Sabrina (Centennial Collection) DVD Review
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 01.12.2009
One of the greatest romantic comedies of all-time gets the Centennial treatment from Paramount. How does the DVD stack up?
Directed by: Billy Wilder Written by: Billy Wilder, Samuel Taylor & Ernest Lehman
Starring: Audrey Hepburn - Sabrina Fairchild Humphrey Bogart - Linus Larabee William Holden - David Larabee John Williams - Thomas Fairchild Martha Hyer - Elizabeth Tyson Joan Vohs - Gretchen Van Horn Ellen Corby - Miss McCardle
DVD Release Date: 11/11/2008 Running Time: 113 minutes
A funny thing happens when you look at the history of the Academy Awards. Movies from the 1950’s and 1960’s are not the same sort of movies you see nominated today. Whether this is a statement on the attitudes of the Academy, the change in public perception, or the rise and fall of certain genres is a subject that could be debated for quite some time; all of those surely factor in to some degree. While the Academy of today often tends to favor independent films such as Brokeback Mountain and Michael Clayton or historical dramas like The Queen, Capote and There Will Be Blood, the Academy of yesteryear tended toward a very different style of film. Consider, for example, Sabrina. The 1953 film that starred Audrey Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart was a light-hearted romantic comedy, a genre which would never even dream of finding a spot on the Academy’s top list in the modern day. Yet at the Oscars that year it garnered five award nominations, including Hepburn’s second Best Actress nomination and a Best Director nod for Billy Wilder. While it’s true that today’s romantic comedies generally tend toward lower levels of quality then the rom-coms of the fifties, where the genre was one of the more popular styles, it is still a testament to the movie’s esteem, one which holds to this day. While it may not hold the iconic style of Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Seven-Year Itch, it is still remembered as one of the top films of the genre. As such, it is perhaps fitting that it is one of the films released under Paramount’s Centennial Collection, receiving a two-disc set that adds features and remastering from the 2001 DVD release.
The film stars Hepburn as Sabrina Fairchild, who’s father Thomas (Williams) works as a chauffeur for the rich and powerful Larrabee family. Sabrina has grown up harboring feelings for the youngest brother David (Holden), a party-boy playboy who’s been through several marriages already. When she returns from culinary school in Paris as a beautiful young woman, she finally draws David’s eye. As the two draw close, David’s older and much more straight-laced brother Linus (Bogart) becomes concerned that his already flaky brother is about to ruin his impending wedding to Elizabeth Tyson (Hyer), a very wealthy woman—which, in turn, will cost their business a lucrative business deal. Linus therefore resolves to draw Sabrina’s attentions away from David and onto himself. When he finds himself legitimately falling in love with Sabrina however, the situation becomes far more complicated for all of them.
Sabrina was adapted by Wilder, Samuel Taylor and Ernest Lehman from Taylor’s play Sabrina Fair to be a starring vehicle for Hepburn, who was the hottest new property at Paramount Pictures following her Oscar-winning America film debut Roman Holiday. In adapting the work, Wilder, Taylor and Lehman created a Cindarella story with a twist, the poor girl who finds potential love with not one, but two rich suitors, and from the same family no less. The story is whip-smart and full of wit, but where it succeeds the most is that the trio never put the story or the humor above the characters themselves. The focus is always on the characterizations and making them enjoyable to audiences, and never selling them short for a moment. It’s a lesson that modern-day romantic comedies could take to heart and often fail to, and it helps make Sabrina the gem of a film that it truly is.
In 1953, Hollywood was obviously quite different then it is today. The studio system held sway, and while today the superstar casting that this film holds would be far less common, that has a lot to do with the way studio contracts worked. Still, even then the casting of Bogart, Hepburn and even Holden, who was coming off an Oscar win for his role in Paramount’s Stalag 17 and had been nominated three years earlier for his career-rejuvenating turn in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, was phenomenal. All three actors are at their absolute best, with Holden having the time of his life as the charming playboy David. It was a role not far off from things the former Golden Boy had done before, but his reported enthusiasm for the project clearly shows in every scene he’s in. While Humphrey Bogart supposedly didn’t nearly have as much fun on set (reportedly he was quite unhappy with Wilder and Holden, though he apologized to Wilder some time later and blamed personal issues), it can’t be denied that he completely renovated himself here. Bogart was known for such roles as Casablanca, Maltese Falcon and The African Queen; noble yet cynical characters who had long left their heart behind. Watching Bogart in what would be one of his last films before his 1957 death is an absolute joy, and he brings more to this role then one might expect of him.
