William Holden’s sagging movie career may have been resurrected by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, but it was forever writ in forty-kilowatt stardust thereafter with George Cukor’s Born Yesterday. Both films, made and released in 1950, heralded the return of Bill Holden as an A-list talent. Interestingly, the formula for bringing Holden back from the dead was to cast him opposite two uniquely talented powerhouse female stars. While Sunset Boulevard was, undeniably, a vehicle for costar, Gloria Swanson, Born Yesterday became a sparkling champagne cocktail of screwball comedy, made to order for the comedic genius of charismatic, Judy Holliday; her alter ego - Billie Dawn – the quintessence of a bubble-headed tart about to get a clue under Holden’s expert tutelage.
Many today forget Holden and Holliday were hardly considered top tier talent when Garson Kanin’s smash Broadway hit, Born Yesterday came to the attention of Columbia studio chief, Harry Cohn. Despite the fact Holliday had created the role on the stage (and won a Tony for it), Cohn considered her an unknown and untested quantity. More or less, Holliday was lacking star cache – that intangible calling card to filmdom fame and fortune. What it took to get Holliday in front of the camera involved more than a little cajoling from director, George Cukor; also the conspiratorial maneuvers of Cukor, Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn to cast Holliday in her first role: a plum supporting part in MGM’s Adam’s Rib (1949).
As for William Holden; he had graced a series of largely forgettable movies as the male ingénue; a would-be heartthrob whose debut in the boxing classic, Golden Boy (1939) had been salvaged in the eleventh hour by leading lady, Barbara Stanwyck. In the interim, Holden had managed to make the least of his landmark debut, cresting out of favor and aging gracefully, but aging nonetheless and beyond that lucrative category reserved for young men of more obvious talents. But who can argue with Holliday and Holden’s jubilant chemistry in Cukor’s deftly handled romantic comedy of errors? And who can think of two more radiant personalities to carry it off?
Born Yesterday is simply premised: a neatly packed ditz gets wise to the fact she is being used by her overbearing sugar daddy, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). The joy and the trick of it is to observe the proverbial light bulb going off inside Holliday’s head; her bleached curls yielding to a more fertile gray matter with all the neurons already begun to fire right under Harry’s nose. Like all truly gifted clowns, Judy Holliday’s great strength is she can move us as easily to tears as to laughter; her genius and technique suddenly – and often quite unexpectedly - gingerly plucking at our heartstrings. The dumb blonde had been a staple of Hollywood for decades. But Holliday’s dippy dames are an intricate balance of complex joys and immeasurable sadness intermingled; Holliday’s vocal intonations alone, tapping into lost undercurrents and hidden anxieties – each fraught with unearthed subtext.
“A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in,” Paul suggests to Billie, a quote ringing more ominously true with each passing year since Born Yesterday had its splashy premiere. The axiom ‘born yesterday’ denotes someone unprepared in their understandings of the world at large. Ah, but Billie Dawn is about to prove she is nobody’s fool. In the intervening decades, Holliday’s persona has been reclassified as everything from an embarrassment of brassy naiveté to a doll-like teeter-totter: all dimples and squeakily voiced. It’s a shame too, because Holliday was highly intelligent and thoroughly gifted; a great gal for whom the word raconteur might very well have been coined and embodying the old adage ‘it takes a sophisticated person to play a stupid one’.
I have yet to mention director, George Cukor in this review, perhaps because Cukor’s style – nee, his personal imprint – tends to become cloaked by the veil of entertainment, so much as to render it outwardly invisible. What is Cukor’s style? Well…it changes from movie to movie and star to star; Cukor’s sensitive nature granting his talent unprecedented access to the inner workings of his own adaptable mindset. But Cukor remains a virtuoso whose body of work ought to have long since made his name as distinguishable and praiseworthy as the likes of a John Huston, Hitchcock or Billy Wilder. In his heyday, Cukor was irrefutably an actor’s director, deciphering every nuance of the camera to complement each character’s POV; but always in service to the story. It’s a style we don’t see in movies anymore; absent of the more obvious legerdemain and swagger. Yet, it is anything but unsophisticated. And Cukor’s range is masterly and purposeful. He never gives more than he should and instinctually, he knows when to let a scene run long or cut it to punctuate the sincerity in a turn of phrase or moment of revelation.
