Some of the reason for the May-December theme had to do with casting, and were not originally intended. In Sabrina, the role of Linus Larrabee was originally meant for Cary Grant, so when it went to Humphrey Bogart, a man much older than Audrey Hepburn, the role took on new layers of meaning. Linus came to be seen additionally as a father figure to Hepburn's young Sabrina. Casting Gary Cooper opposite Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon yielded similar results, as did choosing the iconic Marilyn Monroe to portray what had been a more average role on the Broadway stage in The Seven Year Itch. But Dick also tries to connect this motif to a theme or motivation in Wilder's life. He notes that Wilder's age when he was working on these movies might have affected his outlook. In middle age, the theme of rejuvenation may have been of particular interest to him, and the fatherly relationships may have reflected his own love for his daughter at the time.
In Sabrina, Dick sees one father-daughter bond being replaced with another, the first biological, the second metaphorical. Dick argues that in her relationship with Linus, Sabrina re-channels the love she used to reserve for her father towards her beau. Linus provides financial security and protection for Sabrina, just as a father would. This situation is only believable because the film operates as a fairy tale, Dick says.
Grouping these films together is interesting, but from the descriptions of Love in the Afternoon and The Seven Year Itch, it doesn't seem that the films have as much in common with each other thematically (aside from romance) as Dick might have us believe. And some of what they do have in common, as Dick admits, has do with coincidences of casting. This grouping seems to serve best simply as a way for Dick to organize Wilder's many films.
All three versions have the same essential Cinderella story skeleton. The "Cinderella" terminology that is often used in describing them is not quite apt, however, because the character of Sabrina is self-reliant and never depends on a man to save her. How strong she is does vary from version to version, though.
Wood argues that in the original play, Sabrina is autonomous, politically active, and well-educated. She returns from Paris not because she is in love with David Larrabee, but to escape a marriage proposal that she doesn't want to be tied down to. She doesn't need to be rescued, and her relationship with Linus becomes one of mutual companionship. Gender and class issues are sidestepped when Sabrina declares herself as self-supporting and her chauffer father comes into a windfall of money.
In the play's original adaptation for the screen, Wilder and his associates conceived Sabrina as a teenager in puppy love. Though her time in Paris leaves her sophisticated, this Sabrina is not educated or assertive, like her predecessor, and becomes an object to be passed between the Larrabee brothers. She chooses Linus, in the end, because she wanted to care for him. Wood argues that this allows the movie to become "a dark study of gender," because "Sabrina feels strongest when she is helpful to others, when she denies her own needs and desires." Wood refers to the theories of developmental psychologist Nancy Chodorow, which state that while boys develop intimacy problems, girls learn to doubt their identities. This can lead to passivity and vulnerability to manipulation in women like Sabrina.
Wood reasons that the 1995 film version, while not without problems, is instilled with better representations of gender politics. The Sabrina character is in the fashion industry, less domestic than cooking, and while in Paris she "finds herself." This autonomous description is at odds with her actions, though, as she still displays a tendency towards caretaking.
All three versions are at fault because class and gender problems disappear without explanation during the happy ending. The film versions, though, let Sabrina be manipulated by men and lose her own identity. Wood's analysis of the role of gender in the play and films gives readers a way to understand these ingrained cultural messages, rather than just consuming the film as entertainment.
Hollywood was no stranger to employing immigrant talent by this time, and Billy Wilder himself had fled Nazi Europe. Hepburn left Holland for similar reasons. Though many of Wilder's film deal with internationalism, their meanings can be laced with ambiguity, perhaps because of Wilder's own conflicted personal history (his family had died in concentration camps.) These ambiguities echo weightier political and cultural questions.
Smith notes that foreign starlets like Hepburn were celebrated in this time period, but the most famous males were mostly American. Indeed, Bogart was known for his ruggedly American role in Casablanca. This gendering goes back to the reconfiguring of the May-December romance into a symbol for the triumph of American culture in Europe.
