A story that chronicles the transformation of the chauffeur’s daughter into the bride of the heir apparent in a fabulously wealthy family looks suspiciously like a fairy tale — especially so when she provides the opening voice-over: “Once upon a time … a little girl …” Given this premise we can enjoy the working out of a timeless plot in this particular version, compounded as it is by the equally timeless plots of a rivalry between the good (read: responsible) and the bad (read: irresponsible) brother, and the Bildungsroman (maturation tale) of the young girl.
This is not a timeless movie, however, unlike many that were made in the forties and fifties. It is perhaps difficult for someone watching this more than half-century old movie in late 2011 to don a mindset from the fifties. Egalitarianism, at least in its mode of public profession, had not then advanced as far as it has today, and while a film like Pretty Woman (1990) could hardly have been made back then, one like Sabrina 1954) could hardly have been made today. Sexual license is no license at all today, but class consciousness is; in the fifties class consciousness was hardly conscious, but sexual license was anathema. In this sense, Sabrina is a fascinating document in the history of the transformation of social sensibilities. (The 1995 remake Sabrina with Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond, and Greg Kinnear is quite a different business entirely.)
Supporters of various contemporary isms can find plenty to object to in this film. For example, we will in all likelihood not approve of the ‘your place is in the kitchen’ ideal held up as model for Sabrina, nor the notion that it is a worthy goal for her to find a man who will take care of her. Most Americans today believe, in my opinion, that social equality is not only desirable but inherently right — even if the practical expression of this important social code is not always faultless (but we needn’t burn down the church just because the priest is a sinner); in Sabrina this attitude is far from self-evident, and there is unthinking snobbery as well as reverse snobbery aplenty. A communist (if there still are such odd types about) will froth at the overtly pro-capitalist message of the film, not to mention the severe depiction of class distinction (emblematically represented by the Larrabees and their life style on the one hand, and the servant class on the other). Nor will the industrial ‘colonization’ of Puerto Rico, entangled as it is in a dynastic marriage, sit well with many. Old man Larrabee’s outrage at young David’s violation of social norms takes shape at a dance and leads him to say that such behavior is worse than slave-trading, a sentiment that today strikes us as unbelievably coarse even — or especially — if meant as a joke.
Of course, all films have some meaning, whether overt or not, and none are made in social vacuums; it’s just that Sabrina seems more obtrusively a product of a world and an outlook on society that no longer obtain in 2011.
But if you can let go of the kind of resentment than excoriates the past for not having had the forethought to be like the present in its ideals and practices, you will enjoy this film. It is, as noted, pretty pure fairy tale. The young Sabrina goes off to Paris on her educational odyssey, and returns after having “learned so many things”, at least in her own eyes a sophisticated woman. Clothing codes for this message: early on she is barefoot and childishly dressed, upon her return, in the latest Parisian fashion (complete with a poodle). At the great ball on the eve of her return, she is dressed in a rather spectacular gown that (to me, at least) suggested her as a butterfly, an appropriate emblem of transformation initially not appreciated by the wealthy.
An interesting sub-theme in the film is the old one of food as love and love as food: her going to Paris to learn haute cuisine is meant to cure her of her secret infatuation with David, the younger Larrabee son, but in a series of restaurant and food-related scenes she comes to realize that it is stodgy old Linus, the older son, with whom she is in love. The ‘domain of food’ becomes, in a word, the vehicle for Sabrina’s education in love.
Other themes and motifs to watch for here are the gradual inversion of the characters of the two brothers: the younger, David, abandons his shallow silliness and, in a final scene, tells his reactionary father to sit down so he (David) can get on with running the conglomerate; the older, Linus, loosens up under Sabrina’s spell, and allows himself to fall in love and act on that love. The two brothers in a sense exchange rôles in the course of the film, as well as blows and the sense of responsibilities for each other. Clearly, David’s maturation parallels Sabrina’s, as does Linus’ opening up to his feelings. There is a wonderful penultimate scene in which Linus rushes out of the boardroom in order to catch up with Sabrina sailing off on the Liberté (!): three sets of doors swing open in rapid succession as he walks to his freedom, liberated from the stuffy prison in which his preoccupations with business have shackled him.
Like all good comedy, Sabrina has its dark potentialities, in this case the contemplated but failed suicide-for-love of Sabrina and Linus. Their differing experiences appear to pull them together (in an early proleptic scene, Linus plays knight to Sabrina and rescues her long before the feelings between them come to full flower).
This is early Audrey Hepburn, and she is at her most fey and gamine. The de-aspirated stops that populate her speech gives her locution a clipped and faintly foreign trace (Audrey Hepburn lived as child in Belgium); her long lovely neck and girlish body well convey the sense of straddling adolescence striving for maturity. William Holden and Humphrey Bogart as the two brothers are interesting both in the contrasting characters they bring to the screen and in that here they inhabit atypical rôles.
I enjoy the film on its own terms, but I appreciate that its assumptions are the stuff of today’s nostalgia, of a world that no longer exists — if it ever really did. Emblematic thereof for me is a brief scene in his chauffeured car where Linus calls a secretary to find out the current Dow Jones averages: two-four-seven-point-six-three, he repeats in obvious satisfaction. Yesterday (28 December 2011) the market closed at 12,151… I turned eighteen in 1954, the year I graduated from high school, and I remember that year very well but, indeed, could that world ever have existed?