” . . . the chauffeur’s daughter who learned her stuff in Paris!”
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden
Synopsis: A playboy becomes interested in the daughter of his family’s chauffeur. But it’s his more serious brother who would be the better man for her.
Sabrina (or Sabrina Fair, as it was known in the UK) is a modern fairy tale which typified the crisis of identity the Hollywood studios were undergoing in the mid-Fifties. Affected both by the breaking up of the vertical integration — production, distribution and exhibition — which had seen the ‘Big Five’ studios dominate the industry for more than twenty years, and the erosion of its customer-base through the spreading popularity of television, the studios searched for ever more spectacular ways to hold onto its audience. Widescreen movies and 3D were two examples of the lengths to which Hollywood went in order to withstand the threat to its accustomed status. As an unforeseen consequence, smaller movies which might previously have merited only a second-tier cast suddenly had thrust upon them major stars in order to stake a claim at the box office. Sabrina’s story is slight in the extreme, a trifle which is tortuously stretched out to nearly two hours, and featuring two miscast male leads, one of whom is clearly ill at ease with his role.
Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn — Funny Face, The Unforgiven) is the daughter of John Fairchild (John Williams — Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief), who is chauffeur to the wealthy Larrabee family. The Larrabees have a whole portfolio of companies operating out of a New York skyscraper. Although there are two Larrabee brothers on the board of directors, David (William Holden — Network, Damien: Omen II) lives a playboy lifestyle, leaving the running of the empire to his older brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart — The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Enforcer). The tomboyish Sabrina has had a hopeless romantic crush on the dashing David for most of her life, but he barely sees her, and when her father sends her to college in Paris her chances of a relationship with him seem to be doomed.
However, Sabrina returns from her education a vastly changed person. She’s more confident and assertive — but no less romantically inclined — and she is so completely transformed that David doesn’t even recognise her when they run into one another at the train station. A romance quickly develops, but David is engaged to be married to Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer — The Sons of Katie Elder), the daughter of a plastics magnate with whose company Linus is hoping to merge the Larrabee empire. Realising that his younger brother’s latest peccadillo might well derail the proposed merger, Linus determines to put an end to the relationship, but realises he must do so in as diplomatic a manner as possible.
The biggest flaw with Sabrina, other than the ordinariness of its script, is the miscasting of Bogart and Holden. Both men are two old for their roles, and Holden just doesn’t look natural with the blonde locks that the studio foisted upon him for some reason. Bogart, who assumed the role of Linus after it was turned down by Cary Grant, looks distinctly uncomfortable, particularly in his romantic scenes with Hepburn, who was thirty years his junior. Bogart was a hard drinking heavy smoker who didn’t age at all well once he hit his fifties, and he was right to feel uncomfortable opposite Hepburn, who looked younger even than her age of twenty-five. It’s true that Bogie was married to a woman who was only five years older than Hepburn, but not only did Lauren Bacall look older than her age, she was also a good fit for Bogart. In Sabrina he looks too much like he’s hitting on the naive daughter (or granddaughter, even) of a friend. He’s also saddled with a part that sees him playing against type — Bogie was never the sort to play buttoned-down high-powered businessman — and he was apparently unhappy at being second choice to Grant, which resulted in him being difficult on set. All of this seeps through into the finished product, particularly in the lack of chemistry between him and Hepburn.
Perhaps the brightest spot in Sabrina is the part played by John Williams as the Larrabee’s chauffeur. Williams is one of those overlooked character actors who brightened any picture he was in. He was more often than not cast as a police detective, but he brings a welcome naturalness here to the part of a concerned father who finds his love for his daughter coming into conflict with his devotion to his long-term employers. If it wasn’t for Williams, Sabrina would be an even more difficult watch than it already is.
(Reviewed 25th July 2014)