Smith traces the history of competition between Hollywood and the French cinema, arguing that the Larrabees' business in Sabrina reflexively mirrors America's "cowboy-style" business tactics. Sabrina's time in Paris teaches her feminine skills that make her attractive for American consumption, and because Sabrina must be out of the way for David Larrabee to marry into the sugarcane business, Linus's courtship with her is originally just another business move for the greater good. When asked why the merger is necessary, Smith quotes Linus, painting America as a postwar savior: "So a new industry goes up in an underdeveloped area and once barefooted kifs have shoes, washed faces, and their teeth fixed." American commodities, as in the Kitchen Debate, came to signify American superiority.
Once Sabrina remakes herself, she becomes an object for men to possess and exchange, sometimes without her knowing it. Smith points to Sabrina's enigmatic and changing class status as a symbol of the promise Americanization would hold for postwar Europe. Though initially reading a political agenda into this fairy tale story might seem like a bit of a stretch, Smith makes a convincing argument that might apply to many films of the age, when Hollywood was selling not just movies, but the American way of life.
In this book, Potter discusses romantic comedies in relation to the era in which they were produced. She has chapters on each decade from the thirties through the nineties. She begins by discussing the overarching cultural ethos of each decade, taking into account important historical events that could have had an influence on what movies were successful or even produced to begin with. She discusses in detail films from each decade, providing a good background to fit any film into its historical framework. Potter does not discuss Sabrina in the 1950s chapter, but the film does fit in easily with the historical background she provides.
Potter sees the cold war as the most important feature affecting 1950s films. The post-World War II rapture had faded, leaving an all-encompassing but largely invisible fear. For this reason, Potter argues, people focused on making themselves happy in areas of their lives that, unlike foreign affairs, they did have control over: home and family life. This sense of escapism clearly manifests itself in Sabrina's fantasy quality.
People became concerned with living in the suburbs and owning the latest commodities, while civil rights issues, like women's role in the workforce or race and class issues, seemed to evaporate from the national conscience. We see this in the emphasis on the suburban Larrabee family's opulent wealth in Sabrina, and the absence of ambition for Sabrina to do anything but fall in love with one of the powerful Larrabee brothers, rather than using her new education and sophistication to further her individual lifestyle. Women in the 1950s were expected to remain domestic, or at least quit their jobs upon marriage. Any woman who did not adhere to this was said to have a "masculinity complex." These ideas were also shaped by Dr. Spock's baby boom child-rearing advice.
In movies, Potter saw women's roles converging to fit into one of the two studio-promulgated stereotypes of the era: virgin or whore. Hepburn's Sabrina would be classified as a textbook virgin, and was thus only allowed to "exude a vague air of flirtatious sexual promise." Men had more power than women, but also had to fit into molds of upstanding masculinity, like John Wayne, the honest and fatherly cowboy, or laid-back sexual suaveness, like Rock Hudson. Humphrey Bogart's Linus can clearly be read as in line with what Wayne represented.
Using Potter's historical information, we can understand and read films in their proper context.
The "girl-next-door" was most notable for what she wasn't: Marilyn Monroe. Seductress Monroe represented one end of the spectrum of 1950s female roles, and she was decidedly at the opposite end of the girl next door. In a time of national crisis (first World War II, and later the Cold War), the girl next door offered a wholesome and patriotic image. Harvey argues that the Marilyn-type was on the decline, starting in the 1940s, in favor of the girl next door. The 1950s ideal was "nicer, simpler, younger...more girlish than womanly." Harvey argues that already famous stars of the period, like Lucille Ball, adapted themselves to fit into this model.
Hepburn, who was just becoming famous, didn't have to adapt, but she certainly did fit the part. In Sabrina, she was innocent to the point of being child-like, also reflected by her demure wardrobe and polite way. Her thin body is the opposite of Marilyn Monroe's ample curves, embodying the "girlish" part of the girl, not woman, next door. Harvey argues that this image is emblematic of most female stars, aside from Marilyn Monroe, in the 1950s, an opinion also echoed by Potter (see "I Love You, But..."). Harvey doesn't really get into the implications of this stereotype, or why Monroe was allowed to remain outside of it, but he offers many examples that give a picture of a casting and acting trend of the 1950s.
Biographer Charlotte Chandler relies mostly on direct quotations from Billy Wilder to let the story of his life come across. Her book's chapter on Sabrina contains Wilder's reflections and memories of writing and directing the film. These thoughts come from the perspective of decades after the film's original release, and give insight into what could have been a very different movie, but turned out to be Sabrina.
