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SABRINA (1954)

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It's difficult for me to contain the joy and delight of having SABRINA, Billy Wilder's 1954 comedy masterpiece, in its best video rendition ever, a stunning hi-def, widescreen Blu-Ray (courtesy of Warner Home Video). So, YAY!

This movie to me is the piece de resistance of sophisticated romantic cinema; it's pure celluloid champagne spectacularly bottled by Wilder, Ernest Lehman and Samuel Taylor (whose 1953 play, Sabrina Fair the pic is based on). Of course, a lion's share of the kudos must also go to costars Humphrey Bogart and William Holden – with the top nod reserved for the movie's sparkling female lead, Audrey Hepburn.

This is Swiss watchmaking entertainment at its pinnacle; by that, I mean every cog works perfectly in conjunction with its partner. The supporting cast (John Williams, Walter Hampden, Marcel Dalio, Marcel Hillaire, Martha Hyer, Francis X. Bushman, Ellen Corby, Emory Parnell, Nancy Kulp, with special homage to dowager Nella Walker, easily the fastest lorgnette in the east), the cinematography (Charles Lang), the music (Frederich Hollaender) and the costumes, or, more precisely, Audrey Hepburn's wardrobe. Her jammin’ threads, in fact, share a prominence that virtually make them SABRINA's fourth star, a catalog of fashion statements that defined “smart” for women then, and still holds its own today. Edith Head got the primary credit for creating the Audrey Hepburn look, but the savvy lead's support of rising designer Hubert Givenchy was the driving force behind the scenes that memorably charted both his and Hepburn's professional relationship. Sixty years after its release, SABRINA's couture smacks of modernity, taste and style. As does everything else in this delicious confection.

To be brief, SABRINA tells the tale of a starry-eyed chauffeur's daughter in love with the playboy son of her father's employer. Yeah, Fluff # 3 – and, on the surface, of little interest to anyone but the dead poet's society. Ah, but it's the brilliance of how A gets to B (Audrey to Bogie) that makes it all work. And it is here that the effulgent wit of writer-director Billy Wilder reaches new heights.

Wilder initially paired off with the play's author, Taylor – a team which lasted approximately ten seconds. The author's credentials and poise couldn't hold up to Wilder's bombastic and frequent abrasive room-pacing manner. The insults which so upset Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity had the playwright, whose specialty was mouthing froth, soon frothing at the mouth. Once assuring himself a screenplay share, the scribe bolted like Errol Flynn in a castrato school. This left Wilder in a lurch, particularly since the schedule-sensitive cast had already been set, as well as location filming announced to commence at Paramount studio head Barney Balaban's Glen Cove, Long Island, estate.

It was William Holden who came to the rescue. The star, in the midst of wrapping his latest pic, Executive Suite, raved to Billy about Ernest Lehman's terrific ability with dialogue. Lehman was just beginning his illustrious Hollywood career – a trajectory propelled by the triumph of his novella Sweet Smell of Success (he would later cowrite the 1957 movie version, plus Hitchcock's North by Northwest in 1959, either of which would deservedly earn him a spot in Movie-Writing Heaven). Wilder took a flyer on the fledgling writer and the two melded like ill-fitting gloves.

The shape of things to come began on Day One in the Paramount commissary, when Wilder introduced the young author to fellow diners Norman Panama, Ben Hecht and others as the “..best-dressed writer in Hollywood since Casey Robinson.” This garnered much laughter, and Lehman knew it was a dig, but didn't understand why until Hecht revealed that it was because he dressed like a New Yorker.

That was merely the beginning. Wilder insulted Lehman as to his eating habits (he enjoyed Manhattan deli-style lunches, as opposed to Billy's Beluga-fueled munchies), his morality, his everything. Yet, they forged on with surprisingly enticing results. The “love stuff” was amazingly touching and deft – which might strike one weird for such a pair of cynics. Being a snarky bastard myself, I have to admit that those adept at arsenic-spiked barbs are usually the most romantic. SABRINA brings tears to my peepers, as does the unabashedly sentimental 1947 fantasy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, penned by rival sarcastic sire Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Why? I don't know – I can't explain it, save I guess that there's nothing more telling than a sledgehammer in the stomach (or a kick in the ass) to get the heart pumping overtime.

Nevertheless, Wilder and Lehman were at odds with one another about how to portray certain aspects of the story. Came the pivotal after-hours scene in Bogart's office, where Hepburn, looking gorgeous in form-fitting slacks, confronts her would-be paramour's older brother - - it could only, in Wilder’s opinion end one way. “They fuck!” he exclaimed. “No, no, no!” countered Lehman. “She can't. She's an innocent. Sophisticated, but an innocent.” This went on for days. Admitting the director's magnificence with all things romantic, Lehman conceded that it was Wilder who eventually solved the problem of what went on in the suite: she cooks him an omelet. Much to Lehman's satisfaction, they don't end up “doing it.”

