Cimarron (1931):  Taming No-Man’s Land

Irene Dunne as Sabra Cravat and Richard Dix as Yancey Cravat walking down the street of Osage.  Sabra carries an umbrella.  Yancey's hit has a bullet hole.
Cimarron (1931) opening title card

Edna Ferber decided to write about Oklahoma after her friend (and editor of the Kansas-based Emporia Gazette) William Allen White regaled her with tales of the 1889 land rush and its rocky road to statehood. 

“I knew literally nothing of Oklahoma until that evening,” Ferber writes in her first memoir, A Peculiar Treasure.  “It was a state in the Union.  That was all.”

After years of research and writing, she produced a novel she called Cimarron, named after the no-man’s strip of land fought over by white settlers and Cherokee that became the Oklahoma panhandle.  Cimarron was the best-selling book of 1930, one of the top grossing films of 1931, and the Academy Award winner for Outstanding Production (now Best Picture) in 1932.

Edna Ferber created blockbusters before the word existed.

Edna Ferber quote on the film Cimarron:  "Cimarron was made into a superb motion picture, the finest motion picture that has ever been made of any book of mine."

Richard Dix stars as Yancey Cravat, an adventurous young man bored with his life running a newspaper in Wichita, Kansas.  He convinces his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne, in her first of an eventual five Academy Award nominations for Best Actress) to head out to the uncivilized wilds of the Cimarron Territory to gain excitement and a free piece of land.

Things do not go as well for Yancey and Sabra as they do for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman at the end of 1992’s Far and Away, another film that depicts the Oklahoma land rush.  Unlike Cruise, Yancey comes away with nothing after a prostitute outsmarts him and stakes her claim on the land Yancey wanted.

Undeterred, Yancey opens a newspaper in Osage, a rough western town that rose up overnight to accommodate the influx of white settlers looking for land in the unconquered west.

Oklahoma land rush as depicted in the film Cimarron
Oklahoma land rush, as depicted in Cimarron (1931)

Filthy, violent, and overrun with criminals, prostitutes, and gambling halls, Osage is no place for a lady, much less Yancey and Sabra’s young son.  Yet Sabra finds enough grit in her soul to toughen up and adjust to life in a town where men are regularly gunned down in the street.

Four years later, Yancey tries again in the 1893 rush for land in the Cherokee strip.  He leaves Sabra and their now two children temporarily behind.  Once he secures a bit of land, he’ll come back for them.

Sabra doesn’t see him again for five years, and when she does he’s still landless.

Wanderlust kept him away. 

He leaves again, and this time Sabra doesn’t see him for decades.

Abandoned Sabra doesn’t return to Wichita.  She takes over the newspaper, raises her children in a wild land, and watches as Oklahoma grows from a savage wilderness to a state in 1907.  She eventually becomes the young state’s first female congresswoman.

Through it all, she remains loyal to Yancey, never taking his name off the newspaper’s masthead, and never speaking a word against him.  She loves him through it all, and the film ends with her holding him as he dies after not seeing him for decades.

“All the critics and the hundreds of thousands of readers took Cimarron as a colorful romantic Western American novel,” Ferber wrote.  In both the book and film, Sabra was seen as the ideal wife, Penelope waiting for her Odysseus to return.

Yet this was not Ferber’s intended message.

Cimarron had been written with a hard and ruthless purpose,” she admits.  “It was, and is, a malevolent picture of what is known as American womanhood and American sentimentality.  It contains paragraphs and even chapters of satire and, I am afraid, bitterness….Perhaps it will be read and understood in another day, not my day.”

Though she’s not around to witness it, those of us still watching and reading the story of Cimarron can see clearly what Ferber was trying to say.  The American woman of 2022 would not leave her husband’s name at the top of a newspaper she’d been running for decades.  The American woman of 2022 would not admire another woman for doing so.

Ferber was a feminist, a word I don’t think she used to describe herself, and Cimarron is one of the starkest examples of one of the major themes of her work—that the American woman is stronger than the American man.

Ferber women are forever picking up the pieces of the weaker, unfocused, and dull men in their lives.