The film was adapted from a play, Samuel Taylor's Sabrina Fair. Wilder began work on the adaptation, along with Taylor, before the play even opened on Broadway. Wilder had no qualms about making changes when adapting this play for the big screen, and he wanted to tweak the dialogue to fit the stars he was hoping would appear in the film (Audrey Hepburn and at the time, Cary Grant). Once the play opened successfully though, Wilder and Taylor began to disagree about the degree of change necessary, leading to Taylor quitting and being replaced by another writer, Ernest Lehman.
It was Lehman who convinced Wilder to steer clear of a sex scene between Sabrina and Linus Larrabee, because it would have hurt Hepburn's image. Lehman and Wilder both agreed that Hepburn was a special actress. Because of her grace, she was perfectly suited for the film's Cinderella allegory. Hepburn had a similar respect for Wilder. This is in contrast to the director's often adversarial relationship with Humphrey Bogart, who played Linus Larrabee.
Chandler notes that Wilder chose to play up Hepburn's "Cinderella quality," and this is evident in her first appearance in the film, when a full moon sits over her shoulder. This fairy tale theme is also echoed in the film's opening narration. Though Hepburn narrates, she is not in character as Sabrina, and this sets the scene for the idyllic story. The class shift and Sabrina's infatuation with older men are also fairy tale-type elements.
Chandler's snapshot of Wilder provides a way for moviewatchers to see the human side of film--though a commodity for making money, directors, writers, and actors could leave personal marks by infusing films with their own ideas.
Crowther, Bosley. "Screen: 'Sabrina' Bows at Criterion; Billy Wilder Produces and Directs Comedy." New York Times Film Reviews. 23 Sept. 1954. 1 April 2006. <http://hdl.library.upenn.edu/1017/22483>
The original New York Times film review of Sabrina couldn't provide the in-depth analysis later works offered through hindsight, but it does give an important peek into how the film was initially received. At the time of the film's release up until today, a review in the New York Times represents the opinion of the country's most respected and influential critics.
Sabrina opened up to an overwhelmingly enthusiastic review. Critic Bosley Crowther heralded the film as "the most delightful comedy-romance in years." This signifies that Sabrina had differentiated itself from movies of the preceding years, and as opposed to the popular screwball comedies of the age, the movie's fairy tale nature offered a welcome contrast. Crowther said a film of the sort had not been seen since "prewar days," and perhaps Sabrina provided some nostalgia for audiences, in addition to the escapism of its plot. It is also noteworthy that Crowther calls the film a "comedy-romance," because it shows that the now-ubiquitous genre of the romantic comedy had not yet been solidified.
The Times praises the story's trajectory from stage to screen, which is especially interesting when compared to Gerald C. Wood's later critique (see "Gender, Caretaking and the Three Sabrinas.") This could lead one to draw the conclusion that perhaps film at this time was less willing than theatre in embrace more modern gender roles. The Times also lauds Wilder for viewing the love story with "candid skepticism," but later scholarship also calls this into question, claiming the romance was too easy.
Each main actor's performance is acclaimed, and the praise gives further fuel to Hepburn's oncoming superstardom. Wilder is praised above all for his natural sense of what makes a good film, and this sense comes across years later in his interview with biographer Charlotte Chandler.
The review ends by calling Sabrina the best romance since It Happened One Night. Though many films earn great reviews only to fade away into obscurity, it seems Sabrina lived out the prophesy that the Times laid out for it. Not only was the movie successful in its own time, but it lives on happily ever after today, considered a classic by many.
In this article, Dowd and Pallotta offer a sociological perspective on the movie genre of romantic comedies. Cultural ideals of romance, they say, have changed throughout time, and the changes of the 20th century can be analyzed through movies. Movies are imbedded with cultural scripts that reflect the social norms of various ages. Dowd and Pallotta aim to complete a systematic analysis of romantic comedies, and to do so, they set strict definitions for what would constitute such a movie, leaving out movies that were no longer available, movies that featured romance only as a side plot, movies that mixed genres, and more. After using their definitions to rule out all inapplicable films, they ends up 182 films that qualified, all made between 1930 and 1999. Though not individually analyzed, Sabrina was included in this group of films, thus contributing to the analysis as a whole.
