I’ve got a confession to make.
Relative to how long I’ve loved Classic Hollywood, it took quite some time for me to become an Audrey Hepburn fan. But once Audrey’s magic hit me upside the head junior year of high school, I became a full-fledged fan. Audrey has ranked among my favorite stars ever since.
And Sabrina (1954) ranks among my favorite Audrey films.
My Summer Star of the Week: Audrey Hepburn
There are quite a few quintessential Audrey Hepburn films, and Sabrina is definitely one of them. Only Audrey’s second film in Hollywood, Sabrina sealed her fate as a megastar. In Sabrina, we see the traits and qualities that became so integral to Audrey’s appeal and popularity, both on and off screen: innocence, vulnerability, kindness, gamine-ness, and, not to be forgotten, her status as a fashion plate.
Let’s get to the plot.
Sabrina is set amidst the affluence and glamour of the Larrabees, a very wealthy (fictional) family on the US east coast. The Larrabees’ loyal chauffeur, Thomas Fairchild, is extremely conscientious and observant of the class distinctions in the hoity-toity society circles the Larrabees run in. As such, when Fairchild’s pretty young daughter, Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn), can’t get over her girlhood crush on David Larrabee (William Holden), the younger—and rather caddish—of the two Larrabee brothers, Fairchild sends her off to cooking school in Paris. Fairchild hopes the beauty of Paris and learning a new skill set will wash David out of Sabrina’s mind.
Reaching for the Moon
“Don’t reach for the moon, child.”
Fairchild tells his daughter, suggesting that David is too far above Sabrina in social position to chase after.
Sabrina witnesses David romance another girl at the annual Larrabee yacht party the night before she sails to Paris. It breaks Sabrina’s heart so much to see David with someone else for the one hundredth time over the years that she leaves an unintentionally comical suicide note for her father, and then tries to kill herself by turning on all the cars in the Larrabee garage and locking herself in.
But older Larrabee brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) discovers Sabrina’s plan, and gallantly saves her.
Sabrina goes off to Paris a young girl. But when she returns to the US a few years later, Sabrina is a beautiful, sophisticated woman. David Larrabee notices, and now thinks Sabrina is the most beautiful girl ever. David actually doesn’t even recognize Sabrina when he first sees her.
But he totally flips, and can’t believe he never noticed Sabrina before.
As Sabrina excitedly tells her father, now,
“The moon is reaching for me!”
And wouldn’t you know it, the night of Sabrina’s return, the Larrabees have another big party, and David invites her to come. Never mind that he’s already going to the party with his fiancée, Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer). And that the marriage between David and Elizabeth will secure a huge business partnership between the Larrabees and the Tysons. David couldn’t care less if his romancing of Sabrina, in front of Elizabeth and her family, puts the Larrabee business venture in jeopardy.
Sabrina Gets Her Chance with David
After all the years of watching David romance other girls at the Larrabee parties, Sabrina can’t believe it’s now her turn. Her longtime dream has come true. Sabrina wears a stunning white organdy gown with, as she puts it,
“yards of skirt and way off the shoulders,”
to the party. David goes so obviously nuts over Sabrina that Linus, definitely the more business-oriented of the two brothers, concocts a plan to get Sabrina out of David’s life.
Here’s his plan:
Linus' Foolproof Plan
- Linus will keep David away from Sabrina by injuring him. This will be easy to do, as David already has champagne glasses in the back pockets of his pants, with which he intends to romance Sabrina privately at the indoor tennis court.
Linus will simply encourage David to sit down, detaining him from his tryst with Sabrina due to the glass shards that will end up in his rear.
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2. That accomplished, Linus will meet Sabrina in David’s place for the private champagne party. Linus will then proceed to romance Sabrina while his brother’s behind heals.
3. Naturally, Sabrina will then fall for Linus and forget about David, David will marry Elizabeth, and the merger with the Tysons will move forward.
4. Linus will get Sabrina on a ship back to Paris so that she’s not around to potentially beguile David again.
Fool proof plan, isn’t it?
Not So Fool Proof...!
Only something happens while Linus woos Sabrina that he didn’t plan on: not only does Sabrina fall for Linus, Linus falls for Sabrina.
Feeling terrible for manipulating Sabrina, and for double crossing his brother by stealing his girl, Linus ultimately buys not one, but two tickets to Paris, intending for Sabrina and David to sail off to France together. Linus decides they deserve to be happy. He’ll stay behind and clean up the merger mess that will undoubtedly result from David jilting Elizabeth.
Who Will Sabrina Choose?
But Sabrina now has feelings for Linus, so would going to Paris with David really make her happy?
Does Sabrina sail to Paris? And which brother does she choose in the end? Watch Sabrina to find out.
The Casting of Sabrina
Director Billy Wilder had Cary Grant in mind for the role of Linus Larrabee, but Grant turned it down. Watching Sabrina with this knowledge, it’s easy to see how the role of Linus has “Cary Grant” written all over it, even after all the script revisions to tone down the Grant-ness of all Linus’ dialogue.
