Paramount // 1954 // 112 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // April 23rd, 2001
...the chauffeur's daughter who learned her stuff in Paris!
As part of the Paramount Audrey Hepburn collection, the original classic Sabrina is now available once more for a new generation of romantic comedy enthusiasts. This is one of the best romantic comedies of all time, one in which not only our heartstrings are tugged but our minds can learn even today about the class differences between rich and poor. A fine remake was done in 1995 with Harrison Ford, but it still couldn't compete with the original cast and brilliant direction of Billy Wilder. With Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden in the leading roles it is hard to think of a better team. Though light on extra content, this disc should satisfy fans of the film as well as those who need to give this classic a first look.
Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn) is the daughter of the chauffeur for the Larrabee family, and has been raised in the shadow of opulence and grandeur watching the two Larrabee brothers grow up: the older Linus (Bogart), whose keen sense of business has kept him constantly expanding the far-flung industrial empire, and the younger David (Holden), a playboy that seems to find and discard women, including three wives, as easily as he downs a glass of champagne. Sabrina has secretly pined away for David her whole life, hoping only for the day he'll notice her. Before that time could come, her father sends her to Paris to a gourmet cooking school, hoping she will follow in her mother's footsteps. But when she returns two years later, she has blossomed into a sophisticated and beautiful woman who gains David's eye without a moment of trouble. No trouble, that is, except for the fact he's already engaged to a woman whose family will cement a multi-million dollar merger with the Larrabees. This gets Linus involved, as he tries to stave off the budding romance before it can ruin the business deal. But the beautiful girl also charms the focused and driven Linus, and we have a triangle of epic proportions building.
This was Audrey Hepburn's second American film; coming off her Best Actress Oscar winning debut in Roman Holiday she was a hot commodity. After Cary Grant dropped out just a week before shooting, Bogart stepped into the role. The film was nominated for 6 Oscars, including another Best Actress for Hepburn, but only won for the glorious costumes of Edith Head. Wilder co-wrote the Oscar nominated screenplay with Earnest Lehman, who would go on to write such films as North By Northwest, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music. It is rare to get such a collaboration of talent, and even rarer to see it succeed so admirably.
I'd seen the remake of Sabrina back when it was first released, and enjoyed it very much. Until now I'd never had the opportunity to see the original. Certainly Julia Ormond, Greg Kinnear, and Harrison Ford each acquitted themselves well, but they had some monumentally large shoes to fill.
Audrey Hepburn is luminous, waif-like, but with nobility that itself transcended her character's station. Her performance was strong, believable, and easily made me root for her the entire picture. But this is almost as much Bogart's film, and he was wonderful playing against type as a businessman instead of the rough and ready tough guys he was known for. William Holden gets to cut it up and play over the top for comic relief, and looked like he had immense fun in doing so.
While Bogart's character is able to partially play out this point of class division, much of this task is left to the supporting cast, who were absolutely authentic. John Williams plays Sabrina's father, the steady English chauffeur whose comments on class distinctions are the most profound and witty in the film. From the other side of the wealth divide is Walter Hampden as the father of the Long Island Larrabees, who is blueblood through and through. Ironically both are unwitting allies as they believe there is a divide between rich and poor that should not be crossed. As the elder Fairchild tells his daughter: "There is a front seat and a back seat, with a window in between."
The film simply sparkles with the chemistry between all the characters. Well written, brilliantly directed, and powerful performances each contribute to a whole that transcends the years, and is one of the best films of its genre ever to be released.
Now that it is released once again on DVD, let me say how surprised and happy I am about how good the picture looks, especially given the age of the film. There is very little in the way of nicks, scratches, or other film defects; the effort to clean up this 47-year-old classic was extremely well done. There is little grain to otherwise offset the image quality, and blacks are deep and contrast levels are steady. If there is any defect, it would be in the shadow detail, which is somewhat murky. Still, it is much better than I anticipated, and I have high praise for the transfer. The sound is the original mono, but was very clear without hiss or distortion. The fidelity and presence is limited both by the age and the mono nature of the track, but it fulfills all that is required of it. Extra content consists of an 11-minute featurette, which is much better than the typical promotional fare, and a selection of behind the scenes photos. I was a bit disappointed there was no trailer, but I'm happy with what was there.
I have very little to complain about, but if I had to pick at one aspect of the film it would be in the second act, which is a bit underdeveloped. Sabrina goes off to Paris where we see a comic scene in the cooking school, which may have been funnier in 1954 than now. One other scene shows Sabrina meeting an elderly Baron, who apparently is responsible for how sophisticated she became during her time abroad, but we are left to guess at this. I'd have liked to lose the cooking scene and get a little more perspective on what she else she learned in Paris. This is an extremely small complaint, but I get to put something in this category.
If you have a romantic bone in your body, you should see this film at least once. If you are a fan of Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, or William Holden you should see this film as well. Those of you who have seen the film can rest easy that you will get an excellent looking picture with this DVD, and I give it my recommendation for purchase.
I find that there is no basis for charges to be brought, and release this film to please another generation of romantic comedy fans.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery