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Once in a while Hollywood doesn't screw up an adaptation of a popular stage show. The big Broadway comedy success Born Yesterday sidestepped a lot of traps and detours on the way to becoming a hit film. A big moneymaker for Columbia Pictures, it earned a number of Oscar nominations, scoring a solitary win for the its bright new star, Judy Holliday. Veteran director George Cukor guided the play through a hazardous course, protecting it from script changes and casting notions imposed by Columbia's head of production, Harry Cohn.
Garson Kanin's 1946 play ran for almost three years. It had made a star of Judy Holliday, a last minute Hail Mary replacement for actress Jean Arthur, who had differences with the basic character she was to play. Holliday combined great looks and personality with a brilliant gift for comedy; she interpreted Kanin's 'dumb blonde' character Billie Dawn as a brassy airhead, who simmers quietly under the disrespectful treatment of a loutish lover and sugar daddy. Columbia's Harry Cohn bought the play for a record price of a million dollars, and proceeded with a typical Hollywood do-over. The play co-starred actors Paul Douglas and Gary Merrill, and Cohn replaced them with his own recent Oscar winner Broderick Crawford, plus handsome William Holden.
To Broadway, Judy Holliday was the play, so much so that some critics said her co-stars had to perform in her shadow. But Cohn didn't want to hire her, and was quoted as calling her a "fat Jewish broad". Holliday was convinced that she'd not be allowed to play the role. Director George Cukor spent months negotiating and maneuvering to prevent Cohn from spoiling Born Yesterday's winning formula. To help force the issue, Cukor and star Katharine Hepburn slipped Holliday into a showy supporting role in MGM's Adam's Rib. Holliday plays a battered wife who goes on trial for shooting her husband, and she's the funniest thing in the movie. Reportedly holding out for the unavailable Rita Hayworth, Harry Cohn finally gave in to the pressure and Judy Holliday got the part.
The Columbia chief hired another writer who made major story changes, and Cukor had to apply pressure to toss that script and return to an outline closer to Garson Kanin's original. A big Washington hotel sets aside an entire floor for a bigshot guest, millionaire junk dealer Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). Loud, crude and ill-tempered, Brock has come to D.C. to lock down a "deal" to secure a congressional vote that will favor his business. The junkman's attorney Jim Devery (Howard St. John) has already bribed Congressman Norval Hedges (Larry Oliver). Devery feels that everything will work out, If Brock's bad manners don't mess things up. But Harry's consort is the beautiful but uneducated Emma "Billie" Dawn, a girl he plucked from a chorus line. They bicker like tenement dwellers. Convinced that Billie isn't fit company for the high-toned Washington guests he must receive, Harry hires writer Paul Verrall (William Holden) to tutor her -- to "take off the rough edges". To their mutual surprise Billie and Paul get along famously. She appreciates his manners and takes an interest in improving her speech and learning how the government works. Verrall sees an opportunity to get the goods on Brock's corrupt political game. The loutish Brock has foolishly had Billie take ownership of the bulk of his holdings, thinking he can control her. She can blow the whistle on his whole racket.
Audiences love Born Yesterday. Judy Holliday his funny, endearing and sexy. Her faces flashes between boredom and delight, and her squeaky voice can slip into a comic low register when she wants to make a point. Harry Brock has a habit of shouting from one apartment to the next to get Bilie's attention. She answers with a grating squawk more jolting than the 'surprise parrot' shock audio effect in Citizen Kane: ""WHAAAA-AAT?!" The scene everyone remembers is a game of gin rummy that crystallizes the bizarre relationship between Billie & Harry. Harry does a slow burn as Billie rummages through the cards seemingly at random, yet consistently comes up with a winning hand within a few seconds. The game runs more than two minutes, with perhaps only a single cutaway. It works well because it establishes that 1) these two roughnecks have worked out a way of getting along with each other, even if Billie takes a lot of abuse; and that 2) Billie is not stupid, despite the vacant look in her eyes.
The transformation of Billie is a variation on the Pygmalion idea. She admits that Harry pulled her out of the chorus, but hastens to add that she learned to read lines on stage too. When Billie gets a look at Paul Verrall, letting him improve her mind isn't her first thought. Paul is amused and intrigued when she looks him right in the eye: "Are you one of those talkers, or would you be interested in a little action?" Together they discuss politics, grammar and philosophy. We're supposed to think Billie's intellectual curiosity is blossoming because her room is littered with open books. When she uses reading glasses, the message is that she's serious enough about learning to spoil her looks -- although she's clearly charmed when Paul compliments her new specs. Garson Kanin wrote some new sequences in which Billie & Paul tour various Capitol monuments and look at the nation's founding documents, montages that remind us of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and offer composer Frederick Hollander a chance to let loose with some patriotic themes.