Sabra’s only fault in the film is that she detests the Native Americans of Osage.  She considers them no better than filthy savages, and forbids her children to play with them.  Yancey is the one advocating for their rights in his newspaper, when he’s around to run it.

But in a storyline Ferber would repeat years later in Giant, Sabra is forced to confront her racism when her son marries a Native American girl.  Like Bick Benedict in the diner, Sabra shows she has grown past her narrow views when she praises her Native American daughter-in-law at a public ceremony.

Yet like Dinner at Eight, this film is bit too old for the modern viewer.  It’s impressive for a film made in 1931, when directors were still figuring out how to make talkies.  For film buffs, it’s worth taking a look just to watch the scene of the land rush, and get a glimpse of a very young Irene Dunne in only her second role.  She’s miles away from the confident, wily woman who verbally two-stepped with Cary Grant, but the raw talent is on display.

There’s a 1960 remake with Glenn Ford, but your best bet is to skip both film versions and instead find a copy of Ferber’s novel, pour a whiskey, settle into your favorite easy chair and enjoy a good yarn of the wild west.

Sources/Notes

  • All direct quotes from Edna Ferber’s memoir A Peculiar Treasure, 1939.
  • Ferber notes that Cimarron is her favorite film, but this was written in 1939, before she wrote Giant, another adaptation of her work that she greatly enjoyed.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Big “R”

Dad holding a certificate announcing his retirement.

On Friday, my Dad woke up at 4 a.m. to go to work for the last time.

He’s retired.

His time is now his own (well, his and my mother’s.)  This seems impossible to me, as my dad has planned his life around his duty to his employer since before I was born.

My dad has always worked hard.  He got his start at Children’s Palace when he was a teenager.  Long defunct, Children’s Palace was a retail chain that sold toys.  He followed the post office’s motto—neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night would stop him from showing up for a shift.

One morning he woke to find several feet of snow on the ground.  Shutting off the alarm and going back to bed never crossed his mind—he had a shift.  He couldn’t drive on the unplowed roads, so he started walking.

Though someone eventually picked him up, he intended to walk the ten miles to Children’s Palace if he had to.

I have no doubt he would have.

He was one of only a handful of employees who’d showed up, and there were certainly no customers.  They tossed around a football in the parking lot.

He spent the bulk of his adult life working in a factory that made automobile windshields.  Because the glass-making furnace took days to reheat after being shut down, the place ran twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year.

Every day meant every day.

Saturdays.  Sundays.  New Year’s Day.  Thanksgiving.  Christmas Day.

My dad worked every hour of the day—the morning shift, the swing shift, the midnight shift.  He worked on a rotation, changing shifts after a week so that he could never really get into a dedicated sleep schedule.  He worked many twelve hour shifts.

And when he finally got a day off, if someone else was sick or called off, he’d have to go back in.

The glass furnace never slept.  My mother made sure he did.

He wanted to forgo daytime sleep and run on caffeine and the boundless energy he still possesses.  But I forever remember her browbeating him into bed, even though she’d rather have him up with her as well.  She enforced quiet while he slept—no friends over, no screaming while running around in the backyard.

He made his sacrifices, and she did as well.

He drove 25 miles each way to work, and some days it took almost an hour. 

He was never late.  If there was a snowstorm, he left early.  If there was a blizzard—like the Pittsburgh blizzard of 1993—he left earlier.  He made it there in a Geo metro with a 3-cylinder, 1.0 liter engine.

The company gave him a special award for making it to work that day.

He had no great passion for his work—he saw each shift as a promise, and he is a man of his word.  He showed up, he did both the job on the job description, and anything else he could find to make himself useful.

I had no idea as a kid that this might be a difficult way to live.  I didn’t know because he never complained.

It wasn’t until I became an adult—with the luxury of weekends and holidays off, every night for sleeping, and the ability to take a sick or work-from-home day on a whim, did I realize how he grinded all those years.

They’re calling for snow tonight and into Monday.  Eleven inches, maybe more.  Weather that’ll close down the city, but wouldn’t have closed down my dad.

