Sabrina (1954): Billy Wilder’s Romantic Comedy (Fairy Tale), Starring Humphrey Bogart, William Holden and Audrey Hepburn

Sabrina, Billy Wilder’s reworking of the familiar Cinderella story, is not one of his best (or better) films.  But it exudes some charm due to the winning performances of the three central actors: Humphrey Bogart (who famously didn’t get along with the director), William Holden, and especially Audrey Hepburn, in her only second starring role.

It just happened that all three actors have been recent Oscar winners: Bogart in 1951 for “The African Queen,” William Holden in 1953 for “Stalag 17” (also by Wilder), and Audrey Hepburn, also in 1953, for “Roman Holiday.”

Initially, Wilder wanted Cary Grant for the role of Linus, but he declined,[4]and the role was taken by Bogart, playing against type. Bogart complained that Hepburn required too many takes to get her dialogue right and pointed out her inexperience. Bogart was very unhappy during the shoot, convinced that he was totally wrong for this kind of film, mad at not being Wilder’s first choice, and not liking Holden or Wilder. Bogart later apologized to Wilder for his behavior on the set.

Bogart, then 55, and Holden might have been too old to play the competing siblings, Linus and David Larrabee, but they both give authoritative performances, especially Bogart as the older brother, in an atypical comedy role that showed a different facet of his multi-talents, better used and known in dramatic roles..

The script is an adaptation of Samuel Taylor’s popular stage play, “Sabrina Fair,” which had starred the incomparable Margaret Sullavan in the Hepburn role.  Wilder and co-scribe Ernest Lehman (who later did great work for Hitchcock) focus on the dialogue and characterizations of the triangle rather than on plot, which is rather thin.

This was Wilder’s last film released by Paramount, ending a 12-year relationship of Wilder and the studio.

Holden and Bogart are the wealthy sons of Hampden and Walker. A playboy, Holden’s David lives for fast cars and women; Bogart’s Linus is a hard-headed businessman. Also living on the estate are John Williams, the chauffeur, and his young, naive daughter, Sabrina (Hepburn).

At first, Sabrina is smitten with the suave Holden, though he scarcely notices that she even exists.  Sabrina attempts suicide, when she realizes he’s only toying with her. Daddy Williams then sends Sabrina to Paris, where she is transformed into a sophisticated lady.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Bogart seeks to enhance the family’s wealth by marrying Holden off to heiress Elizabeth Tyson (cold fish Martha Hyer).  Sabrina returns to Long Island, and once Holden gets a look her new personality, he falls for her.

Sabrina is determined to win him, but Bogart is determined to prevent the match. To take her mind off Holden, old bachelor Bogart pretends to be courting her.  The rest is an enchanting Hollywood fairy tale.

A commercial hit at the box office, “Sabrina” was also well received by the critics and Academy voters (see below).

Edith Head received yet another Oscar for costume design for Sabrina,” but it was designer Hubert de Givenchy who deserved the credit for Audrey’s infamous black dress.

The cocktail number with the boat-neck cut is undoubtedly the most influential dress for style. This film established Hepburn’s popular gamine look.  “Sabrina” marked the first of a lifelong collaboration between Givenchy and Hepburn, a teaming that was later manifest with equal success and glamor in “Funny Face,” Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Two for the Road,” among others.

Oscar Nominations: 6

Director: Billy Wilder

Actress: Audrey Hepburn

Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Samuel Taylor, and Ernest Lehman

Cinematography (b/w): Charles Lang, Jr.

Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Hal Pereira and Walter Tyler; Sam Comer and Ray Moyer

Costume Design: Edith Head

Oscar Awards: 1

Costume Design

Oscar Context:

This was the fifth of Edith Head’s eight Oscars, though Hubert de Givenchy, Hepburn’s favorite designer, should get credit too.

In 1954, Grace Kelly won the Best Actress for “The Country Girl,” which also won the Screenplay Oscar for director George Seaton.  “On the Waterfront” won Best Director, Cinematography for Boris Kaufman, and Art Director for Richard Day.

French and Music:

Hepburn sings, in French, “La Vie en rose” the signature song of legendary French singer Edith Piaff,  which had been popular in the English-speaking and all over the world.

Wilder also used it in his other romantic comedy with Hepburn set in Paris, the 1957 Love in the Afternoon, co-starring Maurice Chevalier and Gary Copper.

In the course of the film, Bogart also utters the quintessentially French expression, “l’amour toujours, toujours l’amour.”


During the production of the film, Hepburn and Holden were involved in a brief, much-publicized affair.


Humphrey Bogart as Linus Larrabee

Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina Fairchild

William Holden as David Larrabee

John Williams as Thomas Fairchild, Sabrina’s father

Walter Hampden as Oliver Larrabee, Linus and David’s fathe

Nella Walker as Maude Larrabee, Linus and David’s mothe

Martha Hyer as Elizabeth Tyson, David’s fiancé

Marcel Dalio as Baron St. Fontane

Marcel Hillaire as The Professor, Sabrina’s culinary instructo

Ellen Corby as Miss McCardle, Linus’ secretary

Francis X. Bushman as Mr. Tyson, Elizabeth’s father

Joan Vohs as Gretchen Van Horn


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