Born Yesterday affords Cukor carte blanche to ‘open up’ the original stagecraft. Yet, herein, Cukor relies almost entirely on Garson Kanin’s revised screenplay, deferring his screen credit to Albert Mannheimer; Harry Cohn’s hand-picked writer. By Cukor’s own account, Mannheimer’s screenplay was scarcely perfect. Together with Kanin’s help, Cukor meticulously toiled to uphold as much of the original’s charm; Kanin’s embryonic idea to make Washington D.C. its own distinct ‘character’. Hence, Billie Dawn’s scholastic awakening is conceived in the cradle of liberty; Paul as her guide and our éminence grise through this travelogue of easily identifiable backdrops. It’s a clever device; using setting to augment plot beyond its more obvious function as backdrop for a story that could ostensibly take place virtually anywhere.
Our story begins with Harry Brock’s arrival at Washington’s Hotel Statler. Brock’s a blowhard – a thug in a three piece who made his money via crooked junk dealing. Automatically, he believes a wallet full of cash means he has arrived in polite society; worthy of others to take notice. There’s certainly nothing remotely polite or even couth about Harry Brock – the proverbial bull in the china shop. Brock’s entourage includes his brother-in-law, Eddie (Frank Otto), his mouthpiece, attorney at law, Jim Devery (Howard St. John) and Billie Dawn; Harry’s…well… Cukor ran into all sorts of censorship snags over Garson Kanin’s unapologetic depiction of Billie as a kept woman – and by a much older man, no less; the movie getting around the play’s inferences to adultery by having Billie skulk in and out of Harry’s suite using the back door instead.
After giving Sanborn (Grandon Rhodes), the hotel manager the most loutish brushoff, Harry is informed by Jim he is to be interviewed by a member of the press. Disinterested in the extreme, Harry asks why he needs more publicity. Jim astutely explains, “Listen…to get by in this town takes power – you got some; takes money – you go plenty; but above all it takes judgment and intelligence – that’s why you pay me a hundred thousand a year!” In short order, we meet Paul Varell (William Holden), something of an acquaintance of Jim’s. Paul is mildly amused by Harry’s primitiveness – at first. He’s much too inebriated by his own self-importance to be believed, but treacherous enough to be genuinely feared. Perhaps, Harry’s just a victim of circumstance; born in Plainfield, New Jersey, working out his junk dealer’s swindle during his formative years and parleying his con into a lucrative business. Harry’s self-made. He also happens to be a crook. “Never bull a bull artist,” Harry explains, “I can sling it with the best of them!”
But Harry’s also a brute; belittling his cronies, manhandling Jim and controlling Billie, right down to how much she drinks and when. Unable to understand why he has no friendships, except those cultivated with strong-armed tactics, Harry dives headstrong into his first meeting with Congressman Norval Hedges (Larry Oliver) and his wife, Anna (Barbara Brown): a disaster when sparks fly between Billie and Harry – resulting in Billie becoming standoffish. Harry makes Jim a bet he can convince Paul to undertake the reeducation of Billie Dawn; a crash course in social etiquette. It won’t be easy. Billie’s more than just a diamond in the rough; she’s an ex-chorine (whose real name happens to be Emma) with a mouth and an attitude; a very lethal combination. Worse, she’s frank about her immediate sexual attraction to Paul; something he finds nervously diverting at first and doesn’t readily discourage. “It’s only fair,” Billie explains, “We’ll educate each other!”
After Paul leaves, Harry engages Billie in a game of gin rummy; Cukor moving us into a sublime vignette: Billie’s compulsive and chronic reorganization of her mitt full of cards, beating Harry at every hand. Here is a scene straight from the silent era, played almost entirely without dialogue; Billie, in her sparkling white sequin pant suit, fixated on her winning streak as Broderick Crawford’s befuddled boor helplessly looks on – his mounting confusion matched only by an even more cacophonous outburst of frustration. The scene ends with Billie forcing Harry to pay her $55.60 – immediately. Cukor’s camera never moves from this two shot; Holliday and Crawford doing their utmost to entertain us with their delicious dumb show. It’s a riveting two and a half minutes of comedy and it never fails to impress.
Not long after Harry storms off to bed, Paul arrives with the early editions of the morning papers, instructing Billie to read up on world events; also to put a circle around anything she doesn’t understand. Her reaction is, of course, priceless, but it concludes in a most unlikely and spontaneous embrace; Paul excusing himself from their passionate kiss. The next afternoon, Paul arrives to find Billie in a slinky black negligee, still in bed – reading; her second attempt at seduction thwarted when he clarifies for her their situation is complicated enough already. “I ought’a take this pencil and put a circle around you,” Billie glibly replies.
But from here on in, Billie’s eyes will be opened to more than love; Paul strengthening her cultural points of interest, beginning with the Capital Building and the rotunda. When next we see our Miss Dawn, she is sporting a pair of thick reading glasses. In fact, while Billie’s wardrobe (a truly fabulous series of ensembles designed by Jean Louis) remain flashy, her entire demeanor and carriage has begun to change; more bookish and introspective - Paul’s influence already taken hold. The next day’s trek yields even richer rewards; Billie discovering the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – sharing her new finds with Paul, who treats her to a chocolate ice cream. Inquiring whether or not Billie has had any time to read his latest piece, Billie sincerely declares “I think it’s the best thing I ever read…I didn’t understand a word!”
