SABRINA - DVD review

If you can accept the fantasy romance and humor, the film is more than rewarding.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

was there ever a sweeter, more enchanting, more sparkling, elfin, childlike screen presence than Audrey Hepburn? She kept audiences charmed from "Roman Holiday" in 1953 to "Robin and Marian" in 1976. There were a few stinkers, to be sure, especially the couple of things she did before rising to stardom and a few forgettable films in the late seventies and eighties like "Sidney Sheldon's Bloodlines." But who can forget the gems: "Roman Holiday," "Funny Face," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Charade," "My Fair Lady," "Two for the Road," "Wait Until Dark." Which brings us to "Sabrina," the film Paramount couldn't wait to get into theaters after the success of Ms. Hepburn's "Roman Holiday" picture. If it didn't quite live up to her previous success, it wasn't for lack of trying. It had a terrific cast, a great director, and a fine co-writer.

"Sabrina" is a Cinderella story of a poor little rich girl finding her Prince Charming among New York's upper crust, not really a believable tale except in the outermost stretches of imagination. So that's where you have to go to enjoy the film, to a reliance on fairy tales. If you can buy into the fantasy romance and humor, the film is rewarding and then some.

Screenwriters Billy Wilder, Samuel Taylor, and Ernest Lehman based their 1954 script on a stage play, "Sabrina Fair," by Taylor. Paramount got Wilder to direct it, his past and future successes including "The Lost Weekend," "Sunset Blvd.," "Stalag 17," "Witness for the Prosecution," "Some Like It Hot," and "The Apartment." Wilder couldn't help fiddling with the script and brought in Lehman ("The King and I," "North By Northwest," "West Side Story," "The Sound of Music") to help touch it up. Then the studio hired William Holden and Cary Grant to be Hepburn's leading men. What more could you ask for? Well, Grant dropped out of the project about a week before production, perhaps sensing a potential disaster, and who did Paramount get to replace him, in a piece of the goofiest casting imaginable, but Humphrey Bogart! Bogart subbing for Grant? It's probably the stickiest part of the film, too, and if you don't buy into it, you'll hate the whole thing. In a way, though, the new casting probably worked better, as we'll see.

The story deals with a young woman growing up as the chauffeur's daughter in an incredibly wealthy family. The superrich Larrabees, who own half the world and control the rest of it, hardly notice Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn), their chauffeur's daughter. Momma and Poppa Larrabee (Nella Walker and Walter Hampton) and their two sons, David (Holden) and Linus (Bogart), live in a fabulous estate on Long Island. It's the kind of place with both indoor and outdoor swimming pools and tennis courts. David, the younger son, is a philandering playboy, married three times and working on his fourth. Linus, the older brother, is a stuffy, uptight financier, a businessman with a heart of stone who thinks of nothing but making money, with no time for romance. Now, can you really see Cary Grant as that kind of guy?

Sabrina grows up living with her father (John Williams) above the Larrabee's garage. She's something of a tomboy, but she has a crush on David, whom she spies on at every opportunity. He doesn't know she's alive. Then, when she's in her late teens, her father sends her away to Paris to a cooking school, presumably for her to return as a working member of the household staff. But when she reappears several years later, she's a different woman. She has gone from plain and pretty to cultured, sophisticated, and glamorous, a trademark rags-to-riches transformation Ms. Hepburn would repeat in "Funny Face" and "My Fair Lady."

When Sabrina steps off the train, David doesn't even recognize her, and he tries to pick her up. This in spite of the fact that he's engaged to the daughter of a sugar baron in a projected marriage of convenience for the Larrabee business empire. When David learns of Sabrina's true identity, it doesn't stop him; he wants to marry her, anyway. But no, no, no, says brother Linus. David must marry Elizabeth (Martha Hyer) in order to secure a company merger and further the financial goals of Larrabee Enterprises. No dice, says David. So Linus concocts a scheme whereby he will pretend to romance Sabrina, distract her from David, and save the merger. Trouble is, he falls for her himself.

Now, here's the rub. Bogart was fifty-four at the time of the film's shooting, and Hepburn was twenty-four. Given that Bogart looked older than his years and Hepburn looked younger made the age discrepancy even worse. But audiences were accustomed to seeing older actors courting younger women on screen, and Hepburn would find herself in movie after movie where her leading man was much older than she was, from Bogart to Fred Astaire in "Funny Face," Gary Cooper in "Love in the Afternoon," Cary Grant in "Charade," and Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady."

I've heard that Bogart hated the script and maybe felt self-conscious about the thirty-year age difference between himself and his leading lady. In any case, the two actors draw attention to their age disparity in the film and play off it well enough that it isn't really the distraction it could have been. Linus implies he is in his late thirties ("If I were only ten years younger," he tells her), and, well, as I said, this is a fairy tale.

Still and all, "Sabrina" is a classy fairy tale, with plenty of sparkle amid the occasional fizz. It's Ms. Hepburn's film, but it's the offbeat casting of tough-guy Bogey as the supposedly lackluster romantic interest that carries the picture along. Now, if only we didn't have to watch him smoking himself to death.

The movie was made in black and white in an Academy-standard ratio of 1.37:1, and Paramount's 1.33:1 transfer of it to DVD is quite good. Nowhere in the packaging does it mention the film was restored in any way, so I assume Paramount just had a really good print to remaster. In any case, the black-and-white contrasts are sometimes startlingly beautiful, conveying an image that appears at times to be almost three dimensional. There is the occasional jagged diagonal line and a small degree of grain in some frames, but for a film of this vintage it is minimal.

The mono sound, delivered in Dolby Digital, is nothing more than ordinary, but it has the virtue of clarity; that and a bit of background noise.

Unfortunately, there are very few extras along with the movie. For "Special Features" one finds only an eleven-minute featurette, a photo gallery, and a mere fourteen scene selections. English and French are provided for spoken languages, with English subtitles for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
"Sabrina" was nominated for six Academy Awards in 1954: Best Actress--Audrey Hepburn; Best Director--Billy Wilder; Best Writing--Billy Wilder, Samuel Taylor, and Ernest Lehman; Best Art Direction and Set Decoration--Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler, Sam Comer, and Ray Moyer; Best Cinematography--Charles B. Lang, Jr.; and Best Costume Design--Edith Head. Ms. Head was the only one actually to win the Oscar, but the others were surely deserving. Director Sydney Pollack would remake the film in 1995 with Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford, and Greg Kinnear, but it didn't have nearly the sparkle, especially with the focus of the story shifted from Sabrina to Linus. Stick with the original; providing one views it with an open mind, it continues to delight.


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