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Sabrina Fair : a comedy in four acts by…

Sabrina Fair : a comedy in four acts (edition 1955)

by Samuel Taylor

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Title:Sabrina Fair : a comedy in four acts
Authors:Samuel Taylor
Info:[New York] : Dramatists Play Service, c1955.
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Sabrina Fair by Samuel Taylor



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Typical mid-twentieth century fare with a totally predictable ending. And when I say predictable, I mean not by the end of the first act, but early in the first scene. It is not subtle. Long expository speeches that are a bit tortured, and overall, a story that lacks any originality or verve. ( )
  Devil_llama | Jun 5, 2016 |
  kutheatre | Jun 7, 2015 |
Samuel Taylor

Sabrina Fair

Dramatists Play Service, Inc., Paperback, [1998].

8vo. 85 pp.

First presented by the Playwrights’ Company at the National Theatre, New York City, on November 11, 1953.

Maude Larrabee
Julia Ward McKinlock
Linus Larrabee, Jr.
Linus Larrabee
David Larrabee
Sabrina Fairchild

Act I: A Saturday afternoon in September.
Act II: Friday evening, two weeks later.
Act III: The following morning.
Act IV: Immediately following.

The place is a home on the North Shore of Long Island, about an hour from New York City.


I have come to that play by two movie adaptations of it. One is the classic 1954 masterpiece directed by Billy Wilder, starring the almost painfully cute Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina, the aged and ill but still wonderful Humphrey Bogart as Linus Larrabee, and the perfectly dashing William Holden as his brother, David. The other movie is the rather lame 1995 remake, directed by Sydney Polack and starring a lifeless and dull Julia Ormond, an awkward and uneasy Harrison Ford and a perfectly boring Greg Kinnear, respectively. Since the former is among my all-time movie favourites, and the latter makes for a fascinating comparison (if nothing else), I thought I should have a look at Samuel Taylor’s original play. But before going any further, please be warned:

Lots of spoilers ahead: do not read unless you are familiar with both movies and the play.

By far the most amazing thing is how different from the play both movies are. The basic plot, a modern version of Cinderella, is retained. Sabrina is still the chauffeur’s daughter who lives above the garage together with her father, Fairchild, leaves for Paris as an insignificant girl and returns to Larrabee’s Long Island mansion as a dashing woman of the world. After an amusing merry-go-round of business and romance, she gets the brother she wants. These are the main events and they do happen in both movies as well as in the play. But the similarities end here. Despite numerous differences, both movies were obviously derived from one another; they have much more in common than either with the play. Apparently, the dramatist, together with Billy Wilder and one Ernest Lehman, did a thorough revision of his play for its first appearance on the screen in 1954.

To put the matter bluntly, the first version for the screen is infinitely superior to the original for the stage. Indeed, the screenplay would make an excellent play. I may be a trifle unfair to Mr Taylor’s original since I have seen the movie first, and quite a few times at that, but I don’t see how it can be denied that Messrs Wilder and Lehman made Mr Taylor’s creation much more coherent and plausible, yet more romantic and affecting as well, and a great deal wittier and wiser.

I don’t know if Samuel Taylor’s play is revived these days at all, but it must have been quite a success at the time: after its premiere on Broadway it ran for 318 performances. I am a little puzzled by that. The play certainly has some merit, for it is skilfully constructed and some scenes are not altogether devoid of charm, but on the whole, with the movie in mind, it is a considerable disappointment.

To begin with, the play is a rather incongruous mixture of heavy-handed comedy and extremely cynical romance (if that’s the word), occasionally spiced up with exceedingly seedy activities that are somewhat amusing but smack strongly of cheap pornography. The comedy usually misfires badly: the scene with the “singing” cockatoo in the first act and the preposterous debacle with the injured ankle in the last one are perhaps the best examples. Sabrina’s first appearance after her return from Paris or the extraordinary discovery that her father, a chauffeur and a book lover, has actually become a millionaire thanks to his knack at the stock exchange are fine examples of mediocre drama that stretches the limits of verisimilitude a little too much.

