Born Yesterday

Born Yesterday, 1950, Columbia Pictures. Starring Judy Holliday, William Holden, Broderick Crawford. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 102 minutes.

Brassy Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) is the girlfriend of boorish junk dealer Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), who has taken her with him to Washington, D.C., where he hopes to influence various Senators in a bid to strengthen his business. Brock is convinced Billie’s unrefined ways will harm his efforts, and he hires newsman Paul Verrall (William Holden) to teach her culture and improve her image.

Brock is ignoring his own shortcomings, however, while Billie becomes increasingly aware of them. His belittling manner toward her doesn’t go unnoticed by Verrall, who is falling for Billie. What Verrall doesn’t yet know is how important she is to Brock, not because of love so much as financial interest, for most of Brock’s holdings are in Billie’s name.

Larry Oliver, Barbara Brown, Broderick Crawford, Jim Devery, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday
Larry Oliver, Barbara Brown, Broderick Crawford, Jim Devery, Judy Holliday

The film was based on the popular play by Garson Kanin, which also starred Holliday in its Broadway run. The film’s producers were reluctant to use her in their production, and first considered a number of other actresses. The turning point in their decision to cast Holliday apparently was her performance in Adam’s Rib, also co-written by Kanin. Katharine Hepburn, star of that film, made sure Holliday’s scenes were essentially a screen test for Born Yesterday.

Holliday won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. While she did a wonderful job with the role, it was not of the calibre of other nominees, in particular, Bette Davis for All About Eve. Davis was expected by many to win the award, but Anne Baxter, whose role in that film was a supporting, not lead, actress part, was also nominated for Best Actress. Many believe fans of the movie split their vote between the two actresses, costing Davis the award. Gloria Swanson was also nominated (for Sunset Boulevard), and while her performance was more award-worthy than Holliday’s, the dark nature of the film may have worked against her.

William Holden, Judy Holliday star in Born Yesterday
William Holden, Judy Holliday

In addition to Holliday’s award, the film was nominated for four other Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing — Screenplay, and Best Costume Design, Black & White. It lost all four to All About Eve.

It is difficult at times to watch Brock’s violent treatment of Billie, and it can be uncomfortable watching Billie awkwardly try to fit in when she clearly does not. Those latter scenes were played for comedy, but don’t always work as intended. What does make this movie worth watching are the scenes between Holliday and Holden; they are sweet and poignant, and pivotal to the change in Billie.

Born Yesterday is a good film, and one with a strong presence in popular culture. It, sadly, remains relevant today in its portrayal of an abused young woman, but her growing strength and awareness of her own worth makes it worth the watch.

It Should Happen to You

It Should Happen to You, 1954, Columbia Pictures. Starring Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, Peter Lawford. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 86 minutes.

Young and broke, Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) dreams of a better life, better than “marrying the first man that comes along…or maybe the second.” She has been saving for the rather unusual goal of buying billboard space, where she plans to place her name and picture for all of New York City to see, believing fame will bring her what she wants.

She catches the attention of budding filmmaker Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon) while walking through Central Park one afternoon in her stocking feet.  The two hit it off, and when Pete tells her she may end up in one of his documentaries, Gladys is thrilled at the idea of being in the movies.

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Jack Lemmon, Judy Holliday

Later that day, she acts on her dream of fame and fortune and buys 90 days of billboard space. With her name in letters that seem sky-high, Gladys is on her way to the happiness she desires. Or so it seems, until the Adams Soap Co., which traditionally has purchased that same billboard space each year for the same three months, steps in. With negotiations designed to intimidate, Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford) works to get back what he sees as rightfully his.

In the meantime, Pete has moved into the same apartment building Gladys lives in, and the two begin a romance of sorts. Pete’s interest is obvious, while Gladys, although appreciative of his attentions, is more intent on seeing where the notoriety from the billboard can get her.

Judy Holliday portrays Gladys as a likable young woman who, despite her dreams of glory, is basically happy in life. Most importantly, she knows what she wants, although the path she believes will lead her there is perhaps ill-advised.

