Hollywood has always specialized in the creation of illusions, and never more so than in the romantic comedy genre. America is the capital of capital, so the rags-to-riches fairy tale has always held a particular appeal to audiences in this hemisphere. The play Sabrina Fair, by Samuel A. Taylor [New York: Random House, 1954], had been a hit on Broadway the year before, with Margaret Sullavan and Joseph Cotton, Cathleen Nesbitt, John Cromwell and Russell Collins. The title comes from John Milton's masque Comus :
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glass, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loost train of thy amber-dropping hair;
Listen for dear honour's sake,
Goddess of the silver lake,
Listen and save.
Full disclosure: I have not read the play, but judging from the movie, and the knowledge that it had been a play before it was a movie, it's obvious that the story has more specifically theatrical than visual (or cinematic) applications. It's a comedy of manners, made out of language, and the few opportunities for visual interest are limited and can very easily be referred to off-stage.
The screenplay is credited to Billy Wilder, who also directed the film. Wilder was already by this point in his long career, a well-established veteran (Ninotchka, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, The Bishop's Wife, Sunset Boulevard, and he still had a good deal in the tank, as he would follow this triumph with The Seven Year Itch, The Apartment, and Some Like It Hot). His creative control and vision guaranteed that this movie would be tight, sensible and smart.
When we first meet her, Sabrina Fairchild is the non-descript skinny little chauffeur's daughter living in an apartment over the garage with her father at the Larrabee family estate on Long Island. Quietly ambitious, but somewhat wan, she dreams of romance, as she perches in the garden tree (shades of Rima in Green Mansions ?? -- but that was in the future) peeking at the guests to the posh party in the big house, imagining herself as handsome young David Larrabee's lover.
As she watches, David escorts his latest date to the indoor tennis courts with a bottle of champagne and two flutes tucked into his rear pockets. Devastated, Sabrina falls into a deep depression, and realizing that her chances of ever being the object of David's affection are nill, decides to commit suicide. Leaving a note under her father's door, she turns on all the engines in the big garage, thinking to depart via carbon monoxide poisoning. In the nick of time, Linus Jr. discovers her and prevents her suicide.
Pulled back from the brink, Sabrina is sent off to Paris to study at the Cordon Bleu cooking school, to learn a decent trade, but while there, she soaks up sophistication and style, and grows into the lovely swan she was meant to be. In one scene, she sits at her window as a street musician squeezes out a sentimental version of La Vie en Rose.
Meanwhile, David--already three times divorced, has become strategically "betrothed" to the Elizabeth Tyson (played by Martha Hyer), daughter of another company-owning family whose business interests just happen to coincide with those of the Larrabees--never bothers to come to work, and is simply frittering away his life, while brother Linus Jr. is the company man, all work and no play. Linus and his father Linus Sr.--played perfectly by Walter Hampden (a classically trained Shakespearean, who looks exactly like the little capitalist caricature from the Monopoly Community Chest cards)--
want desperately to bring off the Larrabee-Tyson "merger" which will make everyone ten times richer than they are already, even if that means a marriage of convenience. What else is David good for, after all, except to be a blood sacrifice to Mammon?
When Sabrina returns from Paris, David accidentally meets her at the train station, luggage in hand, and he is immediately struck by her vivacious beauty. Predictably, he doesn't recognize her, since she so little resembles the gawky teenaged little girl he remembers, but he knows one thing for sure: This is one lady he can't wait to seduce!
Coyly, she refuses to let him know her true identity. He's mystified! Who is this gorgeous creature, oozing savvy and urbanity?
David hardly remembers, if he even cares, that he's already officially committed to Elizabeth Tyson, and undertakes to sweep Sabrina off her feet. Sabrina's dream seems finally to be coming true, as David falls head over heels for her.
But Sabrina, feeling her new power over men, begins to perceive how hollow her adolescent fantasy about David is. Now that she has him within her grasp, the prize seems somehow unworthy of her.
In most American movies, money and sex get mixed up together. The movie begins as the classic formula of poor girl falling for wealth and glitz and sex, transforming herself from a tawdry "garage girl" into an elegant ingenue to attain her goal. We know she's deluded, because these rich folks have been corrupted by their greed, which turns them into complacent playboys or grim corporate CEO's. It's clear that even if Sabrina were to achieve her end and marry David, the arrangement wouldn't last--not just because of David's wayward infidelities, but because of Sabrina's growing maturity. She's transformed herself in Paris, but Paris has also made her more discriminating. She's become a practical girl, as well as a beautiful one. In the "upstairs downstairs" dialectic, the servants want her to marry well, and that doesn't simply mean getting the one you had a crush on as a twelve year old.
The Larrabee family's first duty is to its continued prosperity, and that sense of mission transcends every other priority, including pleasure, mental health, and even love. If the perfect marriage of convenience would have David matched up with Elizabeth Tyson, the servants' concept of a successfully made match would have Sabrina installed in the mansion. They're like two halves of a symbiotic corruption. The fairy tale version of Sabrina's love for David would be pure Hollywood, but we in the audience know too that though love (and lust) are fun, marriages built on stardust rarely work.
At this juncture, the Larrabee family hatches a plot that promises to solve all their problems: Linus will seduce Sabrina, and offer to buy her off, allowing David to fulfill his duty to marry Ms. Tyson for the greater gain. To facilitate this, David is tricked into sitting down in a study armchair, just as he's about to head out to the tennis-courts with Sabrina for his usual champagne assignation, crunching the flutes and lacerating his hind-quarters. David's convalescence--in a hammock with a hole in the bottom--takes several weeks, during which Linus has uninterrupted access to a skeptical Sabrina.
