1954 – Starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden – Directed by Billy Wilder – Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman – adapted from the play “Sabrina Fair,” written by Samuel Taylor
Sabrina is a Cinderella-like story with a smidge of class commentary thrown in, buried in layers of enchanting, rose-colored charm about living and not just existing lifelessly. It’s all about the charm of life…through the charm of Audrey Hepburn, Billy Wilder’s beautiful direction, the songs…even Humphrey Bogart manages charm in this film.
There are two important songs in this film, but the most important is the French song, “La Vie en rose,” which translates roughly as seeing life through rose colored glasses. But not only does Sabrina see the world that way, she manages to make the world conform to her rosy viewpoint.
Sabrina (Hepburn) is the daughter of a chauffeur and has evidently spent her entire life living vicariously, watching her father’s fabulously wealthy employers, the Larrabee family, live their fabulously wealthy lives. She’s also loved the youngest son, David (Holden) her whole life without ever being noticed by him. All this living through other people has so depressed her that she attempts suicide and is only saved by David’s all-work-and-no-play older brother, Linus (Bogart).
Her father sends her away to Paris, to attend a cooking school, and it is there that she meets her fairy godmother. He is an old baron (who adores cooking) and he teaches her the secret of living life; living it herself, and not through other people. When she returns to America, she has been transformed: fully alive and completely glamorous. And David falls instantly for her.
However, Linus is planning on a merger, involving his company and the company of David’s fiancé, Elizabeth. To prevent it from falling apart if David were to dump Elizabeth, he sets out to make Sabrina fall in love with him instead of David.There’s definitely a class element to this story, but not in the usual way. Classism is mostly represented by Sabrina’s father – who believes there is a “front seat and a backseat and a window in between” and David and Linus’ father, who suggests firing Sabrina’s father to get rid of her. The younger generation, however, doesn’t seem to have any class hang-ups. Even Linus only cares about his merger, not that she’s the chauffeur’s daughter.
And so, ironically, it’s not a class barrier that Sabrina runs into; it’s corporate business. Linus is wedded to his business and has to learn to live his own life, just as Sabrina did.
The other song that is important in the movie is “Isn’t it Romantic?” It is David’s song, just like “La Vie en rose” is Sabrina’s. It’s the song he plays whenever he is romancing a woman and it represents the world, David’s world, that Sabrina was living vicariously.
Of course, once she learns how to live, she no longer needs David or his world. Instead she falls in love with Linus, and he finds himself coming alive through knowing her. David really doesn’t need anything from Sabrina; he just wants her because she’s beautiful and enchanting, but Sabrina and Linus really have something to offer each other and it is to Linus that Sabrina sings her theme song “La Vie en rose” in a lovely little moment, while he’s driving her home and she turns the brim of his hat down to look less stiff.
Humphrey Bogart was pretty much a crank throughout the entire filming process. He knew that Billy Wilder had wanted Cary Grant originally and felt that Sabrina really wasn’t his kind of film. I’ve read quite a few people who agree with him; feeling that he’s too old and too much like a gangster to be effective opposite Audrey Hepburn.
It does seem like Audrey Hepburn made something of a career playing opposite men who were at least 25 years older than her (Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Rex Harrison), but I actually think it works with Bogart. In fact, because Humphrey Bogart has that persona that the audience knows (cynical, tough, unsentimental), it underlines that he’s living a tough, cynical life and really is in need of Sabrina and her liveliness. But Bogart also does an excellent job of showing that he has a warm heart, as well, which really sells it.
Note: This post was prompted by mild confusion – I don’t think I ever understood this film before. My first careless thought on viewing this film was that it was a variant on the Cinderella story, but that seemed unworthy of Billy Wilder and I had always been rather puzzled about why Sabrina tried to commit suicide. When I considered that aspect, it came together for me – a story about choosing to find life charming (the film does not deal with whether it actually is or not) and choosing to live – in an experiential and participatory way rather than just existing inside oneself, without feeling or noticing.