DVD Review: Sabrina (1954) -- The Paramount Centennial Collection

Available in a Deluxe Collectible 2-Disc Set
From the Paramount Centennial Collection

Own It:

On Audrey Hepburn:

"That's the element X that people have, or don't have. You can meet somebody and you can be enchanted, and then you photograph them and it's nothing. But she had it. And there will not be another. She exists forever, in her time. You cannot duplicate her, or take her out of her era. ... She started something new, she started something classy. But no actress should be expected to be Audrey Hepburn. That dress by Mr. Givenchy has already been filled."

--Billy Wilder
As quoted from Cameron Crowe's book
Conversations With Wilder
(pg. 52)

In the third release from Paramount's gorgeously packaged 2-Disc DVD Centennial Collection offerings, serving up some of their most acclaimed and best loved films-- following Sunset Boulevard (#1) and Roman Holiday (#2), we encounter Audrey Hepburn in her second American film. The quintessential Hepburn film-- a Cinderella story or Ugly Duckling Story (although nobody could ever use those words to describe Ms. Hepburn)-- master writer/director Billy Wilder adapted Samuel Taylor's play Sabrina Fair along with Ernest Lehman and managed to give it his unique brand of sharp wit, edge, and Ernst Lubitsch inspired charm.

While being a product of my generation, my first introduction to Sabrina was by way of Sydney Pollack's gorgeously photographed color remake, updated for the '90s with the lovely Julia Ormond (whom Wilder told Crowe he disliked), Harrison Ford, and Greg Kinnear. However, as someone who cherishes Hepburn, especially after I read numerous biographies and realized the grace behind the beauty, I was curious to seek out the original. And although it's not my favorite Hepburn film, perhaps due to its wickedly dark set-up which finds the young chauffeur's daughter, Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn) so in love with the playboy bachelor David Larrabee (William Holden) that she attempts suicide as well as what Crowe described as the incessantly "sour disposition of Humphrey Bogart," it's a sophisticated romantic comedy that I've grown fonder of over time.

Framing it as a modern fairy tale, the young chauffeur's daughter leaves her father and residence living above the garage on the gorgeous and sprawling Larrabee's North Shore Long Island estate for cooking lessons in Paris, where she falls under the kindly tutelage of a baron who remakes her into Audrey 2.0, the Givenchy attired version complete with another updated, chic haircut (similar to Roman Holiday), and much more confidence. Yet, upon her return, complete with a dog she's named David (which was thankfully left out of the remake), she's spotted by none other than the dashing young object of her affection who-- having barely noticed her throughout their mutual childhood spent around one another-- predictably, cannot recognize this perfectly coiffed version standing at the train station two years later.

Although he's engaged to the wealthy and beautiful Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer) in a match that has found his older brother Linus (Bogart) gleefully solidifying with a multimillion dollar business merger, the impulsive David seems ready to throw it all away for Sabrina until Linus takes over and tries to seduce her into-- if not attraction-- than confusion and enough distraction that she'd begin to have doubts. Needless to say, his plan works a little too well as Linus and Sabrina realize that there may be more than just a tiny spark between them, leading to a witty, rushed, and characteristically breakneck conclusion by Wilder as he brings the love triangle to the front burner leading to some terrific scenes by our leads.

However, the film stumbles considerably due to what can no doubt have been Bogart's attempts to sabotage his first Paramount role. Loathing the film, Wilder, Holden, and Hepburn's relative inexperience and need for multiple takes especially given the fact that he knew he was a last minute replacement for Wilder's first choice and the ideal Linus (Cary Grant), although he was the highest paid actor of the three, his disdain shines through. Of course, the trouble rested not just on Bogart, whom it was later discovered was battling a wickedly intense cancer privately as after the film and via Lauren Bacall, he and Wilder mended fences (Crowe, pg. 11) but also the film's script which was constantly changing and at times, the crew would arrive to find there were zero pages to shoot. Always loyal to her director, Hepburn was willing to flub a line or two to buy time as Wilder told Crowe, he remarked that the film "was a difficult time for me... [and the] picture was still being... shaped as we went."

However, there were other legendary battles of egos both onscreen and off, which resulted in some terrific back-stories involving a professional snub of the Oscar winning costume designer Edith Head who created all of Audrey's pre-Paris wardrobe (including that wonderful and perfect character defining dress in her introduction longingly staring at David from a tree) yet forbid Hubert de Givenchy from receiving a much-deserved credit for his work on all of her post-Paris looks. Additionally, the film's plot was echoed in reality as the married Holden began an off-screen affair with Hepburn. Despite the rough edges, however, Sabrina is still a sumptuous work of unparalleled beauty.

Additionally nominated for four other Oscars including one for Wilder's direction, Hepburn's performance (although she'd won previously in Roman Holiday), the extraordinary art direction and Charles Lang Jr.'s cinematography, which make Sabrina one of the best looking films of Hepburn's in the '50s and the one that still holds up remarkably well in this DVD presentation. Yet, aside from the film's flaws in regards to the lack of chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn, it's Audrey who captures our heart from the first moment we see her onscreen and even more so when she returns evolved into something in the same realm as exotic royalty, managing to liven up couture and make it seem irresistible and as natural as a second skin for the actress.

As Crowe noted, "...the picture is... a high-water mark of modern style. An issue of Vogue still rarely goes by without a referencing photo of Sabrina and rightfully so. It is also the definitive display of its beguiling strengths," (pg. 343). And indeed, the film's groundbreaking introduction of fashion into film which would catapult its iconic young star into one of today's most recognizable and still best-loved actresses, is celebrated in a wonderful roughly eighteen minute extra on the DVD's second disc. In "Audrey Hepburn: Fashion Icon," the mini-featurette incorporates the expert evaluations of top designers, historians, and professors including such well-known and respected professionals as Isaac Mizrahi, Cynthia Rowley, and Eduardo Lucero who still cite their endless inspiration from Hepburn's long-time collaboration with Givenchy and the way she changed the rule of the traditional '50s "curvaceous" body shape.

Also featuring six additional featurettes including a great thirty minute biographical look at "William Holden: The Paramount Years," which is a profile of the young gymnast turned soldier turned Hollywood Golden Boy who earned an Oscar nomination with his first Wilder collaboration in Sunset Boulevard. Likewise, there's also a great love-letter to the North Shore of Long Island architecture, history, and location in "Sabrina's World," the many character actors who worked "Supporting Sabrina," a film documentary, as well as a "Behind the Gates" special focusing on the camera department at Paramount ,and a short "Paramount in the '50s-- Retrospective Featurette," which showcased the studio which earned nearly two hundred Oscar nominations and thirty wins in major categories during the decade.

Including a beautiful fact and photograph filled booklet and a keepsake box, Paramount Pictures pulled out all the stops in this tremendous release that is sure to appeal to both Audrey fans and film buffs who are collecting the other works in the Centennial Collection series which will be releasing additional titles in the near future.