And for the first time since his days at Children’s Palace, he won’t have to suit up and take it on.

He can sleep through it or, knowing him, he’ll build a snowman.

But finally, he’ll have the choice.

Giant (1956):  Edna Ferber Takes on Texas

James Dean as Jett Rink sitting in a car during the movie Giant (1956).
James Dean in Giant (1956)
Opening banner for Giant (1956.)

Edna Ferber didn’t want to write about Texas.  She’d written eleven novels, several of them requiring prodigious research, so she knew the work it would take to get Texas right.  After an initial trip to Houston, she declared it a man’s job, not one for a Jewish woman who’d grown up in the Midwest, lived in New York, and vacationed in Europe.

But Texas wouldn’t let her go, and nearly a dozen years after the initial idea, Ferber wrestled her story onto the page in the form of Giant, an epic saga of the Benedict family over generations.

It was one of the top ten best-selling novels of 1952.

Quote from A Kind of Magic by Edna Ferber about not wanting to write about Texas.

Director George Stevens approached Ferber about making a film adaptation.  He needed a lot of money up front to make the film, so he convinced Ferber to forgo a flat fee and instead cut her in on a share of film’s profits. 

Stevens also saved money by using lesser known actors in the lead roles, knowing that Texas would be the star.

Those lesser-known stars?

Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean.

Giants indeed.

Giant (1956), a film about Texas, opens in Maryland.  Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Hudson) has come to Maryland only to buy a horse, but returns to his Texas ranch with both the horse and a wife.

The storytelling starts zoomed in on Bick and Leslie (Taylor), then slowly zooms out over the next three-plus hours, getting wider and wider.

Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor on horseback while filming Giant (1956)
Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor

We start with the newlyweds—who only knew one another two days before their wedding—locking heads early and often as Leslie (Taylor), a daughter of Maryland, tries to adjust to Texas life in the 1920s.

A stranger in a strange land, Leslie must find her place on Reata, a hard-working ranch owned by Bick but run—for all intents and purposes—by his sister, Luz, who doesn’t take kindly to Bick bringing home a wife.

But when Luz dies tragically, the story zooms out a level.  Luz leaves a piece of land to Jett Rink (Dean), a white trash ranch hand who is in love—or at least lust—with Leslie.  Mainly for spite, Jett refuses to sell the land back to Bick.

Jett is a drunk and a rebel, and accuses the Benedicts of stealing their land from the Mexicans and Latin Americans who lived on it first.  Leslie, for her part, is always encouraging Bick to treat the poor Mexicans living in poverty around the ranch better. 

It takes decades for Bick to come around to Leslie’s point of view.

When Jett strikes oil on his piece of land, the story widens further to depict the nouveau riche of the Texas oil families of the day.  Bick initially resists having his property drilled for oil, but eventually succumbs and the Benedicts find wealth beyond their imagination.

In the final act the film zooms out one last time and becomes about the passing of one generation to another.  Bick has spent his life working his ranch, as both his father and grandfather did, only to find that his grown children have no interest in running the property.

Bick feels a failure, but to Leslie he has finally become the man she wanted him to be when he stands up for a Mexican-American family in a diner.

Giant—the novel and the film—were ahead of their time, and the film is almost startling in its relevancy to contemporary themes, with its focus on gender, race, and class relations.

It was well worth watching in 1956, and well worth watching today.

The film struck oil at the 1957 Academy Awards with nine nominations.  Both Hudson and Dean were nominated for Best Actor, and Mercedes McCambridge for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Bick’s sister.  George Stevens won for Best Director.

Mercedes McCambridge as Luz Benedict
Mercedes McCambridge as Luz Benedict

But in many ways the film’s success was overshadowed by the specter of James Dean, who died immediately after the film’s completion and never knew of its success or his nomination.

My readers need no introduction to the legend of James Dean, a legend built on a rebel temperament, car racing, and an early death, and not entirely supported by his work in the three films he completed before his death.

Edna Ferber spent time on the set of Giant.  She’d met Dean and was won over by his charm while not blind to his faults.  In her memoir A Kind of Magic, she writes that he was, “Impish, compelling, magnetic; utterly winning one moment, obnoxious the next.  Definitely gifted.  Frequently maddening.”

