Study Guide

Sabrina Director

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Billy Wilder

If I Can't Write Here, I Will Direct There

Samuel "Billie" Wilder was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1906. His family wanted him to be a lawyer, but he said, no way—and tripped off to Vienna and then Berlin to write articles and journalism.

Eventually he found his way into the film business, and wrote numerous scripts, until the rise of the Nazis in 1933. Wilder was Jewish, and he knew the German film industry was no place for him, so he traveled to Paris and then to the United States.

Wilder didn't speak English, but he wasn't going to let a little thing like that stop him from being a writer. He learned quickly, and with his writing partner Charles Brackett he penned a bunch of important Hollywood films, including Ball of Fire (1941). But Wilder was twitchy and he didn't like other people directing his scripts and mucking them up. So he decided to be a director.

And basically whatever Billy Wilder put his mind to turned into solid gold.

He quickly put out a string of classic films, including Double Indemnity, (1944) — possibly the only great suspense noir thriller about insurance policies— and The Lost Weekend (1945), an Oscar-winning downer about alcoholism. Wilder also co-wrote and directed Sunset Blvd. (1950), about how decadent and cruel and awful Hollywood is. You wouldn't think that would go over well, but Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood.

Now I'll Be Funny

Many of Wilder's best-known films were serious affairs that took a dim view of human nature. Starting around the time of Sabrina, though, the director began to make more comedies… and, as we know, Billy Wilder could do anything he put his mind to.

These films were often known for their sexual charge. The Seven Year Itch (1955) remains iconic for the scene where Marilyn Monroe's dress is blown up by a grate, and Kiss Me, Stupid (1960) presents wife-swapping in a carefree fashion, which is still pretty shocking today.

Sabrina is more low-key, but still has the Wilder touch. The director was a fan of Howard Hawks' no-frills, no-artsy-fartsy stuff directorial style; his movies tell their stories in a straightforward, clear visual manner. But they are also playful and sophisticated—which in Sabrina means, among other things, oodles of elegant dresses.

Wilder continued to work in the 60s and 70s, though his most famous films were behind him. He largely retired after the 80s, though he lived to be 95, dying in 2002. His legend lives on, though.

Europe to America

The most personal bit of Sabrina, in terms of Wilder's biography, may be the shuttling back and forth between Europe and America. For Sabrina, Paris is a magical, wonderful place.

SABRINA: Paris… it's for changing your outlook, for... for throwing open the windows and letting in... letting in la vie en rose.

The idea of emigrating and changing your outlook and life has to have resonated with Wilder, though he, of course, was traveling in the opposite direction; from Germany to Paris, and then on to the U.S.

For Sabrina, Europe means sophistication and love. For Wilder, America didn't exactly mean those things—he made many films about the crass American pursuit of money and success.

But, at the same time, Wilder did find success himself in the U.S., and an outlet for his creativity not available in the old world. The film isn't just about Americans dreaming of Europe, but about a European dreaming of Americans dreaming of Europe—and perhaps wishing that the sophisticated, sexy, wonderful Europe of America's dream was real.

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