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Sabrina – Billy Wilder

Submitted by on February 2, 2011 – 2:22 pmNo Comment

Comedy in any medium depends a great deal upon the mixing up of mes­sages, the deliberate switching of a communication context, and the swapping of labels on statements. Billy Wilder’s comedies generally avoid slapstick switches which pull the rug out from under characters. Nevertheless, his films subtly manage to swap around the foundations of their behavior. Sabrina is a good example. Audrey Hepburn played a variety of gamin girls gone elegant in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, and as Sabrina she once again made her way from simple innocent to beloved of the rich. What she learns in the process allows Wilder to make some sharp comments on how victimized an elusive waif, with a refined yet childlike sensuality, can be.

A large number of American movies, from war films to artists’ biographies to Andy Hardy pictures, portray the education of their male hero. He is taught the proper values in life and weaned away from shallower ambitions by a good woman, who patiently and lovingly helps him see the error of his selfish hopes and assumptions. This narrative pattern is altered significantly when the sexes are reversed: if a man is to educate a woman in the proper set of values, a Pygmalion story is in order. In this sort of story, the woman, unlike her male counterpart, lacks the desire for money; her aspiration to a higher social order is a romantic one. As a rule, the relatiohship of teacher and pupil begins as a nonsexual one. The man adopts a somewhat fatherly role and only gradually drifts from benign paternalism to a more romantic interest in a woman who changes under his guidance. That teacher and pupil will eventually have some romantic involvement is understood by any viewer familiar with genre convention. The innocent girl about to learn something about life, however, is not meant to approach her education through a sexual relationship within this convention; thus, her first love interest can be counted on to be a mistake, and the man unsuitable. She can trust those with  paternal, less sexual interest more than those with romantic designs.

Wilder bases much of the comedy in Sabrina on this distinction; in fact, he so strongly lampoons Sabrina’s interest in the handsome romantic bachelor, as well as his wiser, less handsome alternative, that the whole implicit system of girlhood education proposed by convention acquires the look of the ridic­ulous. Wilder’s subtle humor arises from some of the incongruities of the “poor girl makes good” story.

Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is a chauffeur’s daughter whose father works for the wealthy Larrabee family on Long Island, New York. Sabrina is dissatisfied with life in the servants’ quarters. She develops a crush on the younger Larrabee son, David (William Holden); but he thinks of her as a girl, not a woman. He has been married three times and is now an unattached playboy. One night Sabrina, unseen, watches him romance a woman on the family tennis court. Her own chances for David now seem so slim that Sabrina decides life is not worth living and tries to commit suicide by locking herself in the garage with the car motors running. Fortunately the older Larrabee brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who is definitely not a handsome playboy, saves her.

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