Sabrina (United States, 1954)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In the 1940s and '50s, star power drove movies. Staples of cinema like plot, character, and photography were often of secondary importance to who topped the marquee. Well-known actors could draw large crowds to a bad movie, while obscure names could keep audiences away from a good film. Charisma and star quality were never more important in Hollywood than during this era, when the enchantment of motion pictures glowed most brightly through the stars.

Sabrina is a perfect example of the kind of film where the actors have greater importance than any other aspect of the production. Hampered by an unimaginative script (about which lead actor Humphrey Bogart allegedly had some unkind words), Sabrina nevertheless manages to be a thoroughly charming, delightfully romantic variation of the Cinderella story. Despite rumors of behind-the-scenes strife, the on-screen chemistry of the three leads works. Fresh from her Oscar-winning performance in Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn is radiant in the title role. Bogart, best known for his tough guy image, plays effectively against type as a romantic lead. And William Holden, who had recently won an Academy Award for Stalag 17, is the perfect playboy.

Based on Samuel Taylor's stage play, Sabrina Fair, Sabrina tells of the transformation of a shy, insecure girl into a sophisticated, stylish woman who wins the heart of Prince Charming. As directed by Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard), Sabrina is meant to be a modern- day fairy tale. It's about love and laughter, and delivers ample quantities of both. Wilder does as much as he can with this formula, and the result is a simple-yet-charming confection.

Sabrina's Prince Charming is actually David Larrabee (Holden), a confirmed playboy who has been married three times, and seems unable to be faithful to any one woman. Sabrina (Hepburn), the Larrabee chauffeur's daughter, is hopelessly smitten by David, but he hardly acknowledges her existence. There is another Larrabee brother, Linus (Bogart), who's only love is the family business. He has no personal life to speak of, and spends most of his waking day at the office.

In an effort to broaden his daughter's perspectives, the chauffeur, Fairchild (John Williams), sends Sabrina to Paris for two years. While there, she blossoms into a sophisticated young woman, but never lets go of her crush on David. When she returns to the Larrabee Estate on Long Island, David is stunned by her transformation, and decides to terminate his engagement to a wealthy heiress to be with Sabrina. Linus, however, who orchestrated David's impending marriage for business reasons, is determined not to see a $20 million deal go up in smoke. So, cold-bloodedly, he works to woo Sabrina away from David. Then something unforeseen happens -- Linus falls for her.

At first glance, the pairing of Bogart and Hepburn might seem an unlikely choice. And, while these two have none of the spark evident in Bogie's work with Lauren Becall (or Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca), they play well off of each other. In many ways, love, as it applies to Linus, is internalized. The main conflict here is not so much Linus confessing his feelings to Sabrina, but admitting them to himself. David is little more than the foil who inadvertently brings Sabrina and Linus together.

In 1995, director Sidney Pollock remade Sabrina, with Harrison Ford as Linus, Julia Ormand as Sabrina, and Greg Kinnear as David. Once again, the actors' personalities elevated the material. Most of the script changes were subtle: the settings were updated, the Larrabee patriarch was written out, and David's fiancee was given a semblance of personality. Other than that, however, the story followed an identical trajectory. The 1995 Sabrina was almost as delightful as the original, which says something about the timeless nature of the material.

Sabrina belongs to the category of lightweight, undemanding romantic comedies that nobody did better than Hollywood in its glory years. It's the kind of film that's perfectly-suited for the unique magic of a black-and-white print (even the remake, although in color, feels like it's in black-and-white, relying heavily on atmosphere). Sabrina is playfully seductive, and will leave almost all viewers, even those as cold as Linus, with a smile on their lips and a warm glow in their hearts.

Sabrina (United States, 1954)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1