A timely classic comedy featuring one of Hollywood's iconic performances
“Born Yesterday” is one of cinema’s finest character-driven comedies. It’s the story of a millionaire junkman and his “dumb” blonde fiancee whom he wants to smarten up a bit with the help of a hired journalist. The premise alone is a recipe for laughs. Add the flawless direction by George Cukor and the talents of three Academy Award winning actors (one of whom won for this film), and you have the makings of a true classic. “Born Yesterday” was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture. This film appears in many “Top Comedy Films of All Time” lists, and is ranked at #24 on AFI's "The 100 Funniest American Movies Of All Time" list.
This hilariously entertaining variation of “Pygmalion" can be watched solely for its fun or just to behold the iconic performance by the astonishing Judy Holliday. In fact, the first zillion times I watched this film I'd be so mesmerized by Holliday, I never fully realize this film has something rather profound to say. “Born Yesterday” is a statement about how the power of knowledge can overcome tyranny. It makes a case that the world is only as good as the people who live in it, and if they aren’t informed it becomes a dangerous place to live. It is told through the evolution of “Billie Dawn”, a woman who we watch blossom from ignorance to understanding.
The setting is a hotel suite in Washington D.C., and the film beautifully features many landmarks such as The Jefferson Memorial, The Capitol, The Library of Congress, and more, as she goes on her journey. Washington DC is an apt location, as the film candidly talks about the decaying of American ideals and values, and how power and wealth are distractions from a happy life. When I only focused on Holliday's iconic performance, I used to think the film got a tiny bit heavy-handed with its “Americana”, but came to realize that's where the point of the film lay. And watching it this time, it has become quite a relevant film. An essential film to watch, especially with the impending US presidential elections!
George Cukor directed "Born Yesterday", and true to his nickname as a “woman’s director” (a term he hated) he led Judy Holliday to the film’s only Oscar win - a Best Actress Academy Award. I’ve mentioned Cukor several times in this blog, including “Gone with the Wind”, and the “Wizard of Oz” posts, and most predominantly in “The Philadelphia Story”. You can read more about him in each of those posts. His direction here is superb. The camera always appears in just the right spot, making way for the three spectacular performances to emerge. For his direction, Cukor earned one of his five career Best Director Oscar nominations.
Judy Holliday stars as “Billie Dawn”, the beautiful, brassy former chorus girl with mink coats, who is more at home chatting with the domestic help than with high society. At one point, putting on her best social skills, “Billie" asks a senator's wife "You want to wash your hands or anything, honey?". As she learns about the world and politics, she discovers her own personal tyranny, and the journey is laugh-out-loud funny, heartbreaking, and touchingly real. One reason this film is essential viewing is to behold Holliday's performance. The voice and mannerisms she bestows on“Billie” are perfectly sublime. From the very first word she utters, her voice uproariously tells us everything about her character. And her movements alone expresses a gamut of emotions from pride to joy to love. Cukor said in an interview how well Holliday inhabited the role, and pointed out how form the way Holliday dances (for a few seconds), you can tell “Billie" is a B-rate chorus girl. Holliday is enormously gifted with such refined and understated comedic timing that she makes you laugh even when not speaking. And she never loses her gentle vulnerability while shifting seamlessly back and forth between comedy and drama. Notice how differently she behaves and looks at the unscrupulous “Harry” versus her refined and caring mentor, “Paul”. Holliday really creates a fully complete person. This not-to-be-missed performance is one of film history’s greatest, and it won her a Best Actress Academy Award (her only nomination or win). Holliday’s win was one of Oscar’s most unexpected, as she was competing against two other iconic performances: Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard” and Bette Davis in “All About Eve” (the first film on this blog). Not bad for her first starring role!
Judy Holliday began her career as a nightclub singer. Her first film role was in the 1944 film “Winged Victory”. In 1946 she became a sensation in the Broadway version of “Born Yesterday”. When the film version came about, Holliday was not in the running to reprise her role, as Columbia Studio chief Harry Cohn would not consider casting an unknown. Legend has it that Cukor, along with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, orchestrated a small but important part for Holliday in their classic film “Adam’s Rib” in order to help her get the part in “Born Yesterday”. It worked, and the rest is history. Shortly after the film, which was during the McCarthy Era (which I talk about more in the “High Noon” post), Holliday’s name appeared on a communist list and she had to appear before HUAC. Following advice, while testifying she played the dumb blonde part of “Billie Dawn” and got away without naming names. No evidence was found of her being a communist or threat to the US, and she was not blacklisted. In real life she was no dumb blonde as she was intellectual, well read, and known for having an IQ of 172. She would continue to appear on Broadway, including starring in the 1956 musical "Bells Are Ringing” for which she won a Tony Award, reprising her role in the film version in 1960 opposite Dean Martin. It would be her last film. She only appeared in nine films and is phenomenal in every single one. Some of her other notable films not mentioned include "The Solid Gold Cadillac", "The Marrying Kind", and one of my favorites, "It Should Happen to You". She was married and divorced once. Sadly, Judy Holliday died in 1965 at the age of 43 from breast cancer.