Of course, the film was optioned as a starring vehicle for Audrey Hepburn and it is on her slender shoulders that the movie rides. In this, Paramount had little to be concerned about, as Hepburn handles the role just as adroitly as she would any in her career. While her work in Tiffany’s or Holiday may be her best remembered it is in Sabrina that she is at her best, transforming herself from gawky teen to glamorous woman with ease. She is charming and warm, an absolute joy to behold on the screen as she finds herself trapped between the two brothers. For my money, this is Hepburn’s best work in a storied career that deserves all the accolades it has ever received, and she makes this romantic comedy one which many would try to equal but so very few would even come remotely close.
This is a Billy Wilder film, and that fact is without a smidgen of doubt. Fans and students of Wilder’s work—and any film student should be both—would easily notice Wilder’s contributions to the script, as he takes cynical shots at the upper-class elite world in which Sabrina travels. The dichotomy between the lower-class servants and the two-facedness of the upper-class is evident, and while it’s a surprisingly bitter pill in such an otherwise light-hearted comedy, Wilder had more than enough talent as director to blend them in a way that is never jarring or makes either mood feel out of place. He keeps the film going at a good pace and never allows it to sink into maudlin melodrama, while still having time to draw out the great performances that he did. His excellent work ranks this one as a top example of his brilliant body of work, one that you would be hard-pressed to find an equal to.
Film Rating: 9.0
Sabrina was previously released in 2001 as part of “The Aubrey Hepburn Collection” and was heavily remastered at that time. This edition, presented in the original 1.33:1 full-screen format, features some fairly noticeable improvements over even that set. Scenes are noticeably brighter, with sharp delineation and almost no sort of noise or nicks. There are no compression errors or the like, making this the most attractive of the Centennial Editions yet.
Video Rating: 9.0
The audio is not quite as spectacular as the video, owing to the fact that this is simply a port of the 2001 disc’s English Mono mix. This isn’t to say it sounds bad; much the opposite. It’s simply that the 2001 set sounded quite good on its own and really didn’t need much of anything done to it. The complexity is impressive for a monaural track and it holds up nicely, even if it isn’t the greatest audio you’ll ever hear.
Audio Rating: 8.0
Sabrina is presented, like all of the Centennial Collection sets, in a DVD snap case fit snugly inside a slip-case box. The design is the same as all the Centennial Collection sets, a black and prestigious look that sets it apart like it deserves. A six-page pamphlet with some production notes and photos is included inside. The DVD menus are minimalistic and sharp, making them quite simple to navigate.
Packaging Rating: 8.5
Audrey Hepburn: Fashion Icon: (17:33) As the title suggests, Hepburn's influence on the world of fashion is the focus of this featurette. Fashion designers from the current day such as Isaak Mizrahi to Cynthia Rowley talk at length about Hepburn and how different she was from the ideal of women at the time, epitomized by Monroe, Jane Seymour and Rita Hayworth, of small waists and big curves. Hepburn's almost boyish qualities are put up as something that was changing all the rule of what worked in Hollywood. Rowley calls her "the dream body to work with," while another designer, perhaps disturbingly, labels her "the pre-Kate Moss of her time." There is discussion of Hepburn's work with Paramount costume designer Edith Head and the challenges Head had working with someone who was not of the standard Hollywood body type. Of course, her work in Sabrina is also touched upon and Head's trusting Hepburn to go get her own outfits, which led to her meeting Hubert de Givenchy. They also touch on Hepburn's other films, particularly ,i>Breakfast at Tiffany's. This is a great and informative piece on Hepburn and how much she changed things for women in Hollywood, as long as you have at least a passing interest in fashion or Hepburn.
Sabrina's World: (11:26) This short is a historical retrospective on the Gold Coast of Long Island, where the film is set. The opening couple minutes are a brief overview of the world before going further in-depth. The history of the Gold Coast is touched upon, with some very powerful names dropped such as Morgan, Woolworth, Pratt and Rockefeller. The style of the neighborhoods and the activities they performed are talked about with the English countryside influence that entailed. They discuss the mix of wealthy and working class before getting into the choice of the location by Billy Wilder for the movie. They talk about the history of the Glen Cove Train Station and how untouched the area has remained since the time of the movie. It's a nice little travelscape kind of short, not the kind of thing you often see on a DVD set.