Paul takes Billie to hear an outdoor classics concert. Alas, he has begun to have conflicted feelings about their working relationship. Billie isn’t dim-witted. But she’s utterly misinformed; denied the opportunities to blossom and discover herself for herself. It’s no use. She’ll never make a Washington society matron. But she still might make a very good woman. Billy regales Paul with a letter she received from her father still living in New York; the first contact she’s had with him since running off with Harry eight years ago. Embarrassed by the confidences she’s shared, Billie asks to hear the story of Paul’s life to which he smugly replies, “Oh no…much too long – and mostly untrue.”
The next day at the National Gallery, Billie renews her affections for Paul. Although their tour of the city’s monuments continues on a purely platonic level, the tug o’ war between their minds and bodies has already begun; Paul explaining to Billie he hates everything Harry stands for, and yet, still cannot bring himself to despise the man himself. Billie is confused – more so than usual, Paul explaining the purpose of learning is to grow bigger – not become smaller. However, Paul’s natural disdain for Harry leads to unanticipated repercussions; Billie raising questions about Harry’s business deals – also questioning the way she has been exploited by Harry – with Jim’s complicity – to act as a buffer in Harry’s business holdings.
Harry gradually becomes displease with Paul’s tutelage – particularly after he attempts to show off his own knowledge of sports figures in front of Billie; his inquiries diffused by Paul who charmingly flaunts his deft superiority here too. “Take you on separately,” Paul suggests, “I’ve a special course for backward millionaires!” The snub goes over Harry’s head. But it’s already begun to impress Billie. Paul is twice the man Harry can never even hope to aspire to be. Thus, when Billie hears Harry mistreating Congressman Hedges, she pulls Hedges aside to sincerely inquire why he takes such abuse from a ‘no account junk dealer’. The way Billie sees it, pushing Norval around is like bullying the few hundred thousand constituents who voted for the congressman in the first place.
Later, when Jim casually instructs Billie to sign more business documents, he is met with inquisitive obstinacy. She’ll sign – perhaps, but only after she’s had the opportunity to thoroughly read through what’s in them. Harry becomes enraged, ordering Billie to affix her signature on the dotted line. In reply, she explains how gradually her awe of him has devolved, first to disappointment – but now, displeasure. “I used to think you were a big man, Harry,” she tells him, “I’m beginning to see you’re not. All through history there’ve been bigger men – and better – now too!” When Harry asks her to name one, Billie reasons “My father!” Their altercation reaches a fevered pitch when Harry realizes Billie has yet to commit her name to paper. Lacking the art of persuasion, Harry strikes Billie several times; her reaction implying this isn’t the first time she has endured his abuse. Moreover, Harry has had enough, ordering Billie to leave and for good. They’re through.
Even so, Harry confides in Jim that he loved ‘that broad’. In the meanwhile, Billie spends the afternoon revisiting all the monuments she and Paul enjoyed together; Harry ordering Eddie to find Billie and bring her back to his hotel suite. Instead, she arrives on Paul’s arm, their plan: to keep Harry preoccupied while Paul skulks around the apartment to learn the truth behind Harry’s illegal operations. When Harry proposes – not out of love, but to do as Jim has instructed (because a wife cannot testify against her husband) Billie turns him down. “Who are you to say no to me?” he belligerently inquires. “Don’t knock yourself out,” Billie eludes, “You got a lot of surprises coming!”
Billie explains the situation in language even Harry can understand. Paul’s taken the evidence needed to expose Harry’s spurious dealings with Congressman Hedges. Moreover, Billie’s in love with Paul and vice versa. Billie isn’t through. She’s through with Harry and good riddance to him. Besides, Harry will never get his way, either with Billie or Paul. When he finally realizes this, Harry attempts to strangle Paul; a murder narrowly averted as Jim intercedes, tossing Harry to the floor.
The last act of Born Yesterday plays just a tad too heavy-handed as a pro-American manifesto against government graft and corruption; with Billie Dawn the crusader for high-minded ideals. Of course, Harry doesn’t understand a word. But Paul is smitten. Billie is the only girl for him. Moreover, Billie makes Harry an offer he can’t refuse. She wants no part of his spurious business dealings. So, she’ll sign everything – all of his holdings - back to him; only not altogether, just one at a time. Thus, Harry will be beholding to her for his livelihood; ordered to behave himself in the meantime or else face the very real prospect of going to jail for life. It’s a sobering and very satisfying moment; the ogre put back in his cave; Jim gleefully accepting defeat with a toast to all the ‘dumb broads’ and ‘chumps’ who make it nearly impossible for crooks like he and Harry to thrive. The movie ends with Paul and Billie pulled over by a traffic cop, revealing they’ve just been married.
