Film Discussion

Sabrina (1954) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.

When one thinks of the name Sabrina, it’s usually accompanied by a subtitle involving life as a teenage witch. In 1954, however, Sabrina was synonymous with what must have been an incredibly attractive production for moviegoers.

After scoring a box office hit with Roman Holiday, not to mention an Academy Award nomination for her performance, Sabrina would be Audrey Hepburn’s next film. Once again it was a Paramount production from an A-list director accompanied with an A-list leading man, although Sabrina would throw in two for the bargain.

Directed by Billy Wilder, who had scored critical acclaim earlier in the decade with his scathing and embittered Hollywood satire Sunset Boulevard, not to mention the iconic noir double whammy of the 1940s that were Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, both of which would help establish tone, style and tropes for the film noir genre that have lasted to this day, Sabrina was a great example of how flexible Wilder could be with his work.

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This is a world away from the dark behaviour of his protagonists in Double Indemnity, or the portrayal of alcoholism in The Lost Weekend. The presence of Humphrey Bogart might lead you to believe that we might be about to enter a dark, noirish world similar to the one populated by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck and their murderous money-grabbing schemes, but this was to be a very different Bogart. Similar to when he cast MacMurray in Double Indemnity, Wilder took a famously established screen persona and subverted audiences and critic expectations.

In the middle of a sea of fantastic work, Sabrina remains famous thanks to its pairing of Hepburn with Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, the latter having worked with Wilder on Stalag 17 and Sunset Boulevard. That film centred around a relationship of sorts between an older woman and younger man, albeit in a more symbiotic way, given that she was a former movie star wanting to mount a comeback and he was a screenwriter wanting to hit the big time.

That film tore to shreds the so-called dream-making machine that was Hollywood and showed it to be more of a waking nightmare, where the vision of elegance and magic and wonder that the screen displayed was far away from the actual reality, where stardom and fame came with layers of toxicity capable of horrifying damage.

It’s strange then to think of how Sabrina is a film with a more romantic edge than those that Wilder was most famous for up to this point. He had contributed to the scripts to several romantic films upon his arrival in Hollywood from Nazi-occupied Germany, not least the Greta Garbo vehicle Ninotchka, but it was as a director he delivered brilliantly embittered and dark works. Sunset Boulevard was amongst a sea of instantly classic Wilder films of the decade, with the director also helming Some Like it Hot in 1959, and then beginning the 60s with The Apartment.

There was always a touch of grit or even threat to his comedies; the reason why Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis disguise themselves as women is that they witness a mob-related murder that was inspired by The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The Apartment, as wonderful as it is, had a dark centre that the story and characters would find their way out of for its classic final scene and line of dialogue. Seriously, has there ever been as brilliant a final line as the one Shirley MacLaine delivers at the end to Jack Lemmon in The Apartment?

The Apartment would follow seven years after Sabrina, and while it would also arguably fall into the realm of romantic comedy (we’ll be exploring it in a later instalment of Rom-Com Rewind), its themes of infidelity, imbalanced gender politics, and suicide would be a world away from the Givenchy stylings of Wilder’s collaboration with Hepburn and Bogart.

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Sabrina sits amongst the middle of a string of superb work, and it’s perhaps Hepburn’s casting in it that has helped it remain something of a popular classic. It would be remade in 1995 to enjoyable effect by Sydney Pollack with the spot-on casting of Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford, and Greg Kinnear in the lead roles, but the combination of Hepburn, Bogart and Holden is perhaps the original film’s most iconic contribution. This being Wilder, the jokes are witty and fast, but there is also just a smidge of bitterness running throughout, which is perhaps why Bogart was cast, even if for the most part this is a gentle subversion of one of Hollywood’s most famous screen personas.

The casting of Bogart raised eyebrows, not least from the actor himself who was reportedly uncomfortable throughout filming, told Wilder as much, and was allegedly not the friendliest to Hepburn. Bogart would later apologise for his attitude, especially once critics remarked how good he was in the film, and admittedly it is strange to see him in this style of a romantic film. Once again, Cary Grant was the top choice for the role of Linus Larrabee (you could always depend on romantic comedies from bygone eras of Hollywood to come up with great names), but fate would have to wait to bring together Hepburn with Grant.

Bogart had been a romantic leading man in previous films, not to mention the star of the most iconic romantic Hollywood film of them all. His style of character and screen persona was one that was a hundred miles away from the classiness and debonair style of Grant. Bogart was more famous for characters of a tougher nature. Rick Blaine in Casablanca is funny, but was portrayed with a more cynical style of funny rather than the well-spoken upper-class pomp that Grant was a master of.

Film noirs and thrillers littered Bogart’s long list of credits, from his iconic performance as Philip Marlowe in The Maltese Falcon to Howard Hawks’ adaptation of To Have and Have Not, to the noir-inflexions of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, and while one could believe Bogart capable of sweeping someone like Lauren Bacall’s character in To Have and Have Not off her feet (as he did in real life), an upper-class businessman concocting a scheme to keep Audrey Hepburn away from his brother but falling for her in the process was the sort of character that one would expect from Cary Grant or even James Stewart.

Yet, it was the more embittered, lived-in nature that Bogart brought to so many of his roles along with that drawl of a voice that perhaps would give Sabrina something of an edge. As was always the case with Hepburn, she was paired up romantically on screen with an actor who was considerably older than her, but the push and pull of their screen personas would be to the benefit of the film.

Wilder doubles down on the developing Hepburn screen persona that had been so elegantly established in Roman Holiday. Dressed in her Givenchy gowns and adorning that pixie haircut that was a holdover from Wyler’s film, she is once again the epitome of romantic elegance in a manner that has seldom been replicated.

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Admittedly there are some iffy gender politics here, and given that both the Larrabees have known Sabrina since she was a child, which the audience is reminded off frequently throughout, the film is one very much of its time. It is also, admittedly, not quite top tier Wilder or the best of Hepburn’s string of romantic comedies, and yet the one thing that could have been its biggest weakness is its biggest strength and perhaps the main reason why the film is still worth watching.

Hepburn and Bogart might have had a frosty relationship behind the scenes, but it never translates on screen in a way that proves detrimental. Their plaintive moments of getting to know each other, coupled with their eventual discovery of their feelings and Hepburn’s subtle portrayal when she discovers what Linus has been up, along with Linus’ confusion over his own feelings about what he has done compared to how he actually feels, are all brilliantly played.

Bogart might have been the quintessential tough guy of the era, but as Casablanca proved, he could play romance and be funny, and seeing him in a bow tie throughout, talking broodingly about Paris (yes, you cannot help but make the tentative correlation with Casablanca), it ends up being hard not to enjoy it even if the film isn’t quite Wilder’s best and maybe not quite as high a watermark on the romantic comedy genre as Roman Holiday was.

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