Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sabrina (January 22nd and 23rd at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[SABRINA screens Saturday January 22nd at 5:15pm and Sunday January 23rd at 8:15pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

To a certain luckless generation to which I must reluctantly admit to belonging, "Sabrina" means a teenage witch - sometimes a cartoon, sometime live action, and sometimes part of the Riverdale High gang with Archie and Jughead and so forth, though sometimes she wasn't. It sort of depended how much in royalties the producer wanted to fork out to Archie Comics accountants. But to a previous older generation whom I like to pretend were somewhat nobler and more dignified, Sabrina means, well, SABRINA, Billy Wilder's fairy-tale-like 1954 romantic comedy, a hit with the Eisenhower-era audiences. Bereft of teenage witches or talking cats, this "Sabrina" has one of the best castings in movie history side-by-side with, arguably, one of the oddest.

The former is the young Audrey Hepburn, perfect as the title character, tomboy daughter of a humble chauffeur for a super-rich Long Island household. Sabrina blossoms into a luminous beauty while off at school in Paris. Sabrina's father drives for the astoundingly wealthy Larrabbee brothers, playboy David (William Holden) and the older, hardworking Linus (Humphrey Bogart), and when protective David sees what an exotic but vulnerable object of desire Sabrina has become to the upper crust, he mentors her in the finer point of being a snooty high-society sort of lady. Parenthetically, this is one of those scripts, derived from a Sam Taylor play, that pretends that despite all the patriotic boasting, America, when it comes to money, has just as much of a rigid class structure and barriers as Jane Austen's England did. Which is probably true. Damn it.

Anyway, back to our story: It starts to look like David is cozying up too close to Sabrina, at a time when his family wants to marry him off securely and strategically to another high-born beauty in a another filthyrottenstinkingrich dynasty. Thus Linus steps in, somewhat awkwardly, to pretend to date Sabrina for appearance's sake, even though he's been a bachelor workhorse entrepreneur, immersed in finance and inventions all his life, with hardly any idea how to treat a girl. 

Yes, it's Humphrey Bogart doing light comedy, which makes a weird blend with the actor's cynical, often brooding world-weary demeanor. On this strange ingredient your enjoyment of SABRINA may vary. Word is that Bogart and Wilder had different notions of comedy and did not get along well at all on set. Maybe that's why when Linus smiles - even at as beguiling a creature as Sabrina - you still think he's just grinning in anticipation of the pistol-whipping he's about to give a gunsel concerning the whereabouts of the Maltese Falcon.

Oh well, it's still what lazy critics like me call "sparkling," and Audrey Hepburn is Audrey Hepburn. For those keeping score - or more likely, downloading Bettie Page-era smut off the internet - there actually was a third Sabrina back in the old days, a voluptuous blonde British pinup model (real name: Norma Sykes. I hate when girls change their names, no good comes of it), and that's why you occasionally hear references to `Sabrina' on the Goon Show - it's not Audrey Hepburn that the Goons were talking about. Sydney Pollack did a nice-try attempt to remake SABRINA in 1995, with Harrison Ford in the Linus part, Greg Kinnear as David and another British "discovery," Julia Ormond, as the title character, and it made scant impact. The 1954 film is where you want to go, unless your idea of movie magic trends towards flying broomsticks and CGI talking cats. 3 out of 4 stars.

1 comment:

  1. Hepburn and Bogart together...yeah, that's pretty intriguing casting. I'm glad you reviewed this movie, but I suspect the more lasting impact will be the image results when I google Norma Sykes.

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