Edna Ferber twirling a rope while James Dean and the cast of Giant watch
Edna Ferber with James Dean on the set of Giant

She was appalled by his car racing, and noted that his Warner Brothers contract included a clause that he could not own or race a car until the filming was completed on Giant.  On the day the filming ended, he bought the Porsche he would die in.  He was still set to return to Giant to do voice over dubbing for the famous scene in which a drunken Jett Rink gives a speech to an empty ball room.

Once she’d returned home, Edna Ferber wrote James Dean a letter thanking him for sending her an autographed photo of himself dressed as Jett Rink.

She wrote, “…when it [the photo] arrived I was interested to notice for the first time how much your profile resembles that of John Barrymore.  You’re too young ever to have seen him, I suppose.  It really is startlingly similar.  But then, your automobile racing will probably soon take care of that.”

We’ll never know if James Dean agreed with Ferber’s assessment that he looked like John Barrymore.

He was dead before the letter arrived, killed in an accident while driving his Porsche 90 miles an hour on the way to an auto race.

Giant (1956) Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Kind of Magic.  1963
  • Goldsmith Gilbert, Julie.  Ferber:  A Biography of Edna Ferber and Her Circle, 1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Making Up for Lost (Fitbit) Time

Fitbit Dashboard showing average of 1,784 steps per day

Peter Drucker, a 20th century management consultant whose work still influences corporate America today, once wrote that, “what gets measured gets managed.”  The concept is powerful—if you weigh yourself daily, for example, you’re more likely to lower that number on the scale if you’re unhappy with it. 

Used correctly, metrics drive a positive outcome.  Used incorrectly, they drive behavior that can only be described as insane.

That brings me to my Fitbit watch.

I bought the Fitbit watch in late November on a bit of a whim—like most smartwatches, it tracks steps and other basic measurements of daily activity and sleep.

When you hit 10,000 steps, you get a celebratory buzz, and if you fail to walk 250 steps in an hour, you get a punitive buzz.  Like a new mother with a crying baby, you quickly discern the nuanced differences between the buzzes.

It’s packed with goals—in addition to the steps, it pushes you to strive for 150 Active Zone minutes each work and seven hours of quality sleep.  Fitbit determines what counts as Active Zone minutes and quality sleep using an algorithm that I will never even attempt to understand.  Just give me the green check if I hit it.

I love granting myself gold stars for completing tasks, so all these daily targets are catnip to my goal-loving brain.  After playing with it for a few weeks, I decided to make a goal of walking an average of 10,000 steps per day in 2022.

Fortunately, I wrote average instead of every day.  Because on January 2nd, my Fitbit stopped working.

Completely.

I talked to Fitbit customer service and they were fantastic about replacing the watch free of charge, but by the time it arrived, four days had gone by.

Four days of zero steps.

And so the app showed a measly 2,000 step average for 2022 so far.

Of course, I had walked some on the zero days.  But if a step is taken and is not tracked on a Fitbit, did it really happen?

I decided not.

A normal person would just start from today and try to keep the 10,000 step streak going, but since I’m going to manage what I measure like a good little Drucker devotee, I have to get that average up as soon as possible.

Which means walking more than 10,000 steps per day.  I set myself a new little sub-goal of walking 15,000 steps until I get my average back over 10,000.  I decided this approximately one hour before the first snow storm of the year.

So out I trudged into the snow with a heavy coat and boots.  On a normal day, I get around 5,000-7,000 steps just moving around the house, and then I take a walk to top myself off over 10,000.

But now, I needed 15,000 starting from scratch.  I walked and walked through the snow, ignoring my frozen fingers and toes.  The snow kept coming, day turned to night, and still I kept walking.

The watch buzzed its celebratory buzz when I hit 10,000.

I kept walking.

Around and around the neighborhood until I hit 15,000.  Then I went home and thawed out.

Day two was more difficult—I got 10,000 steps easily enough, but around bedtime I realized I had 3,000 more to go to get to 15,000.  Instead of going to sleep I did circles around the living room, up and down the stairs, round and round until I clocked in another few thousand.

