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Release Year: 1954
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, Ernest Lehman, Samuel Taylor (play)
Once upon a time…
You know what comes next. There's a beautiful girl. There's a handsome prince. There might be a few dragons or evil stepparents (why do fairy tales always hate on the stepmoms and stepdads?). There's love everlasting.
Oh, and there's a famous last line: and they lived happily ever after.
And Sabrina, which begins "once upon a time," is no exception. It's a fairy tale modeled on Cinderella, with a few twists and turns, a few 20th-century flourishes, some tee-hee-inducing midcentury innuendo, and dresses that only a fairy godmother named Givenchy could dream up.
Here's the setup: Sabrina is the working-class girl in love with the super-rich playboy. Her father is a lowly chauffeur, but he's scrimped and saved to send her to Paris to become a chef. The City of Lights is good to little Sabrina, and gives her the kind of makeover that only a chic European city can. Sabrina waltzes back to her home in Long Island with a sassy new haircut and a sumptuously lavish wardrobe.
And this is where the story of Cinderella and the story of Sabrina start to diverge.
First of all, Sabrina isn't as downtrodden as Cinderella; she has no step-sisters to abuse her, and she knows that she's très élégante. She comes back from the shadow of the Eiffel Tower seriously feeling herself.
The other twist in the Cinderella formula is that Sabrina doesn't exactly end up with the prince she expects. David—her original crush—is engaged to the daughter of a sugar magnate. David's older, crankier brother Linus is determined to keep that marriage on track since a business deal is riding on it.
So Linus decides to get Sabrina to fall in love with him so she doesn't want to marry David anymore. But oops: he ends up falling in love with her.
These changes make the basic Cinderella story a bit less traumatic, and a bit less pure. Director and writer Billy Wilder was famous for his sophisticated attitude towards sex (his later film, Kiss Me, Stupid, presents infidelity as a healthy marital aid). So it's no surprise that he steers his fairy tale towards sex comedy, with Sabrina cheerfully working to break up David's engagement, and Linus cynically designing to come between Sabrina and David.
In the original Cinderella, true love is love at first sight. In Sabrina, you need to consider a couple of other partners first… it's kind of like trying a glass slipper on for size, right?
Sex comedy + Cinderella turned out to be a very successful formula. Sabrina was nominated for a whole Parisian soufflé of Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Actress (for Audrey Hepburn), Best Story and Screenplay, and Best Costume Design, which was won by Edith Head.
Its reputation only grew over time; a 1995 remake featured Harrison Ford, and in 2002 it was placed in the National Film Registry. Everybody loves Cinderella—and, just like in the film itself, everybody loves Sabrina.
Sabrina is 100% a Cinderella story—which is actually kind of a problematic.
But you know the thing about problems? They're something that you should absolutely care about.
The Cinderella story is a wee bit misogynistic. Look at its message.
• Women should just sit around in pretty dresses waiting for their fairy godparents and princes to come and save them.
• Beauty is the only asset women need.
• The only kind of attractive foot is a small foot. (We rock double-digit sized kicks here at Shmoop—our footprints are the reason that Yeti myths exist—and Cinderella depresses us.)
The Cinderella story's antiquated. It's ridiculous. Whether you're studying the original hyper-violent Grimm Bros. version, the Disney flick with those creepy talking mice, or Billy Wilder's 1954 Sabrina-as-Cinderella Oscar-winner… the Cinderella story is a little messed up.
But it's also unexpectedly resilient. Over the years, retellings of the Cinderella story have continued to be amazingly, intimidatingly popular. Pretty Woman (1990)— a story about a prostitute who falls in love with a corporate tycoon—was a huge hit, and the Twilight franchise (about an awkward girl who's swept away by a super-rich vampire) was a massive sensation.
Cinderella may be anti-feminist, but lots of women find her enormously appealing. What is it about the poor girl/rich dude story that has such a lasting fascination?
And—and this is the major point to ponder—does Sabrina succeed in being more than a Cinderella story?
Sabrina is a tweaked version of Cinderella, because it doesn't set Sabrina up as a desperate young maiden. Instead, she goes to Paris, goes to culinary school, and comes back determined (with French sophistication) to break up her crush's engagement. She makes both the male leads fall head over heels in love with her. In other words, the princes don't sweep her away; she sweeps them away.
But is this different enough from the more traditional tellings of this literal rags-to-riches fairy tale to make a difference? Is Sabrina an improved Cinderella, or just a Cinderella that happens to wear haute couture and kiss more than one Prince Charming? Does she wield any real power in this love story?
Sabrina—maybe more than any other Cinderella story—asks you to think about gender, class, love and power… and how they're all mixed together like a French sauce béchamel.
Givenchy and Hepburn were pals, but they also helped each other's careers immensely. Givenchy created a bunch of dresses for Hepburn (including the iconic Sabrina dresses) and Hepburn made them look good. (Source)
Audrey Hepburn and William Holden (who played David) fell in love and had a passionate affair. Hepburn wanted to marry him, but they eventually broke up because (a) Holden had a vasectomy, and could not have children, and (b) Holden was already married and his wife wouldn't divorce him. (Source)
Wilder was writing and rewriting the script as he went along. One day he asked Hepburn to pretend to be sick so that he could finish some rewrites. Hepburn did, and fooled the studio, because she's an actor. If you're going to ask someone to feign an illness, get a professional. (Source)
That Guy Made a Lot of Movies
Billie Wilder's IMDB page has a biography and links to information about all his films (there are a lot of them).
Every Audrey Hepburn Photo Ever
Well, maybe not quite every one, but a lot.
Everyone Hates Bogie
Everyone involved in Sabrina hated Bogart. But the official Bogart website likes him, you can tell.
Bollywood Loves Sabrina
The 1961 Indian film Manapandhal was loosely based on Sabrina.
Bollywood Really Loves Sabrina
The 1994 Indian film Yeh Dillagi was also loosely based on Sabrina.
The Harrison Ford One
Sabrina was remade in 1995 with Harrison Ford in the Bogart role and Julia Ormond with the thankless task of filling Audrey Hepburn's fabulous outfits.
"The most delightful comedy romance in years"
The original New York Times review of the film.
In Wilder Context
A lengthy encyclopedia article on Billy Wilder, which puts Sabrina in the context of his work and career.
The Art of Screenwriting
A lengthy 1996 interview with Wilder on screenwriting.
Academy Award Winners All!
The original trailer for the 1954 film. Notice that Billy Wilder's name is barely mentioned. He's well respected now, but at the time he wasn't much of a draw.
Déjà vu Trailer
The 1995 trailer. Similar, yet different.
The Tennis Court Scene
Hepburn and Bogart, pretending they like each other.
The Terrible, Frightening Soufflé
A radio broadcast about the storied difficulty of making a soufflé, which mentions the famous soufflé scene in Sabrina.
The Fairest Lady of All
An original poster advertising Sabrina. Hepburn was coincidentally the star of My Fair Lady…though that film wasn't released till 1964, so this 1954 poster couldn't have been referencing it.
Where's She Looking?
A promotional image from the film.
Another promotional image, featuring Hepburn in one of the iconic dresses from the film.