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.
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.
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.
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.
Though Head was known throughout her career as having a propensity for lying in the most inappropriate situations, her obsession with claiming to have dressed Hepburn in the film is demonstrative of the film’s impact on the style of the time period. The “Sabrina” neckline, named for the shoulder-skimming boat-neck Givenchy used for a simple cocktail dress in the film, became a hugely popular phenomenon, as knock-offs appeared by designers around the world. Head claimed credit in print for inventing this style, and often showed the dress as part of her own collection. For the remainder of her life, Head would harbor a grudge against Hepburn, as she became a star largely as a result of her collaborations with Givenchy.
Handyside, Fiona. "`Paris isn't for Changing`Planes; it's for Changing your Outlook': Audrey Hepburn as European Star in 1950s France." French Cultural Studies 14.3: 288
Fiona Handyside’s article follows the path of Audrey Hepburn’s career that resulted in her image as the quintessential “European star” to the American audience. In the 1950s, she was the antithesis of “busy contemporaries” such as Marilyn Monroe, with her generically “European” accent, slender frame, and air of confidence. This became the ultimate portrayal of a European woman as Americans wanted to believe it. Hepburn’s image as such was the product of two different forces: Hollywood studios, and European couture houses, namely that of Givenchy. Beginning with Sabrina, Givenchy and Hepburn formed a life-long partnership, and his clothing was present in many situations throughout her life. This made promotion for Sabrina and other films seamless, as the ties between designer and muse stretched across cinema, journalism, and advertising. Hepburn wore Givenchy in her 1954 wedding to Mel Ferrer, enabling further personification of her own “star style.”
The focus of Sabrina is the transformation of a young girl via Paris and Givenchy designs, culminating in a happy marriage. The progression of this plot uses not only narrative, but also the visual imagery of wardrobe to convince the viewer. In the famed scene at the train station, Hepburn’s Givenchy-designed gray suit owns the screen, as the unrecognized sophisticate stops William Holden’s character dead in his tracks. The clothing is placed above the narrative at this point, defining a character in a way that words could not. Sabrina was the beginning the association between Hepburn, Paris, and Givenchy: the city itself is the symbol of style, transformation, and the revelation of a new kind of femininity.
Crowther's article is the original review of Sabrina that appeared in the New York Times following its premiere in the city in September of 1954. The review is very helpful in understanding Sabrina's role as a film at that point in history: as is evidenced by this review compared to more contemporary pieces discussing the film, the difference in perception of the film is substantial. Crowther cites the film as "the most delightful comedy-romance in years," and imparts the kindest words upon Humphrey Bogart and William Holden; he claims it is their film as much as it is Hepburn's. This is a sharp contrast to modern discussions of the film, which nearly all focus on Hepburn and her style in particular.
At the time of the review, Hepburn was not yet the immensely famous star that she is remembered, and it is apparent that her "image" that would stand for years to come had not fully been developed. There is no mention of her couture ensembles or style beyond her "frail and slender" frame". Yet though the reviewer had very favorable words for the film, including director Billy Wilder's adaptation of a "recognized thin" play by Samuel Taylor, as evidenced by more recent criticism, the relatively light-hearted film would not have survived as powerfully without Hepburn's growing popularity as style icon.
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.
Smith, Dina M. "Global Cinderella: Sabrina (1954), Hollywood, and Post-War Internationalism." Cinema Journal 41.4 (2002): 27.
Smith’s complex article focuses on the relationship between the United States and Europe post-World War II, in the framework of politics, foreign policy, economics, and the cinema. Films of that era, like Sabrina, she argues, twist the classic Cinderella story to fit the gendered metaphors intrinsic in foreign policy of the time, namely that Europe, as the “culturally savvy orphan” is in need of a “strong rich man,” like America, to save it. The Europe of these films was like a “postcard fantasy” to sheltered Americans: Paris was marketed as a one-dimensional entity that was the visualization of the notion of culture. Smith traces this relationship between American and French film industries back to the era of Lumiere and Pathe Freres. France, and Paris in particular, was something to be consumed, for its food, literature, fashion, and everything else: this idea is central to the plot of Sabrina, and is reflected in much of Hepburn’s career as a “European” star, as argued by Handyside.
Smith also comments on the casting of Bogart, who she claims had an identity of “rugged cowboy American individualism,” as an antithesis to Hepburn’s European sensibilities. In this film, Bogart’s character is the epitome of American economic style, yet by the end, he is inextricably attached to Europe, as both an idea and physically. The author finds many ties between American and European cultural codes referenced in the film, such as how Sabrina needs her Parisian makeover in order to socialize with the higher class of Americans. The film, as mentioned in many other placed, was the first full-scale use of European fashions in an American film; these only emphasize Hepburn’s thin, “hungry” European body, which becomes the clothing that she wears. Smith notes that this film made significant inroads to “incorporate and denationalize” French cultures and its products, something that has continued in American film through the present.
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.
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.
Beginning with Sabrina, Givenchy and other designers began to use films as showcases for their designs. Hepburn wore Givenchy in a number of other films throughout her career, and the designer’s signature styles, many of which he created specifically for the actress, are evident in each. He had crossed the threshold of costumes as narrative, and they now could be as much a part of the film as the actors. Funny Face, a Givenchy/Hepburn collaboration of the late 1950s, was the most obvious display of this, as Hepburn’s bookshop clerk-turned-model spends much of the film walking down the runway wearing Givenchy’s designs, which command nearly every scene they are featured in. In Sabrina, this is the case not only for the luxurious white-and-black gown Sabrina wears in the ballroom scene: when William Holden’s character suffers a case of mistaken identity at the Glen Cove train station, the viewer is transfixed by the Givenchy-designed “Parisian suit” the new Sabrina wears. Bruzzi mentions the notions of the “iconic” and the “spectacular,” which often coincide in couture-costumed films. These costumes must have an independent and prior meaning, and such as the case of Sabrina’s gown, the clothing has a stronger impact on the actor than vice versa.
Collins' Vanity Fair article is essentially a retrospective of the storied relationship between Audrey Hepburn and the French designer Hubert de Givenchy, as inspired by the 1995 remake of Sabrina and the designer's announcement of his retirement. Beginning with the 1954 film Sabrina, Hepburn and Givenchy maintained a friendship and fashion partnership that would last until the actress' death in 1993. During production of the film, director Billy Wilder and star Hepburn decided that it would be most appropriate for Sabrina's clothing to be the product of a legitimate Paris designer, as the formerly dowdy character returns to Long Island after spending time at cooking school in that city. The up-and-coming designer Hubert de Givenchy was chosen, and Hepburn approached him to arrange fittings. After a case of mistaken identity (he believed that Katherine Hepburn would be wearing his clothing), Givenchy let the production borrow three pieces: a gray suit, a luxurious black and white ball gown, and a tasteful, boat-necked black cocktail dress.
It was arguably the fashion in Sabrina that made the film so wildly successful and influential; Hepburn was transformed into a different woman in Givenchy's clothing. Though Collins does not explore the relationship between film and fashion in much depth, her article is a good introduction to the power of the relationship between designer and muse, with an especially strong focus on Sabrina. Quoting many of the parties involved in the film, there is the sense that they were rendered awestruck by this relationship between Givenchy and Hepburn. The public agreed, as Givenchy's designs and Hepburn's image became inextricably attached for decades, and both Collins and the designer himself make note of how Hepburn's style has retained fans and audience even moreso than her movies in many cases.