This is actually a Pyrrhic victory, as the wily Wilder had already stacked the deck in his favor. Earlier in the picture, where the ravishingly nay chic Sabina goes to Paris to learn the art of cooking, she is mentored by the much-married fellow culinary expert Baron St. Fontanel (that scoundrel bon vivant Marcel Dalio). That an unvarnished Hepburn enters the Sorbonne medium rare and arrives back in Long Island well done is a love recipe that suggests that way more than sauce was simmering between the two (“I shall be the most sophisticated woman at the Glen Cove station,” she writes her father). It should be noted that the Baron is far older than his muse, another subtle clue forecasting the outcome of the pic's triangle (at this juncture, I have to state emphatically that any movie where Audrey Hepburn doesn't end up at some point in Paris is nothing short of blasphemous).

Ultimately, the bizarre 24/7 work load got to Lehman, who had a nervous breakdown before the script's completion. Wilder comforted the youngster by praising his contributions despite all the venomous asides. As with so many seamless classics, SABRINA was in production before the final scenes were written. Wilder got around this by shrewdly instructing ace d.p. Lang to “Give me a Murnau feel. Give me a Sternberg effect.” When Lang replied that it would add days to the shoot, Wilder shrugged and responded with, “I want it to be perfect!” and to forget the appended time and money involved. This gave him and a recuperating Lehman the window to complete remaining scenes and refine the dialog. Wilder, who hated high society movies where characters spouted nonsense like “tennis, anyone?” slipped the line in as a sarcastic bitch-slap commentary on the uppercrust. “The only time ‘tennis, anyone?’ works is if it's spoken by someone in a wheelchair,” he explained. This also serves as another narrative clue, as it's not a wheelchair, but a pair of champagne glasses that cause a far more embarrassing impairment. Okay, I won't mince words, Holden's character sits on the drinking vessels (en route to the tennis court for a nocturnal dare I say assignation), causing excruciating pain and some minor surgery. Censorship is circumvented by Holden asking brother Bogart “What rhymes with glass?” and ending with Bogie taking his leave by saluting his sib with a hilarious “So long, Scarface.”

The aforementioned casting in SABRINA is genius. The fact that Hepburn is being courted by two major male stars was nothing short of inspired. Usually movie triangles comprised a key male-female name with a second-tier third wheel. For example, if it was Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn and Lee Bowman...or John Lund…or even Gig Young. One really didn't have to be a mind-reader to figure out who Hepburn would end up with. Holden's participation kept viewers practically pondering till the pic's climax as to who'll win her hand – to say nothing of all the other parts. To this extent, it was necessary to make both flawed males likeable and feasible. Holden is indeed a rake, but a nice rake – a kind-hearted cad who provides generously for all his castoffs. Bogart is a stick, but a pliable one, not unlike his latest plastic industrial venture – an unbreakable material that bends into a myriad of useful, affordable products for the masses. True, Bogart is what we now refer to as a diehard member of the 1%; yet, this privilege is merely a nuisance. Like Holden, he's a thoughtful silver spooner whose two concerns are admittedy A) making money, but also B) how can it best serve the middle and lower classes. His new plastic is one in name only, as it's entirely composed of sugar cane, thus friendly to the environment. DAMN, where the hell are these billionaires!? Oh, well, that's The Movies for ya!

The funny thing is that for Humphrey Bogart, the role of blueblood Linus Larrabee was probably the closest he came to playing someone from his actual background. Bogart was indeed one of New York's “have more” crowd, the son of a revered doctor and famed commercial artist. That the actor's off-screen passion was sailing provided an op for Wilder to insert an in-joke by having his yacht (used to seduce Hepburn as a wind-up Victrola 78 of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” plays in the background) named Maud (an homage to the star's mother).

One would therefore think that production of SABRINA went swimmingly for all concerned, especially between the similar personalities of Wilder and Bogart.

Not.

Billy Wilder loved the old Warner Bros. gangster movies – their rapidity, their wise-cracking protagonists. He worshiped the Warner purveyors of testosterone, and dreamed of eventually working with all of them. Well, don't wish too hard, as the saying goes. With the one exception of Edward G. Robinson, Wilder's collaborations with Messrs. Cagney, Raft and Co., while end-result laudable, were personally disastrous. Possibly the worst experience Billy Wilder ever had (save the excised Peter Sellers material in Kiss Me, Stupid) was with Humphrey Bogart. Almost immediately, the two took an instant dislike to one another. While none of this is evident in SABRINA, their filming days were nightmarish oil-and-water catastrophes. Bogart never stopped needling the director – whether it would be to his choice of angles, his accent, his appearance. Nothing was sacred.

This malevolent repartee may have psychologically led to Wilder's suffering from severe back trauma during the shoot (mostly on days with Bogart).

Rather than stop Bogie's wrath, this merely served to increase his jabs at celebrated filmmaker. One incident specifically is remembered with disdain by all. Already on heavy medication, and in screaming agony, Wilder spent many a night at his chiropractor’s in an effort to simply make it through to the next day. He would often direct while flat on his back on a litter. Bogart saw this as a supreme opportunity to ask the director's advice on how to deliver the line “I wish I were dead with my back broken.”

