Bogie and Holden are the mega-rich Larrabee brothers of Long Island. Bogie's all work, Holden's all playboy. But when Sabrina (Hepburn), daughter of the family's chauffeur, returns from Paris all grown up and glamorous, the stage is set for some family fireworks as the brothers fall under the spell of Sabrina's delightful charms.
'Roman Holiday' put Audrey Hepburn on the cinematic map and won her a Best Actress Academy Award, but 'Sabrina' cemented her reputation and defined her distinctive look. Though this frothy Cinderella tale is little more than a sweet romantic trifle that possesses far more style than substance, Hepburn makes an indelible impression, lighting up the screen with an intoxicating combination of vitality and melancholy that's alternately charming and seductive. With her almond eyes, jet black hair, swan-like neck, and waifish figure, Hepburn casts a glamorous spell, but her sophisticated yet down-to-earth personality enhances the effect (as does her Edith Head and Givenchy wardrobe), resulting in a rarely rivaled vision of elegance. Other actresses certainly could have played Sabrina competently enough, but Hepburn's performance bolsters our affection for the character and carries this otherwise undistinguished and somewhat frustrating film.
And that's surprising, considering her co-stars are Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, and her director is the esteemed Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ernest Lehman ('North by Northwest') and, to a lesser extent, Samuel A. Taylor, upon whose hit Broadway play the movie is based. (Taylor reportedly walked off the project when Wilder insisted on a battery of changes to his original work.) Wilder was a comic genius (his screenplays for 'Midnight,' 'Ninotchka,' 'Ball of Fire,' and 'The Major and the Minor' rank among Hollywood's most hilarious), but even his enviable talents can't jumpstart the trite and predictable story that strangely lacks Wilder's trademark bite. Plenty of clever nuances distinguish 'Sabrina' - and subpar Wilder certainly outclasses the best work of many other directors - but the stunning image of Hepburn is the film's only aspect that achieves any lasting impact.
'Sabrina' promises more than it delivers, thanks to an absorbing prologue that sets up the crux of the plot. Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn), the awkward, gangly daughter of the devoted Larrabee family chaffeur (John Williams), incessantly dreams of the fairy tale life that seems to exist inside the hallowed walls of the Long Island mansion where the obscenely rich brood dwells. Despite the admonitions of her dad ("Don't reach for the moon, child," he cautions her), the young Sabrina secretly and unrequitedly pines for the dashing and irresponsible David (Holden), a serial playboy whose lack of ambition, countless trysts, and affection for alcohol make him a dangerous crush. David's older brother, Linus (Bogart), is his antithesis: hard-working, humorless, stalwart, and dull. In the hope of breaking her detrimental infatuation with David and anchoring her in reality, Sabrina's father sends her away to cooking school in Paris. Transformed by the City of Light into a gracious swan with an elite sense of sophistication and style, Sabrina returns home almost unrecognizable, especially to David, who quickly becomes smitten, despite his impending nuptials with a less enchanting socialite (Martha Hyer). Sabrina is thrilled by David's attention (much to her father's chagrin, she never got over him), but Linus is not, as a broken engagement would also break a lucrative business deal the Larrabee company is brokering. To preserve the alliances, Linus decides he too will woo Sabrina and hopefully convince her to return to Paris. But in so doing, he also becomes transformed and Sabrina becomes confused as to which Larrabee brother is the right prince for her.
Cinderella tales would become a Hepburn staple throughout her career; over the next decade, she would evolve from a plain-Jane bookseller into a haute couture model in 'Funny Face,' and morph from a flower-peddling guttersnipe into a well-mannered woman of quality in 'My Fair Lady.' (And in the previous year's 'Roman Holiday,' she did the Cinderella act in reverse, playing a bored princess who goes incognito as a commoner to see how normal people live.) It's a comfortable role for Hepburn, and she plays it to perfection, but the bubbly champagne material often goes flat, and that's largely due to Bogart's dour performance. A last-minute replacement for Cary Grant (who would have been far better in the part, and a much more believable brother for Holden and suitor for Hepburn), Bogart sleepwalks through the film, looking overly sad, disinterested, and grouchy. He reportedly didn't think much of Hepburn as an actress (he lobbied for his wife, Lauren Bacall, to play Sabrina, but that idea was - thankfully - vetoed by Wilder), which might explain their complete lack of chemistry and his shocking indifference to her during their love scenes. He's also 30 years Hepburn's senior and almost 20 years older than Holden (whom he apparently loathed) - and he looks it - making him a definite fish out of water in this youthful romp, and making the audience unashamedly root for David to win Sabrina's favor, despite his obvious faults. (Though Fred Astaire was the exact same age as Bogart, somehow his romance with Hepburn in 'Funny Face' is far more palatable.) Watching Bogart here, it's almost impossible to imagine him in 'Casablanca' or any other film in which he played a romantic figure.
'Sabrina' is also notable as it marks the first time Hepburn was dressed by the man who would quickly become her exclusive designer for the rest of her career, Hubert de Givenchy. A Parisian apprentice at the time, Givenchy was unfamiliar with Audrey (when told a Hepburn from Hollywood was coming to consult with him about her wardrobe, he expected Katharine!), but their instant rapport spawned not just an iconic look for one actress, but a timeless fashion line that continues to be copied to this day. Hepburn's appearance at the train station after her transformation in a smart, tailored Givenchy suit with matching hat - not to mention her black-and-white evening dress at the Larrabee ball - not only bewitches Holden, but also the audience, sparking a love affair that will never wane.