Born Yesterday is supremely entertaining; Garson Kanin’s slickly packaged prose, mildly distilled and reconstituted by Albert Mannheimer, but still retaining much of their charm. The underlying theme of crooked politics in both the play and the movie, regrettably, has not dated. More refreshing on all accounts is Judy Holliday’s Oscar-winning performance; the personification of abject idiocy on the verge of becoming utterly brilliant. And let’s not forget Holliday’s Billie Dawn beat out Gloria Swanson’s deranged gargoyle in Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis’ towering viper - aging actress, Margo Channing - in All About Eve (the Best Picture of 1950). There’s never a false note with Judy Holliday; raucousness doled out in tandem with delightfully obtuse observations about concepts her Billie Dawn admittedly doesn’t immediately grasp, though nevertheless manages to get to the heart of using her own inimitable powers of deduction.
Broderick Crawford – fresh from his own Oscar win in All The King’s Men (1949) gives us an even more viscous antagonist this time around; the combination of ignorance and arrogance utterly believable – terribly funny, yet utterly terrifying in the same instance. We get more than ‘a mug’ in Crawford; this reprobate who, as part tyrant/part buffoon, becomes the perfect comedic fop and foil. We must also tip our hats to William Holden; scrumptious as the handsome newshound destined to elevate and transform his passing fancy into a love affair of girth and merit. Finally, to George Cukor, whose specialization never makes the audience aware the exercise is more theatrical than cinematic.
Born Yesterday is a play translated to film – remember? Dialogue is great. But too much can often be the kiss of death for movies. Situations become stilted; words more punctuated than necessary. Yet, Cukor avoids virtually any and all of these pitfalls; a master craftsman, intuitively feeling his way through the material and making the most of his blocking and staging. The actors never seem rehearsed in their movements; the narrative advancing at an incrementally even pace; Cukor building on clever setups until his joyous denouement. Born Yesterday is a prime example of why Cukor endures as a great director – also, why he continues to go largely unnoticed in the pantheon of great directors. The piece is so perfectly crafted we think of Born Yesterday as Billie Dawn’s story – and it is, though undeniably, not her own doing – something Cukor’s covert style makes us completely overlook. Joseph Walker’s cinematography augments Harry Horner’s cozy production design and William Kiernan’s set decoration. But it’s all in service to Cukor’s preponderant vision, artfully orchestrated to mask his involvement.
Columbia had a lot riding on Born Yesterday, Harry Cohn reportedly paying a record $1 million for the rights to produce it. He was well repaid when the film proved a smash hit and Judy Holliday became Hollywood’s latest overnight sensation. Cohn could breathe easy his first choices for the part, including Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Paulette Goddard and Ida Lupino?!? did not make Cukor’s final cut. Judy Holliday is clearly the real deal here. Without her, Born Yesterday is just a nice little comedy about a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who gets a clue and runs with it to her own satisfaction and purpose. With Holliday as its star, Born Yesterday registers as undiluted movie magic; a palatable romantic comedy gem. They don’t make movies like this anymore. I’m not even certain they know how.
Born Yesterday gets a superior 1080p transfer from Sony via Twilight Time. You can retire your old Columbia Classics DVD. Again, we tip our hats to Grover Crisp, his technical wizards and the studio’s overall commitment to remastering their back catalog with the utmost care and proficiency. True, Columbia’s catalog is considerably smaller than most studios. But small or not, whatever Sony continues to release, bears the stamp of impeccable attention to every last detail. Such care needs to be readily pointed out and praised – because, it is a rarity among the majors pumping out ‘old movies’ in hi-def.
The B&W image herein is reference quality. Prepare to enjoy. Fine detail pops as it should. In close-up we can even appreciate minute amounts of hair, makeup and clothing fibers. There are several brief instances of softness, mostly during moments of rear projection and/or inserted stock footage. Otherwise, you are going to LOVE this transfer. The audio is DTS mono; perfectly adequate for a dialogue-driven movie with only the briefest of underscore provided by Friedrich Hollaender. Twilight Time gives us Hollaender’s score on an isolated track, and, of course, Julie Kirgo’s in-depth liner notes – always much appreciated. Sony adds the original theatrical trailer. The old Columbia DVD contained some vintage advertising and talent files. We lose these on the Blu-ray. But what we gain in terms of image and sound quality dearly compensates. Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)