Supporting Sabrina: (16:33) This is a refreshingly unique sort of short, talking about the little-known character actors that appeared in Sabrina. While the studio system of the '50s and '60s had all their stars locked into contracts, the bit players were no different, and while many of them would appear in role after role, audiences rarely knew them by name. John Williams, who played family chauffer and Sabrina's father Thomas Fairchild, gets the first profile of his career and is followed by spotlights of the rest of the serving staff, including Ellen Corby who played Miss McCartle and Nancy Kulp who played maid Jenny. This is a very nice bit that gives the lesser-known but no less important supporting cast a rare light shined their way.
William Holden: The Paramount Years: (29:49) This is a much-expanded on featurette on Holden from the eleven minute piece that was on the Sunset Boulevard DVD set. It provides a biographical history of the man from his birth as William Franklin Beedle Jr. in Illinois through growing up in Pasadena, California where he was discovered by a Paramount talent scout while working at the Pasadena Workshop Theater. Of course, the bulk of the focus is on his film career, starting with the film Golden Boy in 1939 that led to his contract being shared between Paramount and Columbia Pictures. They briefly cover each of Holden's early pictures before he left acting for military duty, and then the difficulty he had coming back before launching into his first great film, the aforementioned Boulevard. The pattern seems to be to briefly cover his less successful films and focus on the big ones that he did with Billy Wilder, like Boulevard, Stalag 17 and Sabrina. With Sabrina they touch on the Holden/Hepburn romance briefly before moving onto his other films. Luckily, just when you think it is more interested in discussing Holden's love of travel then his problems, it brings up his alcoholism and other problems going into his '60s. It's interesting that his peculiar death is only barely touched on, but as much as this is a positive spin on Holden's life, it's also quite informative and interesting.
Aubrey Hepburn: In Her Own Words: (11:44) This short has the feel of a pure promotional piece to begin, giving some clips of the movie with a voiceover that sounds vaguely like the back of the DVD cover. It talks up the movie and Hepburn before moving to Paramount Producer A.C. Lyles to talk up how excited Hepburn was. We get some background information on the film's development and how it was developed as a vehicle for the young actress. Frankly, for a short entitled "In Her Own Words," there's practically no actual conversation from Hepburn, which makes things so puzzling. While there is some information offered here about the making-of, it's largely ignorable fluff and, again, criminally mistitled.
Behind the Gates: Camera: (5:09) This one of the "Behind the Gates" shorts that are a series going through the Centennial Collections. This one focuses on the history of the Paramount cameras. We learn how the technology has advanced from the hand-crank models and see some of the cameras through the years in their current state. For those interested in the technology of film-making this is a nice and easy to watch, if somewhat broad, look.
Paramount in the '50s: (9:37) This featurette is the same one that accompanies the Sunset Boulevard Centennial Collection DVD. It covers the history of the studio through Sunset Boulevard, A Place in the Sun, The Greatest Show on Earth, the Martin and Lewis films and War of the Worlds. Some of the movies covered already have Centennial Collection editions, and others are sure to sometime this year.
Galleries: The gallery section is, like the other Centennial Collection editions, broken up into a few segments. "Production" shows the behind the scenes camera shots of the film as it was being made; "The Movie" is still frame shots from the actual film itself. "Publicity" is, as expected, the promotional stills for the movie. The last section, "The Premiere," contains captioned photos of the movie's September 22, 1954 premiere at the Hollywood Paramount Theatre.
Special Features Rating: 8.0
The 411: Witty, clever and funny, Sabrina succeeds as a romantic comedy where most modern efforts fail thanks to a great script, fabulous direction and razor-sharp performances from the unlikely trio of Audrey Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. While many of the fans of todays rom-coms may find the work trite compared to the the current crop, this is a film for serious film fans to sit back and and marvel at. Billy Wilder is one of the all-time great directors, in a class with Kurosawa, Kubrick and John Huston. Paramount has delivered a set that has the typical fabulous quality of their Centennial Collection, making this a DVD set that is even worth the double-dip for people who have the 2001 set.