2014

Billy Wilder's Sabrina (1954)

Audrey Hepburn, Billy Wilder, and Humphrey
Bogart on the set of Sabrina

Today when most people think of Audrey Hepburn, they think of her as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). In fact, these days when one sees an image of Miss Hepburn more times than not it will be of her as the irrepressible Mrs. Golightly. As successful as Breakfast at Tiffany's remains and as large as it looms in Audrey Hepburn's legend, however, she had already been a major film star for many years before making the film. Audrey Hepburn had emerged as a star in Roman Holiday in 1953, but arguably it was Sabrina in 1954 that affirmed her stardom. The director and one of the writers on Sabrina was Billy Wilder, who had already established himself as a director with such classic films as Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Sunset Blvd. (1950). The film would not only prove to be an important one for Audrey Hepburn, but for Mr. Wilder as well.

Sabrina was based on the play Sabrina Fair by Samuel A. Taylor, with a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman.  It starred Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina Fairchild, the daughter of the chauffeur of  the rich Larrabee family. Since childhood she has been infatuated with the youngest of the Larabee brothers, David (William Holden). When she returns from culinary school in Paris, now all grown up, and educated and sophisticated as well, David Larrabee finally takes notice of her. This does not make older Larrabee brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) happy, as a dalliance on the part of David with Sabrina could jeopardise his impending nuptials to Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer), which in turn could jeopardise an important deal between the Larrabees and Elizabeth's rich father.

As mentioned earlier, Billy Wilder was already an established director with a good number of successes to his credit when he made Sabrina. Sabrina was not even his first romantic comedy. With Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch he was one of the writers on Ernst Lubitsch's classic Ninotchka (1939).  As a director he had already made the romantic comedies The Major and the Minor (his directorial debut) in 1942, The Emperor Waltz in 1947, and A Foreign Affair in 1948. Despite this it was arguably Sabrina that would put Billy Wilder on the map as a director of romantic comedies.

Indeed, it was with Sabrina that what we think of today as the Billy Wilder style of romantic comedy fully emerged. Witty dialogue and clever lines had been a part of Billy Wilder's films ever since his days as a screenwriter, but with Sabrina they were taken to a whole new level. In fact, some of Mr. Wilder's funniest lines appear in Sabrina. What is more, as with most Billy Wilder films, it is not only the leads who have the great lines. Some of the best lines are uttered by Marcel Dalio as Baron St. Fontanel (my favourite being "A woman happily in love, she burns the soufflé. A woman unhappily in love, she forgets to turn on the oven."). More so than his earlier romantic comedies, Sabrina is to be noted for the wit of its dialogue.

Of course, as well known as Billy Wilder was for the witty dialogue in his films, the focus of his comedies were always firmly on the often tangled interpersonal relationships of his characters. This was certainly true of his earlier romantic comedies, and it is particularly true of Sabrina. While William Holden and Humphrey Bogart play brothers, their characters could not be any more different. David Larrabee is a playboy who prefers a life of pleasure to hard work. Linus Larrabee is a workaholic who long ago forgot how to have fun, if he ever really knew how. After her studies in Paris Sabrina is both educated and sophisticated, yet still naive about many aspects of life. The often convoluted interrelationships between characters would become a hallmark of Mr. Wilder's romantic comedies of the Fifties and Sixties, from Osgood Fielding III's courtship of "Daphne" in Some Like It Hot (1959) to the triangle between C. C. Baxter, Miss Kubelik, and Sheldrake in The Apartment (1960).