Because this article takes a methodological approach, it is not very accessible for the average film scholar. It also talks about trends as a whole, leaving out the detailed scene analyses that those interested in films often enjoy. But the article does a good job of trying to examine what the medium of film might have to say about our culture, and its strength lies in its ability to offer empirical evidence of trends, such as an explosion of romantic comedies in the 1990s, as opposed to individual examples. In this way, we can look at the trends of particular decades. When Sabrina was released, in the 1950s, for example, romantic drama was more popular than romantic comedy, a reversal of what is currently true. Other subsets that are popular now, such as teen romances or romances that feature supernatural elements (like 1990's Ghost), were nearly nonexistent in the 1950s.
The study also found that cultural conditions have effectively killed many formerly popular plotlines of romance movies. Couples in different classes, for example, no longer offer a "convincing dramatic impediment." Movies that feature these aging romantic conventions," then, can only remain popular today as "relics of an earlier era." This statement serves to justify Sabrina's ongoing popularity despite its perhaps hard-to-swallow plotline. All in all, romantic films, even the current ones, do continue to reinforce some of the more conservative romantic tendencies in our culture, namely the importance of marriage and fidelity, and this has not changed since the days when Sabrina was released.
Wartenberg argues that the filmmaker and audience often see past the initial estimation of unlikeliness because they understand that the two love each other or share a bond, despite apparent obstacles and violations of what is socially acceptable. In this way, the pairing of an unlikely couple, for Wartenberg, can function as a vehicle for social critique. In their plotlines, the films find a way to negotiate whatever social barrier might be separating them, and during these 90 or so minutes, the audience develops a sympathy for both the individual couple and their situation. Even a small detail can elicit this effect. At the end of Some Like It Hot, for instance, when Lemmon's character reveals he is actually a man, Brown's character shrugs it off and says, "Nobody's perfect." Though this is a meant to get laughs from the audience, Wartenberg also argues that it will cause them to think about why they're laughing, thus subverting societal norms.
Wartenberg acknowledges that these films don't present themselves as "vehicles for serious social analysis," but he rejects the common conviction that films are superficial and reinforce dominant social beliefs. He concedes that sometimes in fighting certain stereotypes, films falter by including other stereotypes.
Sabrina is not mentioned in Wartenberg's analysis, but fits in neatly as a romance spanning the upper and lower class. The lower class Sabrina surprises high society when she gets involved with the upper class Larrabee brothers, and this plotline works the subvert and undo the stronghold of class barriers in 1950s society. Though seemingly rigid structures might keep a couple apart, Hollywood implicitly approved of and endorsed this unlikely pairing.
Collins points to the "jazzy suit" Hepburn's Sabrina wears at the train station when William Holden's David Larrabee first notices her, the floral white ball gown that essentially serves as Sabrina's coming out outfit, and the black cocktail dress that "spawned a thousand knockoffs." These couture looks featured different necklines and cuts than were typical at the time, and were tailored to emphasize Hepburn's slight frame. When Hepburn doubted her acting abilities, Givenchy's clothes provided her with the solace that she at least looked the part.
Collins writes that the clothes also went on to inform plot details of the film. Inspired by Hepburn's sophistication in the Givenchy suit, screenplay writer Ernest Lehman changed the script to make David Larrabee unaware of Sabrina's identity when he picks her up at the train station. Later, in the ball scene, Sabrina's simple but elegant dress distinguished her character. Lehman said of the film's wardrobe, "[The clothes] were extremely helpful to the character, the mood, the movie. They made the transformation believable."
Hepburn's star--and salary--shot up after the release and success of Sabrina. In addition to their impact on the film's success, Collins believes Givenchy's designs for Sabrina shaped Hepburn's public persona. The actress added to this effect by wearing clothes from the movie while promoting it in Europe. Hepburn-eqsue designs also continue to influence current fashion. Collins' article is an interesting, though not scholarly, take on the influence fashion can have in the success of a film, or in Audrey Hepburn's case, an entire personal image.