I’m not sure this is what Fitbit or Drucker had in mind.

Either way, I’ve got to cut this short—time for a walk.

Dinner at Eight (1933):  Focus on Ferber

Though she’s not as well remembered today, Edna Ferber was a literary giant of the early and mid-twentieth century on par with contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner.

Seven of her novels were among the top ten best sellers in the year of their publication, and two topped the list, both feats that neither Hemingway, Fitzgerald, nor Faulkner accomplished.

She was primarily a playwright and novelist, her works encompassing the trials and tribulations of the American people, whom she knew and loved.  Her well-researched works covered a wide range of American life, from the struggle of Oklahoma statehood, to life on the Mississippi, the machismo of early twentieth century Texas, and the actors on the New York stage scratching out a living.

Edna Ferber

Her commercial and critical success ensured that Hollywood would come calling, and when it did she took the money and ran, having little to do with the making of most of her films.

So though you may not know the name Edna Ferber, you undoubtedly know the films based on her work.  Over the next eight weeks, we’ll cover the onscreen adaptations of this forgotten chronicler of the American experience.

Let’s start with Dinner at Eight (1933.) 

Ferber collaborated on nearly all her plays with fellow Algonquin Round Table member George Kaufman, and Ferber had long had the idea to write a comedy of manners with interlocking stories surrounding a group of couples set to attend a dinner party.  The play was a success, and it was adapted for the screen the next year.

Dinner at Eight was producer David O. Selznick’s first film with MGM after his successful stint at RKO.  Selznick wanted to prove his worth to father-in-law and boss Louis B. Mayer, and compete with golden boy MGM producer Irving Thalberg.  So he brought director George Cukor over from RKO, and they set about casting the successful play for the screen.

The similarities to Grand Hotel were known from the start—Ferber and Kaufman knew before writing the play that it would be compared to William A. Drake’s play, also made into an MGM film with an all-star ensemble cast, though Ferber insisted that she’d had the initial idea years before Grand Hotel was produced, but had to talk Kaufmann into doing it.

Both Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight have large star-filled casts with a history of stage acting.  Both have multiple storylines that intersect in funny, tragic, and surprising ways.  John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery star in both films.

Dinner at Eight begins simply enough—Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke, years before her unforgettable turn as Glinda the Good Witch) wants to throw a dinner party for her wealthy friends and acquaintances.  But there’s secrets among the group—affairs, looming financial disasters, and an impending suicide.  The film starts with the invitations, divulges the secrets, and gathers the group together at the Jordan’s home before ending just as the group goes into the dinner room for the titular dinner.

It’s not as good a film as Grand Hotel.  There’s lots and lots of talking, and not quite enough action, even for a film made in 1933.  I gave the film two shots—viewing it several weeks apart, and I must admit that I fell asleep both times in the middle.

The film comes alive only when Jean Harlow arrives, and she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.  She plays Kitty Packard, the low class wife of Dan Packard.  Millicent was forced to invite the Packards as her husband wants Dan to invest in his failing family business.

Jean Harlow, Dinner at Eight

Kitty flounces around in her dressing gown, literally eating bon bons and having an affair with her doctor while her husband works to build his business empire.  She’s thrilled to attend the party, and arrives in an inappropriately tight dress.  She’s crass, laughs too loud, and doesn’t know how to hide her low-class breeding.

It’s a character Harlow perfected—the low class floozy—and the whole film wakes up when she slinks onto the screen.

Dinner at Eight has a distinguished pedigree—an all-star cast, great director, a producer who would go on to write his name in the Hollywood history books, and yet this film doesn’t have much to offer the modern audience outside of a view of Harlow, a star gone too soon when she died suddenly of kidney failure at twenty-six just four years after Dinner was filmed.

I tip my cap to all involved, but Dinner at Eight had it’s day, but it’s day is done.

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Wishing for a “Red” New Year

This is the story of my greatest regret.

Flashback to July 6, 2013, nearly nine years ago.  It’s a gorgeous day, and I’m floating around in my parent’s swimming pool, wondering if I’d made the right decision.