Humphrey Bogart was definitely not Wilder’s first choice for the part, and Bogart felt this acutely on set. As such, he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder throughout filming. Bogie’s self-consciousness at being second choice was amplified by the fact that William Holden and Audrey were first choices for their respective roles. Furthermore, Bogie, usually the star of film noirs and dramas, felt like a fish out of water in a romantic comedy like Sabrina.
But Bogart needn’t have feared about his romantic comedy abilities: he turns in a comically crusty and nuanced performance in Sabrina. It’s hard not to imagine what Cary Grant could have done with the role, but Bogie does a fine job.
The Uniqueness of Audrey Hepburn
Director Billy Wilder wanted Audrey Hepburn for the role of Sabrina from the get go. Indeed, some sources say it was Wilder who encouraged Paramount to buy the Sabrina screenplay specifically as a vehicle for Audrey. This was a huge compliment to Audrey, as Wilder was one of the industry’s most respected directors, and Audrey’s only other Hollywood film at this point in her career was Roman Holiday (1953).
Billy Wilder absolutely adored Audrey Hepburn. Wilder was one of the first directors to notice Audrey’s unique appeal and screen presence, and he knew how to present her uncommon gifts to full advantage, which he does in Sabrina.
Throughout his life, Billy Wilder had nothing but glowing things to say about Audrey, who became a good friend of both Wilder and his wife. As Billy famously said of Audrey around the time of Sabrina’s release:
“This girl, single-handed, may make bosoms a thing of the past.”
Edith Head was one of the top costume designers in the business. As the genius behind Grace Kelly’s gorgeous wardrobe in To Catch a Thief (1955) and Rear Window (1954), as well as Audrey’s trend-setting attire in Roman Holiday (1953), Head’s portfolio was impressive. It was a no-brainer that Edith would design Audrey’s costumes for Sabrina.
But Billy Wilder had other ideas.
He was great with Edith designing Audrey’s pre-Parisian transformation outfits in the film. But after Sabrina’s return from Paris, Wilder wanted Hepburn’s wardrobe designed by a European designer, and he encouraged Audrey to choose and court one of her favorites.
Audrey's Choice for Sabrina
Audrey’s first choice was Balenciaga, but the fashion house would not meet with her: Audrey was still a newbie, not yet really a name to be reckoned with in Hollywood or the fashion world. What an opportunity Balenciaga missed out on.
So Audrey courted a newer designer on the fashion scene, Balenciaga’s protégé, Hubert de Givenchy.
When Audrey went to meet with Givenchy to discuss designs, he was initially disappointed to see her: Givenchy had expected to see a different Miss Hepburn when he made the appointment, Katharine Hepburn. As Givenchy recounted,
“One day, someone told me that ‘Miss Hepburn’ was coming to Paris to select some clothes [for Sabrina]. At that time, I had never heard of Audrey Hepburn. I only knew of Katharine Hepburn. Of course, I was very happy to receive Katharine Hepburn.”
The Hepburn/Givenchy Partnership Begins
Confusion aside, it didn’t take long for Givenchy to realize what a gem this Audrey Hepburn was. Audrey and Givenchy became fast friends, and he gave her choice over his designs from his current collection to take back to Hollywood for Sabrina.
Despite his significant contributions to Audrey’s wardrobe in Sabrina, Givenchy was not mentioned in the film credits as costume designer, so when Sabrina won the Oscar for Best Costumes, the award went solely to Edith Head. Audrey quickly called Givenchy to apologize (as if it was her fault!) that he had not received any accolades for his tremendous work on Sabrina: everyone knew that it was Audrey’s wardrobe in the film that won the Oscar, and everyone further knew that Head was only responsible for a fraction of what Audrey wore. The designs that won the Oscar were Givenchy’s.
Audrey’s gesture meant the world to Givenchy, and it deepened their friendship, a friendship that ended up being life-long. Givenchy designed much of Audrey’s wardrobe on and off screen for the rest of her life. And of course, once Audrey became a superstar, whatever Audrey wore, the rest of the women in the world wanted to wear too. For Givenchy, Audrey Hepburn was good for business.
(So much so that Audrey’s first husband, Mel Ferrer, seethed that Audrey never received a cut of the profits she brought Givenchy through wearing his designs and perfume.)
Sabrina: Isn't it Romantic?
One of the songs played at key times throughout Sabrina is Rodgers’ and Hart’s “Isn’t it Romantic?”. Paramount Pictures bought the song for 1932’s Maurice Chevalier vehicle, Love Me Tonight. And Paramount planned to get their money’s worth out it: you’ll hear “Isn’t it Romantic?” frequently in Paramount films of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50s. Besides Sabrina, the song plays prominently in such classics as The Lady Eve (1941), The Major and the Minor (1942), and Houseboat (1958).