“Now you make me feel like a heel. If I don’t marry Elizabeth, some kid’s gonna be running around Puerto Rico barefoot with cavities in his teeth!” – David Larrabee
Billy Wilder’s Sabrina is a romantic dramedy featuring a love triangle of Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn), Linus Larrabee (Humphrey Bogart), and brother David Larrabee (William Holden). It features an early exemplar of that romcom trope of frantically running after your love interest at the eleventh hour, and is another solid entry in Wilder’s 1950s run that also includes Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, and Some Like it Hot. It is also a nexus point that defines foundational aspects of the screen personas of Hepburn and Bogart.
In the film, Sabrina is a chauffeur’s daughter, her father the driver to the rich Larrabee brothers. Suicidally unrequited in love with playboy David, Sabrina goes off to cooking school in Paris and comes back to her native Long Island a changed, mature woman who now draws the attention of David. Because David is engaged to the daughter of a plastics industrialist, his flirtation with Sabrina threatens the family business. So Linus plans to keep Sabrina socially engaged, separate from David until the lucrative merger can be completed. But wouldn’t you know it, Sabrina and Linus begin to fall for each other on their own terms.
Sabrina’s class is a constant cloud over any romantic hopes she might have for either Larrabee brother; the flustered Larrabee paterfamilias constantly rails against any entanglement a Larrabee might have with a lowly “servant”. But while Sabrina may come from a lower class, she is seen to “transform” into an urbane and magnetic young woman after her time in Paris.
Sabrina’s arc is emblematic of several Audrey Hepburn characters. The defining theme: social mobility. Sabrina is a chauffeur’s daughter who becomes a confident force in high society. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Lula Mae Barnes is from a rural Texan family, married at 13, but comes to New York City and puts on a front, an entire personality transplant, to become the original manic pixie dream girl, Holly Golightly. And in My Fair Lady, this theme goes from subtext to text. Professor Henry Higgins makes it his parlor game mission to transform adult cockney urchin Eliza Dolittle into a sophisticate with perfect manners and diction.
(A notable inversion of this trope comes in Roman Holiday. Hepburn is a literal princess, who spends the movie “slumming it” with a journalist who doesn’t know her true identity. Social mobility goes both ways for Hepburn.)
Eliza Dolittle and Holly Golightly explicitly climb up the rung of the social ladder under male patronage. In Sabrina, while there is a mentor character in Paris (Baron St. Fontanel), his presence is downplayed. Sabrina seems to find a change within herself more organically and more on her own terms.
On another point of the love triangle is Linus Larrabee. Toward the end of the movie, resigned to the dissolution of their burgeoning love, Linus sends Sabrina on a cruise ship back to Paris without him. This is a very familiar move for a Humphrey Bogart character. Yes, it echoes the basic tenet of something like In a Lonely Place, where alcoholic Dixon Steele pushes love interest Laurel Gray away through an awful detour into domestic violence. But much more than that is Bogart’s agency in sending his love interests away.
In Casablanca, Rick Blaine sends old flame Ilsa Lund on a plane with Victor Laszlo, for (as he sees it) her own good. And after all, their own feelings famously don’t amount to “a hill of beans in this crazy world”. And then there is the case of The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade. For a man whose partner is murdered right at the off, Spade’s register is primarily one of fun. Through all the cloak and dagger of the plot, he seems like he’s having a great time. But he and client Brigid O’Shaughnessy do develop feelings for each other. And in the end, her culpability in the machinations of the villains is something Spade decides to reckon with, as he gives her up to the police.
So Bogart’s characters proactively and poignantly send their love interests away. And at first Sabrina fits that pattern exactly, but by the end it’s subverted. Linus takes a smaller company boat and catches up to Sabrina on the ship, and the movie ends on their loving embrace.
Sabrina is an entertaining romance, and also part of a consistent continuum for Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Her social mobility and his romantic tragedies come together in a synthesis of both their screen personas. As Sabrina rises in social standing, she falls in love. And Linus, who seemingly has all the industrial power he could want, realizes it means nothing if he loses the person he loves.