Broderick Crawford is fantastic as “Harry Brock”, the uncaring, larger than life, "untouchable" loud mouth bully. While also not refined, but with street smarts, he provides the perfect contrast to “Billie’s” innocence, and he and Holliday expertly play off each other. Their banter is irresistibly priceless, and at times deeply heartbreaking. He can be gruff and humorous, or frighteningly mean. Perhaps it was typecasting since he won a Best Actor Academy Award playing a similar type of man the previous year in “All the King’s Men”, and would often play fast-talking villains and tough guys in his long career.
Broderick Crawford was the son of two actors, his mother being Helen Broderick, the fabulous comic actress you saw in film #10 on this blog, “Top Hat”. He began on Broadway, and then appeared in films beginning in 1937. He worked continuously in supporting and lead roles mostly in “B” films such as "Island of Lost Men", "The Black Cat”, "Black Angel", "Beau Geste", and "Seven Sinners”. His big break came in 1949 with his Oscar winning role in "All the King's Men” (his only win or nomination), which was also that year's Best Picture Oscar winner. After that film he appeared in more “A” list films, the most memorable being “Born Yesterday”, as well as "Lone Star", "Last of the Comanches", "Human Desire”, "A Little Romance”, and as the lead in Federico Fellini’s 1955 film “Il bidone” (an overlooked treasure). He appeared in well over 100 films and TV shows, working mostly in television (which he preferred to film). His most notable TV credit was the lead in the 1950s TV series, “Highway Patrol”. His very last appearance was on an episode of the TV show "Simon & Simon" in 1982. He was married three times. Broderick Crawford died in 1986 at the age of 74.
William Holden stars as “Paul Verrall”, the journalist who's going to educate “Billie”. Because of his two imposing co-stars, it is easy to overlook Holden’s performance, which is unfortunate as he brings an underplayed brilliance to the part. You genuinely believe he wants to better “Billie”, and the world. Holden grounds the comedy by adding reality, both in his portrayal and through the words of his character. William Holden was a major Hollywood star - one of the biggies. In a career that spanned forty years, he was known for his good looks, million dollar smile, charm, and a slightly amused cynical humor. He was voted number 25 of the men on the American Film Institute’s list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”. He played many romantic leads, and is also remembered for his performances in war films. “Born Yesterday” came at the beginning of the most significant period of his career, as he would become one of the top box office stars of the 1950s.
In 1939 William Holden starred in just his third film, "Golden Boy", opposite Barbara Stanwyck, which put him on the map. He worked steadily through the 1940s, taking a slight break while enlisted in the US Army Air Force during WWII. His next big break came just before “Born Yesterday”, also in 1950, with the Billy Wilder classic, “Sunset Boulevard”, which gave Holden his first of three Best Actor Oscar nominations. Combine the success of “Sunset Boulevard” with “Born Yesterday”, and the classic 1953 film “Stalag 17” (also directed by Wilder) which won Holden a Best Actor Academy Award, and voila - a movie star is born. Holden appeared in over 70 films in his career including many classics such as "The Bridge on the River Kwai", "Sabrina", "The Wild Bunch", “Picnic", "Casino Royale", "Our Town", "The Towering Inferno", "The Country Girl", and his final film "S.O.B." in 1981. He was married once for over thirty years, but was separated for most of it. He had several known relationships with actresses Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Capucine, and Stefanie Powers whom he was with the last nine years of his life. Towards the end of his life he was involved in wildlife conservation. He had an infamous drinking problem which got worse in the 1960s, and subsequently he made less films and his screen persona slightly changed. No more boyish romantic leads, he found himself playing more hard-nosed, straight shooter roles, though always maintaining his likability. A highlight in his later career was with the classic film “Network” in 1976, for which he received his third and final Best Actor Oscar nomination. William Holden's alcoholism eventually lead to his own death in 1981 at the age of 63, after falling while intoxicated, hitting his head on a table and bleeding to death. A very sad ending for someone who contributed so much. He left behind an impressive legacy of films and performances.
“Born Yesterday” was remade in 1993 starring Melanie Griffith, Don Johnson and John Goodman.
Get set for a brilliant comedy that's lots of fun, and features a historic performance that will leave you joyfully in awe. Enjoy “Born Yesterday”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
The gin rummy scene in “Born Yesterday” is famous itself, and with good reason. The scene contains almost no dialogue and still is completely captivating. Who ever thought watching two people playing cards could ever be so mesmerizing?!
One of cinema's most famous lines is delivered in "Born Yesterday". It's when "Billie" says, "Would ya do me a favor, Harry? Drop dead". It was so unexpected, and Holliday's delivery was so spot on, that fans would sometimes ask her to say it when seeing her in person!