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.