Sabrina, Billy Wilder’s 1954 fairy tale of a film, offers up a charming story of two rich brothers and their chauffeur’s daughter. It’s classic Hollywood romance with a cast as hefty as it is lovely; starring Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, and Audrey Hepburn, who had just experienced her breakthrough with Roman Holiday. It’s harmlessly dreamy, old-fashioned, and, due to Wilder’s command, truly classic.
I remember, for the most part, enjoying this film upon first viewing. I went into it without the expectation of analyzing and reviewing it, as one typically would when watching a movie like this. Classics, especially today, serve a very important purpose of connecting us to another world and making us feel nostalgia for something most of us have never even experienced. As the black-and-white film is adapted from a skimpy play by Samuel A. Taylor, I was expecting to be entertained but not necessarily aroused. What threw me off guard, however, were the little moments which Wilder uses to transform the piece into more than its log line might lead one to believe.
Indeed, Sabrina is a fable. It concerns an older, working-class man and his beloved daughter, for whom he’s done everything. As proud as any father should be, he sends Sabrina (Hepburn) from their home in Long Island atop the garage of a wealthy family to attend cooking school in Paris, from which, she returns a grown-up young woman, as brilliant and cosmopolitan as she is commanding and stunning. Sabrina’s father, Thomas Fairchild (John Williams) is a content man living his best life as a servant, who also happens to be a little profound. He’s a man whose simple commentary on the upper-class is supplemented with deep insight and a wit not typically found in a movie like this.
Fairchild works for the obscenely wealthy Larrabee family, headed by the fiery and fabulously funny father Oliver (Walter Hampden). When Sabrina returns from cooking school, the suave playboy of the family, David (Holden), falls for her immediately;a problematic plot point, as he is a soon-to-be married man. Lighthearted drama, fueled by David’s love for Sabrina & Sabrina’s love for love, ensues.
The true protagonist of the film, however, is not the chauffeur; nor is it his lovestruck daughter; nor is it the patriarch or even the youngest son of the Larrabee family. It is none other than David’s older brother, the straitlaced moneyman of the family, Linus (Bogart). He acts almost as a responsible parent in the film, driving each twist and turn as safely as he can. That is, until he falls in love with Sabrina himself.
Despite their charm, the leads have odd chemistry. Holden and Bogart seem hardly related. I wouldn’t even propose that they’d pass as distant cousins. And though Hepburn carries herself magnificently, it’s difficult to fall deeply for two older men, one of which is a stone-cold businessman who’s neglected to love anything but work his entire life—especially one played by Bogart.
Sabrina could’ve been bad had production been headed by anyone other than Billy Wilder. He’s truly a master, and, though the story of Sabrina Fairchild probably doesn’t deserve to be listed among his best works, it’s a fantastic film and it’s certainly a time machine to a special kind of romance in American movies.