Surely you know what happened that day.  You don’t?

Taylor Swift’s Red Tour came to Pittsburgh. 

Until that moment, I’d seen Swift every time she’d come through Pittsburgh, all the way back to 2006 when she opened for Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s Soul2Soul II Tour.  Back when she played about five songs wearing cowboy boots and a floral print dress while half the audience bought beer and nachos.  It was much the same in 2007 when she opened for George Strait, still sporting her original curly blonde hair.

My best friend Nina and I saw her first headlining tour, Fearless in 2009, and we were back for Speak Now in 2011.

We were Swifties before they even had a name for it.

So why weren’t we there on that July day in 2013?

Stupidity and stubbornness. 

While we’d previously seen Swift at the covered and now defunct Mellon Arena, the Speak Now Tour had been at Heinz Field, the open air arena where the Pittsburgh Steelers play football.

It was—and remains—a terrible place for live music.  The sound dissipates into the open end of the field, and the seats that we can afford are so far away from the stage that you can barely see the jumbotron, much less that actual artist.  You’re at the mercy of Pittsburgh summer weather, meaning it’ll either be so hot you’ll be sticking to your seat or hiding under a plastic bag poncho in a drenching thunderstorm.

Who needs it?

Not us, we decided.

But July 6, 2013 was a perfect day.  High seventies, sunny, low humidity.

The kind of day only Taylor Swift could command for Pittsburgh in July.

I was floating around, thinking that I could call Nina, we could buy tickets from someone selling outside the gate, and even if our noses bled, at least we’d be there.

But instead I just laid in the pool, oblivious to the fact that my flip phone was ringing off the hook.  This was in the before times, when people had cell phones, but they stayed in your purse unless you were actively making a call.  They weren’t yet a permanent appendage.

It was Nina, and she wasn’t calling to say we should buy tickets for the Red Tour.  Her mother-in-law had somehow won two front row tickets to the Red Tour and gave them to Nina.

Let me say that again…FRONT ROW TICKETS TO THE RED TOUR.

But she couldn’t get through to me in time, so she went with her mother-in-law, who didn’t know Taylor Swift from James Taylor.  You could hear the primal scream two states over when I listened to that voice mail, knowing it was too late.

That’s why people take their phones into the bathroom with them.

Nina and I were back in 2015 for the 1989 Tour, and in 2018 our Swiftie duo became a trio when we took her daughter to the Reputation Tour.

The next generation of Swifities has begun.

I will never miss another Taylor Swift tour, but I will never hear most of the songs from the Red album—the best Swift album—live.  Never get to hear her sing All Too Well.

“Your greatest regret is that you didn’t answer your phone?” Nina’s daughter asked me, eyebrow lifted, when I told her this story.

“It is.”

“Pretty charmed life,” she said, making me laugh.

Charmed indeed.  Because this past November, Taylor Swift was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, and out of nowhere she played an expanded, ten-minute version of All Too Well, nearly a decade after its initial release.

As part of her ongoing battle with her original record label, she re-released the Red album with new and expanded songs.

“You know what this means?” Nina asked when she called the next morning.

I did.

One day this pandemic will end, and Taylor Swift will tour again.  And though she has three new albums of material that she’s never gotten to play live (Lover, Folklore, Evermore), that tour will include her monster version of All Too Well.

The three of us will be there.  And I’ll get the second chance I never deserved.

Because for those ten minutes, it’ll be 2013.

And I’ll finally be at the Red Tour.

One Last Look at 2021

The start of a new year is like a fresh snowstorm, the world a momentary blank slate waiting to see who will leave their footprints on it.

I’ve got big plans for 2022; and if I’ve learned anything over the past two years, it’s that 2022 has got plans for me that I know nothing about yet.

Before we charge forth, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on this site’s most viewed posts over the past year.