Wilder does his best with the material, which is hardly revolutionary, and this cheerful romantic comedy often sports his trademark sparkling touch. Elegance abounds, even if wit comes at a premium. Sixty years later, the story doesn't seem particularly dated, but it's rather bland, and even the potent star power on display - and a top-flight supporting cast - can't spice it up. Still, 'Sabrina' is worth seeing for Hepburn alone, whose youthful energy, dazzling appearance, and all-around magnetism almost make this cinematic glass slipper fit.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 1954 version of 'Sabrina' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
'Sabrina' sports a pleasing, natural-looking black-and-white transfer that's distinguished by flashes of brilliance, but remains solid overall. Grain is definitely noticeable and provides a warm, film-like feel, though the intensity level occasionally flucuates. Not a speck, mark, or scratch could be detected on the pristine source material, which is distinguished by excellent gray scale variance, and superior contrast and clarity. Though textures aren't as pronounced here as they are in some black-and-white movies, details are quite evident, both in the foreground and background, and complex patterns remain stable and resist shimmering. You won't find that lush sheen that's a priome component of the best transfers, but blacks are rich and inky, and whites are bold and bright. Nocturnal scenes abound, yet crush is rarely an issue, thanks to fine shadow delineation and well-defined lines that show no evidence of artificial enhancement.
While this very good effort from Warner won't knock your socks off or rank up there with some of the studio's best classic releases, it represents this 60-year-old classic quite well, and beautifully captures the unique magnetism and dazzling allure of its iconic leading lady.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track delivers good quality sound that's devoid of any age-related defects, such as hiss, pops, and crackles. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease, and no distortion ever creeps into the mix. Fine tonal depth allows the full-bodied orchestrations (which include endless reprises of 'Isn't It Romantic') to fill the room with ease, and dialogue is always clear and comprehendible. Accents, such as shattering glass and the hum of car engines, come through cleanly, and all the elements are well modulated, creating a seamless soundscape that belies its advanced age. Cleanliness is next to godliness where classic soundtracks are concerned, and this one passes muster with flying colors.
Many of the supplements from the 2008 DVD have been ported over to this release, and it's a fine selection of material that enhances the 'Sabrina' experience.
Featurette: "The Making of 'Sabrina'" (SD, 12 minutes) - This shallow, superficial featurette merely skirts the surface of 'Sabrina,' touching on the film's cast (we learn Cary Grant was originally slated to play Linus, not Bogart), screenplay rewrites, and the recollections of Paramount producer A.C. Lyles. Film clips and production stills abound, but they can't mask the lack of substance.
Featurette: "Audrey Hepburn: Fashion Icon" (HD, 18 minutes) - The first half of this featurette is the most interesting, as it focuses on Hepburn's unconventional figure, her wardrobe in various films, the origins of her relationship with designer Hubert de Givenchy, and how her elfin, tomboy-like appearance changed perceptions about style and attractiveness. The second half, however, drags a bit, as it concentrates on the fashions of today, looking at clothes designed by Eduardo Lucero and Trina Turk, and examining how Hepburn's influence continues to drive the industry.
Documentary: "William Holden: The Paramount Years" (HD, 30 minutes) - Slick, informative, and nicely balanced best describes this reverential salute to one of Hollywood's most popular leading men. The documentary covers Holden's entire career and the noteworthy films that comprised it, and also briefly addresses his friendship with Wilder, romance with Hepburn, wildlife conservation work, alcoholism, and tragic death. Fond recollections from co-stars Gil Stratton, Pat Crowley, and long-time girlfriend Stefanie Powers, as well as comments from film journalists, enhance this interesting, clip-filled celebration.
Featurette: "Sabrina's World" (HD, 11 minutes) - This piece examines the Gold Coast of Long Island and the town of Glen Cove, where some of 'Sabrina' was shot, and looks at the lavish lifestyles, massive mansions, and historical significance of this one-time playground for rich Manhattanites.
Featurette: "Supporting Sabrina" (HD, 17 minutes) - Many of the supporting players who grace the 'Sabrina' cast are saluted in this breezy, informative featurette that encapsulates the careers of such notable actors as John Williams, Ellen Corby, Nancy Culp, Marcel Dalio, Walter Hampden, Francis X. Bushman, and Martha Hyer, and includes plenty of film clips and stills from their performances in other movies.
Featurette: "Behind the Gates: Camera" (HD, 5 minutes) - This promotional featurette examines the different types of cameras used in Paramount films over the years, as well as the development and renaissance of VistaVision. What all this has to do with 'Sabrina' is anybody's guess.
Six decades after its initial release, 'Sabrina' remains an intoxicating fairy tale confection, made all the sweeter by Audrey Hepburn's youth, effervescence, and breathtaking beauty. Though the featherweight story is as wispy as its leading lady (and the ending may leave you scratching your head), there's a je ne sais quoi about 'Sabrina' that somehow allows this sweet romantic comedy to endure, despite a badly miscast Humphrey Bogart. Warner's Blu-ray presentation features solid video and audio transfers, as well as a host of interesting supplements, all of which make this lovely to look at love story a must for Audrey fans. Recommended.