Linus goes about this charade with slapstick good humor, singing "Boola Boola Boola" while he dons his absurd little Yale rooter's cap. He's supposed to think of himself as the romantic alternative, but neither Bogart, nor the audience, much accepts the notion of him as a romantic lover. Linus takes her out in the family yacht, to the theatre, etc.
But as they go through these motions, each becomes aware of a deeper appreciation of the other's character. Beneath Linus's meticulous sense of duty, lives a suppressed romantic, and underneath Sabrina's moony trance is concealed a practical, discerning woman. The two reluctantly, cautiously, begin to hit it off. It's the princess and the toad, of course, though Hepburn is more like a bounty-hunter than a homecoming queen.
Wilder may have chosen Bogart precisely because he possessed almost no romantic attraction whatsoever. (In passing, I should note that though Bogart was a great actor, and deserves all the praise he's gotten over the years, I could never buy into the notion of him as a sexy, commanding lover. Despite his turns with his real life love, Betty Bacall, in To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Key Largo, I could never imagine him as being anything other than a hardboiled veteran of the school of hard knocks, whom women might find attractive for his crusty world-weary maturity, but never as a "lover." At 5'8" with a homely prematurely aged face, who could? Who can figure what women will like?) The part had been conceived for Cary Grant, but Grant bowed out of the role just a couple of weeks before production began. It's instructive to imagine what the movie would have been like with him, instead of Bogart, but I think the story would have lacked some peculiar edge with Grant, whose smoothness and debonair bearing would not have fit inside the business-like Linus Jr. Cary Grant's charming lightweight banter and over-the-top good looks would have worked against type, just as Bogart's cragginess seems to. Clearly, both actors were too old for this part, but Wilder may have understood how unappealing the Linus character needed to be as a foil against Holden's golden young Adonis image. The audience's consternation at seeing Sabrina rebounding into the arms of this tired old warhorse is precisely that absurd anomaly, the spring that makes a great comedy work.
At the heart of every great comedy is a fallacy or absurd anomaly, from Shakespeare right through to the present day, and Sabrina is no exception. In the film, we are asked to accept that the younger playboy son of a fabulously wealthy down east Long Island family (David Larrabee, played brilliantly by William Holden) falls in love with the chauffeur's daughter (played by Audrey Hepburn), and that she, in turn, who has always fantasized about David, eventually redirects her affection towards his stuffy older brother Linus Larrabee Jr. (played improbably by Humphrey Bogart, who is cast straight against type), whom she eventually marries instead.
Hepburn's storybook career, launched with an Oscar for Roman Holiday the year before, had placed her at the center of the Fifties fashion whirl, the ideal of the stylish gamine, a slim, boyish, wide-eyed, mischievous teasing, naughty child. Audiences were persuaded to adore her atypical miniature, hyper-thin (anorexic) profile, despite her big feet, excessively long neck, skinny gymnast's trunk. Designers loved her, the same way they did Grace Kelly. She could wear wildly bizarre outfits, huge hats, long gloves, and by the end of the Fifties everywoman wanted to be a petite gamine version of herself. Joe the Plumber might want his women zaftig, but sophistication meant rich and thin. Hepburn and Holden are said to have had an affair during the filming. (The following year she would marry Mel Ferrer.) Their on-screen compatibility becomes much more understandable, given that bit of gossip.
Bogart's slightly gruff and diffident character persona was mirrored by his reported distaste for his co-stars. He apparently thought both Holden and Hepburn lacked acting chops, though what he may have thought about the part he was being asked to play is not recounted. He has to have known how audiences would feel about his providing the love interest to an actress 25 years his junior.
In Breakfast at Tiffany's, in which Hepburn would play the star lead, Capote had originally conceived the part of Holly Golightly as a homosexual boy, but changed the sex to suit prevailing morés. In that same picture, Patricia Neal "keeps" George Peppard (Paul Varjak) as a tame gigolo. In those days, it was perfectly acceptable for an older man to keep or wed a much younger woman, while on the other hand, an older woman with a younger man . . . well, how naughty! How repulsive! How unnatural!
As I remarked in an earlier post about Nabokov's Lolita--both the book, and the movie from which it was made (starring James Mason and Peter Sellers)--women are frequently perceived as victims in the sexual gambit, even when it is perfectly clear that they are in charge of events. In Sabrina, we'd like to hope, as does her chauffeur father Thomas Fairchild (played by the suave John Williams)--
--that she can be merely "happy" in her choice of mate. But for Hollywood, love without possibility is another kind of aesthetic mediocrity. The Fifties were a time of prosperity and ambition. In the movies of the Thirties, audiences watched as the rich sipped cocktails and bantered wittily in tuxedos and full-length gowns. It was escapism and pretense. In the Fifties, people apparently still believed that Cinderella might attend the ball, and her coach not turn back into a pumpkin.
Bogart and Hepburn may seem at first improbably matched here, but given the social trends of the time, perhaps not. Smart girls in those days couldn't sensibly wish for a career, so their best hope to achieve real prosperity and security was to marry well. Since divorce and adultery and philandering were frowned on, ruthless fortune-hunters could set aside respectability, and go straight for the gold. Using sex and guile might not be completely admirable, but with their eyes on the prize, what did they care? And if, like Sabrina Fairchild, you could snag a man with enough money, you could spend the rest of your life breezing around the world on a continuous holiday. If not, you still had your poodle and your convertible and your "bungalow" in the Hamptons to keep you warm.
I love watching this movie, but I always move my head a little sideways at the end. It's not a romantic picture at all.