Top 3 Most Viewed Posts Written in 2021

  1. The First Divine Feud: Bette and Miriam
  2. The Posse Turns 40
  3. Hedy Lamarr: Cursed by Beauty

My Favorite 3 Posts Written in 2021 (in addition to the above)

  1. The Heiress (1949): Ascending to New Heights
  2. Sunrise (1927): Hollywood Rowboat Murders Go Way Back
  3. Notorious (1946): Hollywood’s Longest, Sexiest Kiss

Thank you all for making 2021 a record year for this blog in terms of visitors and views. Wishing you health and happiness and a trail of footprints in 2022.

Remake Rumble:  Sabrina (1954) vs Sabrina (1995)

Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford

After last week’s post, reader rdfranciswriter commented:

So let’s do one last Remake Rumble for 2021, shall we?

The story of Sabrina Fairchild and the brothers who courted her originally flowed from the pen of playwright Samuel A. Taylor as Sabrina Fair:  A Woman of the World that opened on Broadway in 1953 starring Margaret Sullavan (last seen in this series in The Shop Around the Corner) and Joseph Cotton (last seen here as Joan Fontaine’s lover in September Affair.) 

The next year Billy Wilder set to write, produce, and direct a film version of the play and assembled a powerhouse cast—Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden.  The foursome would end their careers with 32 Oscar nominations and 9 wins among them, with each of the leads having a Best Acting Oscar on their shelf.

Sabrina tells the story of Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn), a gawky chauffeur’s daughter who lives on the estate of the wealthy Larrabee family.  She has forever had a schoolgirl crush on David Larrabee (Holden), the much older playboy who flits from woman to woman and barely knows Sabrina is alive.

But when she returns after two years in France all grown up, hair cut short and dressed like, well, Audrey Hepburn, David is instantly infatuated with her, not immediately realizing she’s a girl he’s known all his life.  His fiancé forgotten, he invites Sabrina to one of the Larrabee parties and suddenly she’s Cinderella at the ball, on the inside instead of watching the festivities from her perch in a tree.

Audrey Hepburn, William Holden

But this will not do.

David’s mother is dismayed at the idea of him parading a servant’s daughter in front of their high-class friends, but his older brother Linus (Bogart) is against the relationship for an entirely different reason.  Linus is the one who does all the work in the family, running their massive empire, practically living in his office.  He’s arranged David’s upcoming marriage to Elizabeth Tyson like an ancient king, a bargaining chip to foster a merger between her family’s company and his own.

Hollywood Royalty: Bogart, Hepburn, Holden

Knowing David’s short attention span (and not suspecting Sabrina’s lifelong devotion to him), Linus sets on wooing Sabrina away from David and then tricking her into sailing back to Paris, believing that he will meet her on the boat.

But ruthless Linus is soon under Sabrina’s spell, and she begins to wonder if she’s loved the wrong brother all these years….

Sydney Pollack’s 1995 remake keeps the spirit of the original in-tact and makes some minor improvements.  Sabrina (this time played by Julia Ormond) spends her time working for Vogue magazine, and this explains her fashion transformation better than the original, where she studies at a cooking school.

There is also a more pronounced physical change in Sabrina and it’s much more believable that David wouldn’t recognize her.

Greg Kinnear, Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford

He also somewhat shrinks the age difference between his leads—Harrison Ford is twenty-three years older than Ormond, and looks younger than his years.  Bogart was thirty years older than Hepburn, and looked even older, as his health had begun to suffer (he would be dead within three years of Sabrina’s release.)

The Larrabee corporation is updated to buying and selling networks and televisions, cutting edge technology for the 1990’s.

And Linus buys Sabrina a plane ticket to Paris rather than a cabin on an ocean liner.

Ford, Ormond

But the broad strokes remain.  We still get to see David the playboy in action, a lovesick girl grow into a sophisticated woman, and Linus’ gradual realization that there’s more to life than the next big deal.  We also get to see David punch out his brother when he realizes just what Linus has been up to, and also see David finally grow up and do what’s best for his family’s company—and his brother.

As to the verdict?

Come on.  This is the Golden Age of Hollywood blog.  If I picked a 1995 remake over a film tailor-made for legend of legends Audrey Hepburn, with three Oscar winners in the lead roles and a multi-winner in the director’s chair, I’d lose my license to write here.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.