Nobody in his right mind would expect realism in such a play, but everybody is surely right to ask for some good substitute for it. Usually a fine comedy and scintillating dialogue will do the trick. Unfortunately, Sabrina Fair lacks either.

Now, compare the play with Billy Wilder’s masterpiece. The gossip has it that it was a messy affair. The script was not finished by the time the shooting started (as in the case of The Apartment, by the way); Bogart and Holden couldn’t stand each other (perhaps that’s why the scenes between them are so marvellously real); the former couldn’t stand Hepburn either and said she couldn’t act (Bogie was wrong there), while the latter seriously fell in love with her (understandably, so did I), and so on and so forth. This is just another proof that everything that matters is the final result, not the minor world wars that led to it.

For Sabrina is just about one of the finest romantic comedies out there. It is definitely a comedy, but of the best kind: serious and thought-provoking. It is affecting without being in the least sentimental. (And what’s wrong with sentimentality anyway: who would dare deny it’s part and parcel of us all?) The plot is far subtler and more realistic than the play at virtually all fronts: Sabrina’s transformation, her lifelong infatuation with David and her newly blossomed passion for Linus; the last two, significantly, are altogether missing in the play.

The characters in the play exemplify the same kind of disappointment. Strange that Mr Taylor made David and Linus rather similar. They are totally different in the movie – Linus is the businessman made of steel with brains to tackle every deal; David is the proverbial playboy with the usual hormonal imbalance – and the dramatic contrast makes for a highly entertaining spectacle. What you get in the play is a colourless David and a monstrously cynical Linus: the former is dull, the latter is incredible. Nor is Sabrina’s transformation any more credible. Apart from superficial characteristics like dresses and hairstyle, it’s difficult to imagine how she could have been any more immature in the old, pre-Paris, days that she is now.

The certain elaboration of the characters of Fairchild and Maude Larrabee is no big bonus for the play, either. The only slight advantage in this respect is Julia Ward McKinlock, completely missing from the movie, who is one of those chatterboxes full of epigrams that add significantly to the entertainment value of a mediocre play. Her reprimanding Linus for playing with Sabrina’s feelings is unforgettable:

Get into her life or get out of her life! But don’t stand around playing god!

The characters in the movie are superior in every aspect. Even the absence of Miss McKinlock is rather nicely compensated for by the enlarged part of Oliver Larrabee (Linus Larrabee Sr in the play). It is brilliantly played by no other but the legendary Walter Hampden, one of the only two actors to have played Hamlet three times on Broadway in the post-World War I-era (once with Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia; I should love to have seen that, no matter that it happened half a century before I was even born). In 1954 Walter Hampden was 75 years old (he died on the next year), but he still was a tremendous actor, with a far from negligible talent for comedy. Indeed, his part here is hilarious and has some moments that always make me laugh. That delicious “Easy now” in the scene when Linus dictates a memo with gifts for Sabrina is brilliant, and so is his hiding and smoking in Linus’ wardrobe (“It’s good for the moths”). But my favourite is the lecture about the naughty ancestors of the Larrabee family (all this is missing from the play where Linus Larrabee Sr is a stuffy old bore fond of funerals):

I’m not saying that all Larrabees have been saints. There was a Thomas Larrabee who was hung for piracy and there was a Benjamin Larrabee who was a slave trader and there was my great-great uncle Joshua Larrabee who was shot in Indiana while attempting to rob a train. But there never was a Larrabee who has behaved as you, David Larrabee, have behaved tonight!

For David Larrabee has done the unforgivable: flirting with the chauffeur’s daughter! Consider, yet again, the entirely original script which is far more credible than anything in the play. David falls in love with Sabrina, not for any other reason, but because she looks so smart and sultry; he is thoroughly incapable of appreciating the profound change of her character. Linus’ “romance” with her starts as a “necessary business expense”, since a lucrative marriage is arranged for David (to facilitate a sugarcane deal of immense proportions) and she gets in the way.

