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DVD Review: Sabrina – The Centennial Collection (1954)

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Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Ten years before she would play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Audrey Hepburn transformed herself from the daughter of a chauffeur to a sophisticated woman as the lead in Sabrina. This DVD release is one of three new releases in the new Paramount Centennial Collection. Also part of this initial release are other 1950s classics, Sunset Boulevard and Hepuburn’s initial introduction to American audiences, Roman Holiday.

The plot of Sabrina seems very dated at first glance. Hepburn plays Sabrina Fairchild, the daughter of a chauffeur to the rich Larrabee family on Long Island. Sabrina is in love with the young, playboy David (played by William Holden). But she is ignored by him to the point that she attempts a suicide. This initial plot twist seems very melodramatic and seems extreme based on only one illustration of Sabrina being snubbed by David. Nor do we see any reason that David would be such an attractive catch.

Sabrina is accidentally rescued by David’s older brother, Linus Larrabee (played by Humphrey Bogart). Bogart is eleven years removed from his role in Casablanca and shows every bit of his 54 years in his face and demeanor. He seems too far removed from William Holden, who seems much more of a romantic choice at the age of 36. Even a slightly younger Cary Grant (the first choice to play Linus) would have seemed more plausible.

Sabrina is sent off to Paris to attend culinary school. Once again, these scenes seem a little hurried. It’s too bad because they are some of the better comedic scenes of the film. Sabrina’s transition from young girl to sophisticated woman are only quickly glanced. I would like to have witnessed more of her change in Paris and some of the characters that helped this happen.

Her return to Long Island sets the main plot into action. Sabrina’s new found sophistication is illustrated by the great Edith Head costumes that she wears. She immediately attracts the attention of David, who is already betrothed to another socialite. Linus steps in to entertain Sabrina while David recovers from an injury and tries to extricate himself from his impending nuptials. In the meantime, the worst kept secret from the viewers is that Linus is falling in love with Sabrina. He may not want to admit it but it’s unmistakable and really could’ve been acted a little better.

The film finishes with a flourish as Sabrina is headed to Paris – either alone or with one of the the Larrabee brothers. Since this is Hollywood in the 1950s, you know that it won’t be alone, but what brother will win out in the end? The one thing that keeps this film from becoming a sappy, run-of-the-mill 1950s Hollywood romance is Billy Wilder’s directing. Wilder is in the middle of an incredible run of films in this decade. He’s just come off Sunset Boulevard (starring William Holden) and the incredible Stalag 17 (also with Holden) and he’s going to follow this up with The Seven Year Itch, Witness For the Prosecution and Some Like It Hot before the ’50s end.

Wilder believes in the power of words over style. His direction is simple and very effective in a story like this. The black and white environment of Long Island and of the business world of New York are very rich in texture. But the shots are not obtrusive. The camera rarely moves and holds on characters long enough to see dialog and reaction. In a romance, this can be of utmost importance. And that’s where Hepburn completely outshines her co-stars. Holden and Bogart feel a little cast against type. This is not the Holden from Stalag 17 nor Sunset Boulevard, he seems a little one-dimensional as the playboy brother. Bogart feels way out of his league as the hard businessman with a sensitive soul. But somehow Hepburn’s combination of innocence and sophistication brings out the best in both men, in the end. Audrey Hepburn shines in a way that few actresses ever do and you can’t take your eyes off of her in any scene. Her vibrancy makes her attempted suicide seem even more out of character.

This release comes with some interesting extras but not the type I would expect for such an important film in the Paramount collection. There are no commentaries. Instead, you do get some generic documentaries about Hepburn’s Fashion, a good feature on the supporting cast, an interesting piece on the career of William Holden that should have been twice as long and a few others. Many of these feel like they could be generically placed on any film of this Centennial Collection.

Overall, the film doesn’t feel as dated as it seems. The lead female has more depth than expected. She is not going to be manipulated by the brothers. Audrey Hepburn steals the show with her energy. The older men can only hope to shine in her brilliance. Sabrina’s father instructs her, “Don’t reach for the moon.” She hits the nail on the head when she corrects him, “The moon is reaching for me.”

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