Lehman, too, was not spared from Bogart's verbal vitriol. On an unusually good day, the
writer learned that the excellent word-of-mouth on Executive Suite, plus the positive reaction to the SABRINA rushes, had made him a front-runner for Fox’s The King and I, to begin filming in 1955. Overhearing that Lehman's agent had secured an upcoming project suitable to his talents, Bogie sauntered by and sniped, “Where is it, at Monogram?”

The worst Bogart blow for Wilder came when the outspoken star gave an interview to Time: “Wilder is the kind of Prussian German with a riding crop. He’s the type of director I don’t like to work with. This picture SABRINA is a crock of shit anyway.”

Of course, no relationship could be more opposite than the ones Wilder had with Holden and Hepburn, whom he genuinely adored (with mutual reciprocation). Holden, who had at one time questioned Wilder's choices on both Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, now ceded to any suggestion the director made. And why not? More than any other director, Billy Wilder was responsible for making Holden a major star (to say nothing of finding the vehicle which won the actor his Oscar). At this stage in his career, William Holden would have accepted the title role in Tess of the d'Ubervilles had Billy Wilder pushed it.

Audrey Hepburn's beauty, intelligence and sense of style absolutely floored Billy Wilder as much as it had the majority of the world's populace. As far as he was concerned no other actress had ever spoken his dialogue as well as she. Audrey Hepburn could do no wrong. She delivered 110%! It was like he had made her up. Audrey Hepburn was the perfect Billy Wilder star (to prove the unfairness of the human condition, Wilder, late in life, bemoaned how much he missed William Holden and Audrey Hepburn. It wasn't right, he complained. “They should be missing ME!”).

No surprise that upon its release in 1954, SABRINA went through the roof, a mammoth smash with critics and audiences around the globe. This should have been a victorious capper to the picture's history, but there was one more devastating incident that clouded SABRINA’s post-production. Wilder, at the top of his powers, could do no wrong at the studio, having been a crucial part of the Paramount creative force since the 1930s. His contract was coming up for renewal, and with SABRINA looking to top even the grosses of Stalag 17, inking an upgraded deal seemed like a no-brainer. And it would have been if it wasn't for the stupidity of one of the studio's suits, George Weltner, executive in charge of worldwide distribution.

Stalag 17 was set for release in Germany, and Paramount's Deutsche arm had a request to make. They were a bit upset about the rather harsh way the Nazis were depicted. After all this was a sort-of comedy...and the war had been over for nearly a decade. It was all gemutlich now, right?

When Wilder was asked to help make the Germans not so bad, he reasonably exploded. Did they mean the not-so-bad Germans who killed his parents? Well, could he possibly give permission to make the German traitor in the barracks a Polish prisoner? Wilder flew into a rage. Not only would he refuse to make such a change, but, unless he received a written apology, he would walk. Unbelievably, he got no response. As a result, Billy Wilder forever severed his relations with the studio he loved. Like Preston Sturges, another writer-director-wit reamed by Paramount, Billy Wilder, at least in retrospect, considered the company the finest in Hollywood (“I've worked in Paris, France and Paris, Paramount – and believe me, Paris, Paramount is far better!”). After SABRINA, Wilder became an independent, finally signing with United Artists. Gee, I wonder what Weltner thought about those missed revenues from Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment and others? That wasn't a Lost Weekend – that was a Lost Decade. Then again, it IS the studio later responsible for the Jackass series.

The Warners Blu-Ray of SABRINA is a revelation. Not only is the new monochrome High Definition transfer a fitting tribute to Charles Lang, Jr.'s formidable achievements (the 400 in 1080p never looked better), but it's the first time since theatrical exhibition that the movie is presented in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio. So, yeah, there's all that great detail and clarity, but now home viewers can at last see this classic the way it was supposed to be seen. Make no mistake about it, every 1950s Paramount title that opened with their then-redesigned logo was slated for widescreen (whether standard 1.85, VistaVision or Technirama). So rejoice! The audio is as bombastic as its director, a jubilant sounding board for the lovely Hollander music (plus the sprinkling of romantic background tunes from Paramount's library) and the superb dialogue (and additional proof that only Hepburn's voice could make a comment about a goldfish named George come off like a Rossetti sonnet).

On the downside (and one easily avoided), there are numerous mini-documentaries attached as supplements. While I admittedly haven't screened them all, the first one proved more than enough. I’m talking about 2008’s deceptively entitled Audrey Hepburn: Fashion Icon, a shameful demonstration of narcissism featuring such contemporary gargoyles as Issac Mizrahi and Eduardo Lucero. Apparently, they're all possessed by Audrey Hepburn, and they've proven it by their eternal dazzling incandescence. You know, even if that was the case (it ain't), one would surmise that their appearance on-camera would at least require the removal of a five o'clock shadow (and that goes for Cynthia Rowley too). Suffice to say, within seconds my wife and I were scrambling for the eject button.

Hey, don't let the above fly-in-the-ointment stop you from making SABRINA, to paraphrase its title character, the most sophisticated Blu-Ray in your library.

SABRINA. Black and White [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2-Channel Mono DTS-HD MA. Warner Home Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures. CAT # 1000445650. SRP: $19.98.

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