I am not a fan of Romcons, most of which seem to me to be somewhat nauseating. That said there are a few that I find original and highly entertaining and the 1954 version of Sabrina certainly comes under that category. The originality comes from the Billy Wilder led script, who also directed, and the high in entertainment factor is down to a top of the class cast. I guess in a way it’s a light-hearted eternal triangle tale with two males and one female. The males are played by Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, with the delightful Audrey Hepburn as the meat in the sandwich.
The Larrabee’s are a disgustingly rich family who own a vast industrial empire and live in a mansion that is so big there should be signs directing any lost visitors to the nearest exit. The main characters are two brothers, the eldest being Linus who runs the entire business from his office at the Larrabee tower in downtown New York. He is the classic example of a workaholic being totally married to the business. The role was evidently offered first to Cary Grant but thankfully he turned it down as Bogart, not normally associated with the Romcon genre puts in the smoothest of performances as the stuffy older brother. The younger brother David is the polar opposite of Linus being a fun loving womaniser who has already chalked up three failed marriages with the fairer sex.
Sabrina is the flighty but rather immature daughter of the Larrabee’s chauffeur who has had a crush on David Larrabee since childhood. She has watched him at every opportunity but he’d never taken any notice of her. This infatuation has taken over her life, which to her is not worth living, as David seems out of reach like the moon, added to which her father is about to ship her off to Paris for cookery lessons. There’s just time for a childishly conceived and comical failed suicide attempt before the morning departure. This must have seemed a bread and butter role for the charming Audrey Hepburn although there are moments early on in the movie when her innocent looks makes the character seem overly naive.
Linus is about to create a plastics division to add to the Larrabee business empire having devised a formula that makes the material virtually indestructible. Implausible as it may seem it is made from sugar cane. To ensure supply he arranges to marry David off to Elizabeth Tyson, the daughter of one of the largest growers. Although angry at learning his fate from a newspaper article, obviously planted by his brother, David reluctantly goes along with the plan that is until Sabrina returns home from Paris. In those days Paris was seen as the fashion capital of the world, so after two years there Sabrina has; with the help of an elderly Baron she met at cookery classes; turned into a sophisticated well-dressed lady of style and beauty.
Even though engaged to the sugar cane mogul’s daughter, David cannot take his eyes off the transformed Sabrina who for the first time attends the Larrabee’s annual eve of yacht racing party. Arranging a tryst with her at the family indoor tennis court; his usual place of conquest; he collects his customary bottle of champers placing the glasses in his back pockets, one of his more dangerous habits. Linus concerned that the arranged marriage might fall through pretends to support David and his new love but puts his brother out of action by inviting him to sit down. David then becomes the literal “pain in the a**e” with 23 stitches to boot.
Linus offers to keep Sabrina warm for David while the younger brother recuperates from his embarrassing injury. David is grateful not realising that Linus has his own devious agenda. So Linus embarks on the courtship of Sabrina on behalf of his brother with the aim of turning Sabrina away from David so that the marriage he arranged can happen. Linus treating it as business puts his heart and soul into achieving a successful outcome but in the end loses both, as any audience would expect. Gradually Sabrina warms to Linus and her burning flame for David begins to wane.
There’s an unforgettable moment in the movie where Linus breaks out in song. It must be the only occasion in his movie career where Bogie sings, making the film a collector’s item. After a few dates Linus plants the seed of going to Paris. He arranges for two tickets intending to stand Sabrina up once she’s on the boat. Meeting in his office prior to an evening date, Linus informs her he’s going to Paris to experience the life she once enjoyed. In accidentally finding two tickets, one with her name on it, Sabrina is overjoyed realising that Linus is her real love. His conscience however will not allow him to deceive her so he comes clean that it was all a ploy to save the merger with the sugar cane mogul. Sabrina takes her ticket and leaves.
The next morning Linus decides to call a meeting with his directors and the Tysons intending to call off the merger and the wedding then tells David that Sabrina’s on the boat leaving at noon. Unhappy at being deceived David punches his brother on the chin before departing. At the meeting Linus delays starting on the premise that they should wait for David to arrive but really he’s waiting for the boat; which he can see from his office window; to put to sea. When it does he calls the meeting to order but before he can relate the bad news in walks a joyful David clutching a newspaper. In it there’s a story on Linus and a chauffer’s daughter running away to Paris together, obviously planted by David who now supports the merger and his forthcoming marriage.
David ridicules the idea of Sabrina being with a Larrabee inviting a return punch from his elder brother who then realises he’s lost his heart and soul to his chauffer’s daughter. With the aid of Larrabee shipping he intercepts the ocean liner to be with Sabrina the love of his life; even if she’s young enough to be his daughter; and so they sail off into the sunset to live happily ever after.
Although the comedy throughout would never receive side slitting laughter being almost entirely reliant on wit, the scenes and dialogue between the two male leads have such perfect pitch and timing you could easily be forgiven in thinking Bogart and Holden were not only brothers but also twins. Not bad for two actors who are reputed to have disliked each other intensely. One thing for sure this black and white version is much more colourful that the 1995 colour remake.