Sabrina (1954) Written and Directed by Billy Wilder.  Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden (113 min).

A chauffeur’s daughter’s chic Parisian makeover beguiles two wealthy brothers, one a wastrel and the other a stuffy businessman. Hepburn’s Cinderella tale delights, “But credit, above all, Mr. Wilder, for it is his unerring sense of form… and his wonderfully hardgrained comic style that makes Sabrina a picture to be cherished as a real and lasting joy” (NY Times).

A rough cut of Roman Holiday convinced Paramount that they would need a follow-up showcase for Audrey Hepburn,  an actress they thought—correctly– would soon be a major star.  Her director, William Wyler said, “soon I knew that the whole world would fall in love with her” (Walker 75). Hepburn read a play Sabrina Fair Or, A Woman of the World, written in 1953 by Samuel Taylor in manuscript before the play opened on Broadway, and asked Paramount to buy this modern day Cinderella tale for her.  Although the bare bones of the plot are there, David, the character played by William Holden in the film is quite a minor one, as the film focuses on the flirtatious banter between Sabrina and Linus, played in the film by Humphrey Bogart, considerably older than the 35 year old Linus in the play.  Sabrina Fair has spent her time in Paris working as a secretary, and acquiring a French lover, who also makes an appearance in the stage version.  The only distinctly recognizable moment from stage to screen is a line of Sabrina’s father, so perfectly Billy Wilder, I was quite surprised to discover he was not its author, “Democracy can be a wickedly unfair thing, madam.  Nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying somebody rich.” “Sabrina was one of the last films of the post-war American cinema to satirize the foibles of the very rich and take a tolerant view of their social uselessness (Walker 76).

John Williams, a 1921 Rolls Royce and Audrey Hepburn, wearing one of the costumes designed by Edith Head.

At first, Wilder was collaborating with the play’s author, Samuel Taylor, who balked at pitching out so much of his play for the screen. He was replaced by Ernest Lehman, a New York free-lancer in town because of the success of his novel The Sweet Smell of Success. He had just written his first film script, Executive Suite, and he was hastily hired.  At first, the pair wrote at Wilder’s home, from breakfast to midnight.  But, when shooting began, Lehman would spend his nights with Wilder writing scenes to be shot the next day.  Lehman never even read Taylor’s play, Wilder was so far beyond it by the time he began working on the picture. Hepburn would memorize her lines in the car on the way to the studio, the pages having been ripped out of Lehman’s typewriter hours before.  Sometimes nothing new would be ready, and Wilder would shoot retakes.  It was “the scariest experience I’ve ever had in my life” Lehman recalled later (Walker 87). At the conclusion of filming, Lehman collapsed with a nervous breakdown.  “Billy has to take over your whole life.  You don’t just collaborate on a script with him.  He has to change what you wear and what you eat” (Sikov 355).

Margaret Sullavan and Joseph Cotton as Sabrina and Linus in the stage play, Sabrina Fair.

Sabrina Fair premiered on Broadway and was running to great acclaim. Margaret Sullivan, in her mid-40s, played Sabrina on stage and had vainly hoped to star in the cinematic version.  But, there was no doubt that Audrey Hepburn would play her on screen. Wilder already adored his star, who he thought had real class, as compared to most Hollywood actresses, and he thought she could play strongly against the actors he wanted for the Larrabee brothers, William Holden and Cary Grant.  The older brother’s role was written with Grant in mind, and when he declined, Wilder considered many others (although apparently not Joseph Cotton, who had played the role on stage) before settling on Humphrey Bogart.  “I kind of liked the idea of having Bogart,” Wilder said in an interview later in life, “because it’s against the grain” (Lally 232).

Filming Roman Holiday had been enjoyable for all concerned, but Sabrina was a different story.  Humphrey Bogart was extremely unhappy during the production, and tried to make everyone else unhappy, too.  He reluctantly accepted the part on the urging of his agent, having only seen part of a first draft.   He was a big movie star acting way outside of his comfort zone; in his long career, he had never been in a romantic comedy.  Ironically, he WAS from the New York upper crust, he rarely played that kind of character. Humphrey DeForest Bogart was the son of a successful Manhattan surgeon and his wife, Maud Humphrey, a noted magazine illustrator who had studied with James McNeill Whistler.  Her drawing of her adorable baby boy was used for many years as a baby food advertisement.  The family lived in a fashionable Upper West Side Apartment. Maud Humphrey made $50,000 a year, an astronomical sum at the turn of the century, and more than twice as much as her husband.  After prep school at Andover, rather than going to medical school at Yale, per the family’s plans, Bogart enlisted in the Navy in WW I and then pursued a career on the New York stage, which led, eventually to the movies.

He had been a major star for over a decade was being paid significantly more than his costars.  Wilder said, “of course Bogart gets the girl.  That’s because he is getting $200,000 for the picture, and Holden is getting $125,000” (Meyers 282).  Even though Bogart insisted on quitting work at exactly 6:00 (after having a drink delivered promptly at 5:00) he was extremely professional, memorizing lines delivered freshly to the set in the morning in no time. He resented the warm relationship between Wilder, Hepburn and Holden, and all the time Wilder lavished photographing Hepburn’s fresh, beautiful face.  He became sullen and argumentative, sparing no one on set.