In the process everybody makes an important discovery about the meaning of life. David finally decides that he should stop chasing “those pair of legs” and do something valuable, whereas Linus unexpectedly finds himself genuinely in love with Sabrina and for the first time in his life realises that there is more to it than business. As for Sabrina herself, she has several important discoveries to make: 1) that her passion for David is a childish thing that doesn’t last; and 2) that she falls for Linus in a rather different, and rather more lasting, manner. Despite her great Paris education, she is still not immune to Cupid’s arrows: she is cured of David all right, but now she has to get over the cure himself. The whole of the plot is far from unbelievable, quite unlike the fantastic – and not especially entertaining – stuff we are asked to believe in the play. So, for that matter, are the characters.

Now Linus in the movie is by no means devoid of cynicism, but it is the business that starts the whole thing. Bogie has been criticised a lot for his portrayal, all the more so since he was a last-minute replacement for Cary Grant. I may be inordinately fond of him, but I do think he did a wonderful job as Linus Larrabee. He was probably already ill at the time, and he does look older than his years, but this actually fits his character, reinforcing the image of the prematurely aged and dissipated tycoon; after all, Sabrina’s romance with Linus, quite unlike that with David, is not based on dazzling exterior. There are more than enough opportunities in the movie to appreciate the subtle, but significant, change in the character, from “business expense” to, literally, life-transforming passion.

Bogie is perfect in both his comic and his serious scenes with Audrey. I definitely disagree with any claims about lack of chemistry between them; the tennis court, the boat, the restaurant, the car, the last floor of the Larrabee skyscraper: beautiful scenes, all of them, cleverly written and superbly acted. I would take these characters and that plot over the seedy equivalents from the play anytime. Besides, Linus here has some great lines that Mr Taylor never gave him. The same, for that matter, is quite true of David and Sabrina. Consider these bitter-sweet exchanges of pleasantries.

[David has just learned that he’d been engaged as part of a business deal.]
David: It’s all beginning to make sense. Mr. Tyson owns the sugarcane. You own the formula for the plastics. And I’m supposed to be offered up as a human sacrifice on the altar of the industrial progress. Is that it?
Linus: You make it sound so vulgar, David, as if the son of the hot dog dynasty were being offered in marriage to the daughter of the mustard king. Surely, you don’t object to Elizabeth Tyson just because her father happens to have twenty million dollars? That’s very narrow-minded of you, David.

[On the boat; Linus is still playing a part here:]
Sabrina: Maybe you should go to Paris, Linus. It helped me. Have you ever been there?
Linus [thinks]: Oh yes. Once. For thirty-five minutes.
Sabrina: Thirty-five minutes?
Linus: Changing planes. I was on my way to Iraq on an oil deal.
Sabrina: Oh, but Paris isn’t for changing planes, it’s for changing your outlook! For throwing open the windows and letting in... letting in la vie en rose.
Linus [gravely]: Paris is for lovers. Maybe that's why I stayed only thirty-five minutes.

Sabrina: It’s so strange to think of you being touched by a woman. I always thought you walked alone.
Linus: No man walks alone from choice.
Sabrina: As a child I used to watch you, from the window over the garage. Coming and going, always wearing your black homburg and carrying a briefcase and an umbrella. I thought you could never belong to anyone. Never care for anyone.
Linus: Oh yes, the cold businessman behind his marble desk, way up in his executive suite. No emotions, just ice water in his veins and ticker tape coming from his heart. And yet... one day that same cold businessman, high up in a skyscraper, opens a window, steps out on a ledge... stands there for three hours wondering... if he should jump.
Sabrina: Because of her?
Linus: No. No, that was another woman. Sabrina, do you find it hard to believe that someone might want to blot out everything for sentimental reasons?
Sabrina: Oh I believe it! Do you know what I almost did for sentimental reasons? I... [stops herself] I went to Paris to blot it out.

