Sabrina, Sabrina where have you been all my life? ~ William Holden as David Larabee
I never understood that incessantly observable trope that permeates all forms of media where the blonde is far superior to the brunette. Aside from being highly superficial, it’s simply not the case. If anything, Audrey Hepburn is the blatant exception to that rule. She turns any such presumption on its head because simply put, she is absolutely stunning. There’s a reason why she is one of the most photographed and iconic figures of all time. Her style is different than a Marilyn Monroe, a Sophia Loren or an Elizabeth Taylor because it exudes a certain demure quality. She’s glamorous in spite of a certain unassuming humility. And she’s what makes Sabrina work because she embodies Sabrina Fairchild.
The film begins with a bit of narration that feels like it’s setting up a modern fairy tale, and it really is. Sabrina recounts the life of a young girl who lives above the garages where her father is a chauffeur. He faithfully serves the well-to-do Larabee family, and he’s content in his life. But his daughter is hardly so lucky. From an early age, she has carried a girlish crush on the younger Larabee brother David (William Holden), a womanizing, ogling playboy who seems like the unattainable dream for young Sabrina. He sees her as a child, and she worships the ground he treads on. Nor can she stand any of his female companions. Ironically, none of his conquests are good enough for him, in her estimation. But unrequited love, even young love, is a bitter pill to swallow and Sabrina hardly takes it well. The ode to Maurice Chevalier’s “Isn’t It Romantic” is the ultimate irony at this point in our storyline.
Then comes the fateful day that her father sends her off to learn the skills to become a world-class French chef like her late mother. Sabrina is unhappy in her work, cracking eggs, making souffles, and so on. But over time, David is less of a weight on her heart. She still thinks of him, but she also begins to grow into her life and truly flourish.
She left a girl and she comes back as Audrey Hepburn, immaculately radiant in a wardrobe crafted by her lifelong designer Hubert de Givenchy. David and the audience cannot help but marvel at this vision standing at the train station with her prized pooch, who by no small coincidence is also named David.
When all the pieces fall into place, the love-struck man is bowled away to find out that this is young Sabrina, the girl he never gave a second thought to. He’s ready to wine and dine her, to present her with the fantasy romance that she has always wanted and only he can offer. The dreams she always wished for in her youth are coming true before her very eyes.
But it’s David’s stuffy brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) who steps in at this point, stage right. He’s the respectable and pragmatic one. He runs the family company and oversees their business. His latest project is a merger which will prove mutually beneficial but to help proceedings along he’s looking to marry off David to the daughter of his prospective business partner.
Sabrina stands in the way of his plans and as a proper businessman, he deals accordingly. David is holed up with injuries sustained sitting on champagne glasses, so Linus swoops in. He doesn’t seem like the wining and dining type, but he does it all in the name of sending Sabrina off to Paris again. He wants to get rid of her to salvage his merger, but he too falls under her spell. That sweetly serene personality matched with those pair of doe eyes melt any man’s heart. Still, duty calls and he admits to Ms. Fairchild just how much of a cad he has been. But now he’s a cad who truly has feelings for her. There’s no denying it. David sees it. The audience sees it. Now only Linus must acknowledge it himself. However, now we have a love triangle with time running out, and that’s when drastic action is necessary. After all, you cannot let a girl like Sabrina Fairchild, aka Audrey Hepburn, slip through your fingers.
In truth, Sabrina is easily overshadowed by Hepburn’s shining entrance in Roman Holiday and not as well remembered as her iconic personas in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or say My Fair Lady, but it is hardly a lesser film. It brings together some of the best talents you could hope for from one of the most preeminent of Hollywood directors.
Certainly, you can make a very strong case that the casting of the male leads was questionable. Bill Holden fits the playboy role well enough, but Bogart was perhaps not quite stuffy enough and far too old to be playing Hepburn’s love interest. In fact, the part was initially to go to Cary Grant. However, we got Bogey, and he’s worth a watch whatever the film and so it is with Sabrina, allowing him to reveal a little bit of his softer side. Furthermore, Billy Wilder will always and forever be the master of weaving stories together. His skill as a scriptwriter extends perfectly into his self-assured direction that gives us a thoroughly delightful comedy. Romance wins out over any dose of cynicism, and it all fits together nicely–a lovely fairy tale.