Meanwhile, Hepburn and Holden (who was married, with two small children) were falling in love, he later called her the love of his life. Hepburn, who was on the rebound from a broken engagement, had no interest in breaking up Holden’s marriage, especially after he told her he couldn’t have any more children.  In the film, she is supposed to fall out of love with Holden’s David Larrabee, but in real life the opposite was clearly occurring.   Bogart fought openly with Wilder (he told a reporter Sabrina was “a crock of shit”) and was furious when Holden’s scenes were prioritized so he could go to his next picture, The Bridges at Toko-Ri.  There was so much tension on the set, it’s amazing that Sabrina is so good, and that Bogart, playing against type, conveyed a crusty middle-aged man’s susceptibility to love.

Oscar winning costume designer Edith Head was automatically assigned to any Paramount “A” picture, but this time, her seniority would be usurped by a chic Parisian wardrobe spotlighting Sabrina’s transformation.  Hubert Givenchy, at the time, was not yet a major designer, just as Hepburn was not established as a top ranked star (she hadn’t yet won her Oscar for Roman Holiday).  Head had already made stacks of drawings and consented, reluctantly to Hepburn’s shopping in Paris thinking that when the clothes arrived back in Hollywood she would say they were “all wrong” and do what she liked (Chierichetti  133). Much to her dismay, nothing could be done to “improve” them.  Hepburn bought the clothes with her own money (in part, circumventing the necessity for an on-screen credit, since it was considered personal wardrobe), and Head collected an Academy Award, ostensibly for the black cocktail dress with what would come to be known as the Sabrina neckline, but in reality, for “a pre-Paris ragamuffin frock and two insignificant sportswear ensembles” (Sikov 351) without acknowledging Givenchy.  The French designer emphasized Hepburn’s willowy form, considered a detriment during the breast obsessed 1950s.  In fact, Edith Head had tried to get her to wear falsies on Roman Holiday, and to disguise her prominent collarbone and swan neck, but Wilder loved the way she looked.

Head was still fuming about the controversy 30 years later in an interview with a biographer.  The black cocktail dress was made in the Paramount workrooms from a Givenchy sketch.   She snapped to David Chierichetti, “I lied.  So what? If I bought a sweater at Bullock’s Wilshire, do I have to give them credit, too?” (Chierichetti  136). There was no contract between Givenchy and Paramount, and no legal obligation to credit his designs.  Head likely could not bear the fact that the public swooned over Givenchy’s designs, and she could only claim the pre-Paris clothes.  The black Sabrina cocktail dress and piquant hat would be manufactured by the thousands, the boat neck renamed the Sabrina neckline.  Head had her sketch artists make copies of the black dress, and she would sign her name to them.  She showed it on the runway of her self-named fashion shows.  Her refusal to set the record straight even in interviews late in life tarnished her legacy, although it has done nothing to dim the exquisite beauty of the clothes and the actress who wore them.

Hepburn’s friendship with Givenchy was one of the most significant of her life.  She became his muse, he created a perfume for her, “L’Interdit,” which she advertised in exclusive magazines, and he was responsible as much as any of her directors for her on-screen image.  They became intimate friends, a veritable platonic love affair, his clothes inextricably linked with her elegant face and form.

The clothes in a film like Sabrina are important.  “Oh, you can talk about your Howard Hawkses and George Stevenses, your Billy Wilders and Sam Peckinpahs, your auteur theories.  But when I get to dreaming about movies—especially those I’ve seen dozens of times, like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Swing Time and Sabrina—I pause less and less at the directorial achievements, and more and more at the clothes that encourage me to identify with the heroines.  Yeah, yeah, I know Hawks is the genius behind Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but it isn’t his invisible editing that makes it endlessly watchable.  Rather, it’s Travilla’s idea of playclothes:  that is Jane Russell’s black halter bustier and clinging pedal pushers pulled over spiked ankle strap heels” wrote Carrie Rickey (Moseley 28).

Givenchy’s black cocktail dress immediately became a fashionable wardrobe classic, and Sabrina’s embroidered ball gown the stuff of dreams.  I saw it once, at a Givenchy exhibit in Paris, and it was turned to the wall.  What had been spilled down the front of it?

Watching the film with a sold-out crowd at the North Carolina Museum of Art, I was reminded that the film is a comedy, as well as a romance…I always think of it as more of a romance, but the audience laughed so much, some lines were lost in the sounds of enjoyment. Although Humphrey Bogart is distressingly old for Audrey Hepburn, in real life, of course, Bogart did marry Lauren Bacall, and there was quite a gap in their ages, so perhaps this real-life reflection made it seem more acceptable. During her career, Hepburn had few leading men of her own age, she was often cast opposite actors old enough to be her father. Older men romancing younger women has always been a Hollywood staple.

In reading about the film, I was struck by how many writers thought that the elderly Parisian Baron, played by Marcel Dalio, would not have been so financially generous to Sabrina had he not been her lover. Sometimes, they use as subtext that he has returned to cooking school having lost the ability to make his souffle rise. However, the Baron’s souffle is flawless without additional instruction, and no critic that I read concluded that he might have been both kind–and gay, which seems a more plausible interpretation.

In retrospect, the battles between writing partners, director and stars were worthwhile.  Sabrina was a huge box office hit, and, if not a film much revered in the Bogart canon, certainly loved in the filmographies of Holden, Wilder, and particularly, Audrey Hepburn.

Billy Wilder directing Hepburn and Bogart


Sabrina Fair by Samuel Taylor, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder by Ed Sikov,  Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder by Kevin Lally, Bogart: A Life in Hollywood by Jeffrey Meyers, William Holden: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua, Growing Up with Audrey Hepburn by Rachel  Moseley, Audrey: Her Real Story by Alexander Walker, Audrey Hepburn: A Biography by Warren G. Harris, Edith Head by David Chierichetti.