Casting against type is another hallmark of Billy Wilder's films, and it was certainly one that did not originate with Sabrina. In fact, it can be seen as early as the third film of his career, Double Indemnity, in which he cast Fred MacMurray, who had played "good guys" for most his career, in a less than sympathetic role (he would cast Mr. MacMurray in an even less sympathetic role in The Apartment). In the instance of Sabrina, it is Humprey Bogart who is cast against type. Now it is true that Cary Grant was originally considered for the role of Linus Larrabee (and the role would certainly be Mr. Grant's type), but it is interesting that Mr. Bogart was Billy Wilder' second choice at all. While Humphrey Bogart had played a romantic lead before (most notably in Casablanca), he was not known for his work in romantic comedies.
Sabrina would prove to be a turning point in Billy Wilder's career. While he had directed romantic comedies before, in the Forties he was arguably best known for such dramas as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Blvd. Sabrina would be the first in a number of romantic comedies in the Fifties and Sixties that would ultimately become among Billy Wilder's best known films. Had Sabrina not been well received it seems possible that we might not have The Seven Year Itch (1955), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), or The Apartment (1960).

While Sabrina would have an impact on Billy Wilder's career, it arguably had even more of an impact on the career of Audrey Hepburn. While Roman Holiday provided Miss Hepburn with her first lead role and propelled her to stardom, it was arguably Sabrina that confirmed her status as a major star. After all, the history of film is filled with actresses who achieved stardom on the basis of one huge hit film, only to find themselves in supporting roles a few years later. This would not be the case for Audrey Hepburn following Sabrina. From Sabrina she would go on to star in such films as Funny Face (1957), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Charade (1963), and so on. After Sabrina she never ceased being a star.

Indeed, it is arguably Sabrina that established what we think of as Audrey Hepburn's image. While such words as "sophistication" and "class" come to mind when Miss Hepburn's name is mentioned, it must be pointed out that most of the characters for which she is best known were not, in fact, upper class. This is certainly the case with Sabrina, who is a chauffeur's daughter who achieves sophistication and class only after studying in Paris. If anything Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's would have an even lower class background. She was a poor girl from the hills of Texas. Arguably Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady was of yet lower status, that of a Cockney flower girl. Audrey Hepburn may have played a princess in Roman Holiday, but her best known roles tended to be that of women from middle or working classes who achieve sophistication and an education regardless.

What is more, it is in Sabrina that Audrey Hepburn first appeared in the little black dress with which she would become forever identified. Although Edith Head was credited for the costumes for Sabrina, it was Hubert de Givenchy who designed most of Audrey Hepburn's clothing for the film, including the little black dress. Mr. Givenchy would remain Audrey Hepburn's designer of choice for the rest of her life, and the little black dress would be forever linked to her. Miss Hepburn again wore a little black dress in Love in the Afternoon, Funny Face, Charade, and several other films. While the little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany's may be the best known, it was hardly the first or only one Audrey Hepburn ever wore.
Sabrina was both critically acclaimed and it received a good number of Oscar nominations (it won one--for Best Costume Design, Black-and-White). It was also a hit at the box office. To this day it remains one of the best loved films of both Billy Wilder and Audrey Hepburn's careers. It should then be little wonder that it would have a huge impact on the careers of both Billy Wilder and Audrey Hepburn. It established Billy Wilder as a director of romantic comedies of the first rank and it confirmed Audrey Hepburn's status as a star.


Citizen Screen said...

Fantastic post, Terry!! It's been far too long since I've seen SABRINA and you've whet my appetite for it. You've enriched our blogathon with this entry. Thank you!


Shannon said...

This is a great post! Sabrina has always been one of my favorite films, but now I have a whole new slant on it.

Also, I think I quote Sabrina more than any other film. It's cute...and it's brilliant!

"Scrabble! I'm in no condition to play Scrabble!"

Christy's Tales of Adventure... said...

Absolutely lovely post, just like Audrey and Sabrina. Thanks to Billy Wilder for such drive and insight, and to you for this informative stroll down such a sweet memory lane. Christy

Spiritually Cramped said...

I think Sabrina my favourite Hepburn film, and one of my favourite Wilder-directed films. I love the scene where she comes back transformed from Paris and she's pacing up and down outside the station in that couture outfit that's so at odds to the surrounds.

Irish Jayhawk said...

What a wonderful entry to our blogathon! What a splendid cast and one of Hepburn's best performances. Thanks for enriching our line-up, Terry!