There are some wonderful lines in this film that reveal Gladys’ perceptive side and keep her from being merely a ditzy blonde. She is, in fact, more insightful than simple, and well-equipped to take care of herself in treacherous situations.  The script was written by Garson Kanin, who also wrote Born Yesterday and Adam’s Rib, two significant vehicles for Holliday’s career.

This was the first major film appearance for Jack Lemmon, who is at his best as the sincere, baffled man in love with a woman who is stubbornly pursuing a foolish goal. He stands in stark contrast to Lawford’s slick and sleazy character, a man who takes advantage of women as a matter of course.

Look for a delightful duet between Holliday and Lemmon, interspersed with conversation and casually confident piano-playing, one of the finest parts of the film.

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Judy Holliday, Peter Lawford

It Should Happen to You was nominated for one Academy Award, Best Costume Design (Black & White). It was well-received by both critics and audiences, and its popularity for classic film fans has grown in recent years with the onslaught of reality shows making the film’s mockery of being famous for being famous seem both prescient and insightful.

This is a movie with all the elements for a great comedy, and it delivers. The script is original and sharp, the performances by Holliday and Lemmon endearing, and the direction by George Cukor once again showing he knows how to bring out the best in both actors and a script. The better scenes are perhaps in the early parts of the film, but it remains charming until the heartfelt end.

Adam’s Rib

Adam’s Rib, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 100 minutes.

A distraught wife (Judy Holliday) seeks out her husband (Tom Ewell) as he meets with his paramour (Jean Hagen). With great inexpertise and a shaky aim, she shoots him in the shoulder, wounding his ego more than his body. Their story is headline news, and particularly captures the attention of Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn), married New York attorneys on the opposite side of the courtroom.

Amanda, a defense attorney, seeks to represent the bewildered and aggrieved wife, while Adam, part of the prosecuting attorney’s team, is assigned the case. For Adam, it is cut-and-dry; the defendant shot her husband and admitted to it, therefore, she is guilty of a crime. Amanda, however, sees a double standard in the way women are treated in the court system and believes a just sentence would be no sentence at all.

The happily married Bonners find their union strained as a result of the courtroom drama, and their belief in each other challenged.

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Jean Hagen, Tom Ewell, Judy Holliday

The movie was nominated for one Academy Award for screenwriting. It was greeted with favor by the press, including The New York Times, whose critic called it “a bang-up frolic” and Variety, who reported the film was “a bright comedy success, belting over a succession of sophisticated laughs.”

This was one of the first major motion picture roles for Holliday, who had come to the attention of the theater-going public in the Broadway production of Born Yesterday. Holliday would go on to make a career of playing scatterbrained yet inadvertantly insightful blondes, the same way she portrayed her character in Adam’s Rib.

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Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

The script was written by the husband and wife team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon.  Unlike many screenwriters of the time, Gordon and Kanin wrote independently and sold their scripts to the studios, so they remained free to write the stories they wanted without studio oversight. Working with George Cukor was beneficial, Kanin said in a later interview, because he “was a great respecter of the text.” Cukor, Hepburn and Tracy had input into the story, but the screenwriting remained the domain of Gordon and Kanin.

The sixth of nine films Hepburn and Tracy would star in together, it is perhaps one of their best, along with Woman of the Year. Their chemistry is obvious and, as we know, very real, and their talents equal and balanced. Both are masters of the use of subtle expression and moves, pure communication without words.

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Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

Adam’s Rib was timely in its portrayal of the woman’s issues of the day, and in many respects, the message is just as relevant today. The courtroom drama may become slapstick and story line a bit improbable at points, but that is part of most comedies, and this is a gem of a comedy.

 

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story, 1940, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 112 minutes.