I would love to hear these lines spoken on the stage but none of them, alas, occurs in the play. Instead, there is a great deal of verbose pastiche with very little substance in it. One of the greatest things about the movie is that it makes me eager to see more of William Holden and Audrey Hepburn. The former is just about the most perfect David imaginable, not especially bright but certainly not dumb, always grinning as if he never had a care in the world – which is indeed true. The same may be said of Audrey’s Sabrina, a beautifully accomplished portrayal of a character far more likable and easy to identify with than anything in Mr Taylor’s play. Whatever off-stage vicissitudes might have existed, the chemistry between the three principals on the screen is there. Walter Hampden, John Williams (as Fairchild) and the military-like cook instructor (“One, two, three, crack! New egg!”) are welcome bonuses, too.

As far as the remake is concerned, there is little to be said about it – except that it is almost as bad as the play. All principals and the director are embarrassingly inferior to the originals, and one indeed wonders why they decided to tackle a remake at all. None of the changes in the script is beneficial or memorable; for instance, the role of the mother is expanded but that of the father is completely omitted. On the whole, the movie tries to be more drama than comedy, ad it fails completely. The serious scenes are awkward and contrived, the final meeting between Linus and Sabrina in Paris almost nauseatingly so. The few scenes that are taken more or less straightforward from Billy Wilder’s version are painfully inferior in Sydney Pollack’s remake. Take for example (again missing in the play, alas) David’s escapade with the champagne glasses or Linus’ telling demonstration of the newest technologies (plastic in the old movie, plasma screen in the new one).

One last point, about the class issue; not a central one, but certainly present. It is not true, as sometimes suggested, that it is silenced in the movie; in fact, it is exactly the opposite. Interestingly, though, this is one of the points where the movie and the play are rather more similar than usual. Yet even here, as usual, the screenplay has improved on the original where Fairchild rants, rather pathetically, against the marriage of her daughter into a wealthy family. The issue is handled more delicately and more amusingly in the movie. The old Larrabee is still fiercely class-conscious, but in a much funnier way as already quoted, and Fairchild’s affection for his own social position is not exaggerated out of proportion. Here are two examples. The first is one of the few lines taken almost verbatim from the play. The second occurs only in the movie.

Fairchild: Democracy can be a wickedly unfair thing, Sabrina. Nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying somebody rich.

Fairchild: I like to think of life as a limousine. Though we are all riding together we must remember our places. There is a front seat and a back seat and a window in between.
Linus: Fairchild, I never realized it before, but you’re a terrible snob.
Fairchild: Yes, sir.

All in all, Samuel Taylor’s Sabrina Fair is a fairly entertaining trifle to spend a lonely evening with, warts and all. But even a superficial comparison with Billy Wilder’s movie reveals great defects – which are conspicuous anyway indeed. It is not that the movie gives an opportunity for a number of scenes that are difficult to handle on stage, such as in a moving car or in Paris, but that the screenplay has improved the play to the level of masterpiece. Instead of the verbose stage directions, tedious dialogue, senseless action and artificial characters of Mr Taylor, in the script you get a touching yet amusing romantic comedy, excellent dialogue with hardly a superfluous word, swift pace without dirty overtones and absolutely realistic characters (including their development).

Perhaps I am not fair to Sabrina Fair as it probably works much better with a great cast on the stage. That may be so. On paper, however, even without the dubious benefit of comparison with an entirely different medium, I can at best describe the play as a totally mediocre bunch of pulp and profoundness, the former in far greater amounts than the latter. ( )
5 vote Waldstein | Sep 20, 2011 |
I just thought it was perfect! The characters are quirky and sly and i love everything. like the father- he entertains himself by going to funerals. and linus, the tycoon son, is reserved, and clever, and like a modern mr. darcy.... of sorts. I loved it. ( )
  mrsxdarcy411 | Jun 7, 2010 |
A fine play that, under proper direction, can be smart and funny. While it is rather dated now, the commentary about crumbling barriers between the American aristocracy and those that serve it can still be poignant. I've not seen either film version but my understanding is that they do not deal with the class issues at all, which to me is the strongest part of this work. The rest is standard fifties romance. With good direction this play can be entertaining, however in the wrong hands it can be interminable drivel. ( )
1 vote B-Hive | Sep 6, 2009 |
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