SABRINA - DVD review

...a classy fairy tale, with plenty of sparkle amid the occasional fizz.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Eight years after Paramount's previous release of the 1954 Hepburn-Bogart "Sabrina" on DVD, a release noticeably devoid of extras, the studio makes up for its past omissions with a whole second disc of newly made bonus materials. Sporting a beautifully rendered picture and good mono sound, this Centennial Collection two-disc edition makes a tempting proposition for any movie fan.

I mean, 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 the aforementioned 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 one of the household staff in an incredibly wealthy family. The superrich Larrabees, who own half the world and control the rest, 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 Larrabbe 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 years old 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 men 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 in "Sabrina" 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 actually 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 that 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.

Nowhere on the packaging for the film's 2000 DVD release or this newer 2008 Centennial Collection release does it mention that Paramount restored the film in any way. However, the earlier transfer was quite good, and this newer one looks even better. I am going to assume that Paramount had a really good print to remaster, touched it up considerably, and worked on it further in 2008. The film is in black-and-white and in an Academy-standard ratio of 1.37:1, here rendered at 1.33:1. In a side-by-side comparison of the 2000 and 2008 transfers, it's apparent that the video engineers made the black-and-white contrasts in the newer edition even more intense, the blacks deeper and the whites almost glowing. As before, the image is sometimes startlingly beautiful, conveying an image that appears at times to be almost three dimensional. Maybe the engineers overcompensated and now made the picture too strongly contrasted, but the result is as good as any B&W image I've seen on standard-definition DVD.

The monaural sound, delivered in Dolby Digital, is clear and smooth and refined, free of any background noise. If you don't mind the fact that there is no surround information involved and that the dynamic range and frequency response are limited, the audio will please you. As the film is virtually all dialogue, with a light musical score, one never misses much. In other words, the sound is fine.

Disc one of this two-disc Centennial Collection edition contains the feature film and a usual complement of extras including fourteen scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and a preview of "It's a Wonderful Life" on DVD.

Disc two is where you'll find the real extras, a series of featurettes, most of them newly made. First, there's "Audrey Hepburn: Fashion Icon," seventeen minutes on Ms. Hepburn's unique style and appearance. Next, there's "Sabrina's World," eleven minutes on the real-life Long Island mansions that make up the settings for the movie. Third, there's "Supporting Sabrina," sixteen minutes on the character actors in the film. After that is "William Holden: The Paramount Years," thirty minutes profiling the actor's career in Hollywood. Fifth, there's "Audrey Hepburn: In Her Own Words," eleven minutes on the film's origins and production. After that there's "Behind the Gates: Camera," five minutes on the various pieces of camera equipment Paramount use in their filmmaking. Seventh, there's "Paramount in the '50s," nine minutes on movies the studio produced during the 1950s. And, finally, there are still galleries covering the film's production, the movie itself, the publicity for the film, and its première.

Parting Thoughts:
The Academy nominated "Sabrina" for six Oscars 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 to win an 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 as the focus of the story shifted from Sabrina to Linus. Stick with the original. If you approach it with an open mind, it will continue to delight.


Film Value