Fiery, fiesty Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is ready to marry again, two years after her divorce from C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Much to her chagrin, Dexter, a former newspaperman, shows up the day before the wedding with two tabloid reporters he tries passing off as friends of Tracy’s brother: writer Macauley (Mike) Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrey (Ruth Hussey). Tracy isn’t fooled, but agrees to let them stay when Dexter tells her by covering the wedding he’s keeping the paper from a tell-all story about her father and his indiscretions.

Tracy quickly is becoming intrigued by Mike, and the two find themselves together perhaps a bit more often than a proper engaged woman should allow. That doesn’t stop Dexter from keeping a close watch for opportune moments to step in and take back Tracy’s heart.

The story line has taken a turn in that the rivalry is primarily between Dexter and Mike, with the fiancé virtually becoming a non-entity. Yet despite the battle for Tracy’s affection, the two remain gentlemanly toward each other. They are perhaps a little less kind to George, the fiancé, however.

Cary Grant, James Stewart The Philadelphia Story
Cary Grant. James Stewart

Katharine Hepburn first starred on Broadway in the stage version of The Philadelphia Story, and, as a gift from Howard Hughes, owned the film rights. She sold those rights to MGM for the paltry sum of $250,000 in exchange for decision-making power in the selection of producer, director, co-stars and screenwriter.

Her first choices for the male stars were Clark Gable as C.K. Dexter Haven and Spencer Tracy as Mike Connor, but neither were available. Hepburn had not met either man at that point; of course a few short years later she and Tracy would meet on the set of Woman of the Year and begin a life-long affair.

Reviews of the film were overwhelmingly positive. “Terribly funny, terribly upper class,” was how the Time magazine movie critic described it. The New York Times critic wrote: “this (film)… has just about everything that a blue-chip comedy should have—a witty, romantic script; ….the flavor of high-society elegance, in which the patrons invariably luxuriate, and a splendid cast of performers.” Audiences loved it as well, and flocked to see it, breaking a box-office record at Radio City Music Hall.

The Philadelphia Story was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two: Best Actor for James Stewart and Best Adapted Screenplay (based on the 1939 play of same name). Stewart was not expecting to win, admitting in his acceptance speech he’d voted for Henry Fonda. Many believed the award was given to him as compensation for not receiving it a year earlier for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Stewart, Grant, Hepburn
James Stewart, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn

Ruth Hussey gives a compelling performance as the patient, level-headed photographer in love with Mike Connor, despite his apparent oblivion to her affection. Both female characters in this film are strong and independent, qualities not undermined by their love for their men.

Two years after being declared “box office poison” by the Independent Theater Owners of America, Katharine Hepburn proved she was as powerful a leading lady as ever in her role in The Philadelphia Story. Never one to doubt her own worth, she set out to make a movie that proved her star power, and she succeeded.

The Women (1939)

The Women, 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 133 minutes

This biting satire of the lives of Park Avenue women has lost none of its punch since it first was released more than 75 years ago. The movie is rich with characters, sub-plots and razor-sharp wit, and the story line itself is as old as marriage.

Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is a devoted, trusting wife who learns, with the unsolicited help of her less-than-true friend Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), about her husband’s affair with a perfume counter clerk, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford).

Rosalind Russell in the The Women
Mimi Olivera, Rosalind Russell

Sylvia has no problem sharing details, real or imagined, with other friends in their social circle, and soon the story has made the society pages. Despite pleas from her husband to stay, Mary chooses to divorce him. In the meantime, multiple other marriages are in trouble as well.

We’re nowhere near the end of this fine film here, but I’m leaving it to you to discover the rest. It ends in a classic screwball-comedy confrontation at a posh event that brings things to the final, melodramatic (yet satisfying) outcome.

The legendary Anita Loos and screenwriter/director Jane Murfin adapted the screenplay from the Broadway hit written by the equally renowned Clare Boothe (Luce). (Other writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, are said to have made uncredited contributions to the script.) The play was much racier, requiring re-wording of large portions of dialogue, which was heavily laden with innuendo too rich for acceptance by the Motion Picture Production Code.

Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford The Women
Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford

While men play a significant role in the movie, you don’t see hide nor hair of them throughout (with the exception of two minor pictures in advertisements). Apparently even the animals were female. There’s nothing contrived about this, however. While you’re aware of the absence of men, you won’t find a single scene that needs a man to make it realistic.

In a lucky break, director George Cukor had been fired from the making of Gone With the Wind a month before production on The Women began. Lucky, because, in addition to his skills as a director, Cukor was adept at handling the real-life rivalries between his stars, including a fierce professional battle between Shearer and Crawford.

There’s a Technicolor fashion show by top couture designer Adrian that’s a bit out-of-place, unnecessary to the plot, but fascinating all the same with its designs that range from stylish to outlandish.

Paulette Goddard Joan Crawford Rosalind Russell Norma Shearer in The Women
Paulette Goddard, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer

Surprisingly, The Women received no Academy Award nominations, but that was, after all, 1939, a year many consider the best for the Golden Age of Hollywood, with movies including Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz,  Stagecoach, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Today most critics agree The Women stands its own with those other fine films.

If you saw the 2008 remake, forget it. There’s no comparison in wit or star power.  Stick with the original.


Dinner at Eight

Dinner at Eight, 1933, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring  John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 113 minutes.

This pre-code dramedy of a group set to gather together for a dinner honoring a socially elite couple has little to do with that actual event, rather, it’s a story of eight diverse people coming to grips with life-altering events.

There are affairs and sly business dealings, marriages beginning and others staggering to stay together, the naivety & idealism of youth set in contrast to the solid, secure reality of years. All in all, there are characters we all know in our own lives, or want to know, or can imagine all too well.

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Marie Dressler, Lionel Barrymore

Flighty Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) has plans for a dinner party, while unbeknownst to her, husband Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore) is suffering both from ill health and the imminent downfall of the lucrative family business.

Much to Oliver’s delight, however, his old friend Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), an aging and once beautiful actress whom he loved in his younger years, is in town to visit. He soon learns she’s there in part to sell off her share of stock in his company, a move that could be the final nail in the coffin of the business.

Meanwhile, the Jordan’s daughter Paula (Madge Evans), although engaged to society catch Ernest DeGraff (Phillip Holmes), is in love, or believes herself to be, with Larry Renault (John Barrymore), a fading movie star with a drinking and ego problem, who doesn’t share Paula’s feelings.

Madge Evans, John Barrymore Dinner at Eight
Madge Evans, John Barrymore

The man instrumental in the likely undoing of Oliver’s company is Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), although Oliver is unaware of his role. Dan has an antagonistic relationship with his beautiful young wife, Kitty (Jean Harlow), who, for her part, is having an affair with her doctor, Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe). Dr. Talbot, it turns out, is also treating Oliver.

This story plays out with some of the finest actors & actresses of its time in a film considered one of the best of the 1930s. Although it wasn’t nominated for any Academy Awards, many of the cast & crew were past or future Oscar winners, including Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery and director George Cukor.

Dressler was one of MGM’s most popular actresses at the time, yet playing a sophisticated, fading beauty was entirely unlike her typical brassy role, so her sparkling performance was (and remains) a delightful surprise. In many ways, she stole the spotlight from “blonde bombshell” Jean Harlow.

Jean Harlow Diiner at Eight
Jean Harlow

For her part, Harlow rose to the occasion, proving her comedic and acting skills and creating a role that was a turning point for her, leading to other parts in major films of the decade. Look for her dress in the dinner scenes; that beautiful gown by Adrian became known as the “Jean Harlow dress.”

John Barrymore, much like his character, was once a great star, now battling alcoholism and fading glory. Interestingly, Barrymore had no problem playing up the similarities, in fact, he encouraged it, adding details from his own life to the script.

As a pre-code film, this movie is laden with sexual innuendo and a near-profanity or two. The story is biting and heartbreaking, funny and wise, and well worth the watch.