The film's political content comes in when Born Yesterday applies the (sadly) bogus equation that intellectual curiosity equals responsible citizenship. Harry's simple political analysis is that Brock's crooked ways are bad because he's Selfish. Good government boils down to a fight between good folk that want to help people, and bad guys like Harry that want to game the government to help themselves. If only it were that simple. Harry's lobbyist Jim Devery is a cynical sell-out who has managed to corrupt, or at least compromise, the defeated-looking Congressman Hedges. Devery's self-loathing is made clear through his alcoholism, which is suggested rather than emphasized. Paul strikes a nerve when he reminds Devery that he was once spoken of as a candidate for a high legal office. And the congressman becomes depressed when Billie flatters him with praise -- both Hedges and Devery know that they've fallen from grace.
As if to make it very clear that Washington corruption is limited to the aberrant behavior of a few bad apples, Paul also deliers a speech about how everyone in public office is doing their best to run the government in a fair manner. It's a painful line to hear, considering the general disillusion about the motives and goals of our present elected representatives. I'm sure that pundits in 1950 weeped and wailed about the hopeless tangle on Capitol Hill too. Conservatives will be happy to know that when Billie is looking for a good quote from the Constitution, she rattles off the key line from the 2nd Amendment about the right to bear arms. In general the rah-rah patriotic angle of Born Yesterday is just fine. Paul and Billie put the crooks in their place and speak out for good citizenship, without resorting to insulting symbolism. 1
Maybe the pro-patriotic message was good insurance, for Born Yesterday attracted a few negative political potshots, for suggesting that a crook like Harry Brock could put a Congressman in his pocket. Billie even tells us that Brock once had somebody killed. Editorials like this usually screamed that Hollywood liberals were trying to tear down America's image overseas, to weaken us internationally. It's no surprise that big studio films in the Cold War pressure cooker bent way over backwards to 'pay safe' by including content supporting the Church, the Military, and the political status quo. We're also told that Judy Holliday had already been denounced as a communist sympathizer in the blacklisting publication Red Channels. Did that become a factor in Harry Cohn's reluctance to hire her?
It's generally agreed that the Production Code jumped all over Born Yesterday's notion that Harry and Billie are unmarried and living together. This is still so obvious that we laugh. But an extra scene was added to emphasize that Billie's sleeping arrangement in the hotel is separate from Harry's: a maid shows Billie s short cut between apartments through a service hallway. I don't know who's being fooled by this nonsense, but apparently the addition gave the issue plausible deniability.
Director Cukor balances things out so that neither William Holden nor Broderick Crawford are shut out of the spotlight by Judy Holliday's Billie. The dialogue is still funny, and Cukor fought to retain a racy dialogue zinger or two. Cameraman Joseph Walker provides some unobtrusive yet dazzling close-ups of Ms. Holliday, especially an early shot in a lacy nightgown. Harry Cohn may have called her fat, but we don't see it. Billie Dawn is a marvelous, loveable ditz. I haven't met anyone who doesn't smile when they remember Born Yesterday.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Born Yesterday is a nearly perfect encoding of this polished Columbia production. Sony's in-house restoration team was either blessed with perfect elements, or did what was necessary to bring the image up to pristine condition. We barely notice the change in granularity during the dissolved montages.
Twilight Time provides its expected Isolated Score track and two trailers, both of which appear to be for reissue use. Julie Kirgo's liner notes make an excellent case for Judy Holliday's special qualities, and go into more detail about the show's shaky transition from stage to screen.
The title text blocks for this Academy ratio 1950 film appear to be formatted for matting to widescreen, a format that didn't become the industry standard until 1953. I believe that Columbia re-shot and replaced the title sequence for a later re-issue, after most theaters had switched over. I have noticed this happen from time to time -- especially with reissues of Disney animated features. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Born Yesterday Blu-ray rates:
1. An example of an annoying 'patriotic' scene to compensate for "dangerous" content appears in Richard Brooks' Blackboard Jungle, when the 'good' students pin down a delinquent student in a classroom, using the American flag as their weapon of choice. Spare me, Spartacus.
2. A VHS tape of Born Yesterday that friend Rocco Gioffre and I rented back in the 1980s gave us a big surprise. We decided that the picture source must have been a negative prepared for Italian release, because in the Capitol tour montage, all the signage identifying famous documents, etc., was written in Italian. It threw us for a minute.
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T'was Ever Thus.