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.
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.
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.