- Director: George Cukor
- Writers: Albert Mannheimer, based on the stage play by Garson Kanin
- Starring: Judy Holliday, William Holden, Broderick Crawford, and Howard St. John
- Accolades: 1 Oscar (Best Actress – Judy Holliday), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – George Cukor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costumes)
- Where to: Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
Since I announced the lineup for our Horror & Politics Film Festival, I had come to regret including Born Yesterday over All The King’s Men, the winner of the 1949 Best Picture Oscar. It stars Broderick Crawford as a thinly-veiled version of Huey Long, a populist strongman who served as governor of Louisiana for four years and had higher ambitions prior to his assassination in 1932. I thought Long’s story might be particularly relevant in the Age of Trump. But as it turns out, I had the right idea to begin with: Crawford went on to play a very Trumpian figure the next year too, but in a very different movie. Born Yesterday is about what happens when his character’s fiancee decides she will no longer be “complicit,” to use the modern parlance, and what happens then.
Near the halfway point of Born Yesterday, William Holden’s erudite journalist Paul Verrall says that “All of history has been a struggle between two kinds of people, the selfish and the unselfish. Sometimes the selfish people get the upper hand and run the government for themselves. That’s called fascism.” Later, when Judy Holliday’s Billie Dawn wants to mortally insult her “junkyard tycoon” fiance, she yells that he’s a “Big Fascist!” He seems confused. “I’m not a fascist. I was born in Plainfield, New Jersey. Everybody knows that!”
If Born Yesterday weren’t concerned with the ongoing struggles between money and politics, idealism and reality, it might run the risk of becoming obsolete. It is, essentially, a take on Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady, the film version of which was also directed by, interestingly, George Cukor), transplanted to mid-20th Century Washington, DC. “Junkyard King” Harry Brock plows into the penthouse at a posh DC hotel, ready to “buy himself a Congressman.” What would have been much clearer to audiences at the time is that Brock is a war profiteer. He brings along his fiancee (of seven years), Billie, who is about as uncouth as you can get. Her voice is so loud and brash that I needed subtitles to understand what she was saying half the time, like some sort of American version of Peaky Blinders. One British reviewer (while praising the movie) warned his readers that her voice is like “the tinkling of many tiny, tuneless cymbals.” Anyway, after Billie embarrasses Brock in front of a Congressman and his wife, he hires Verrall to “teach her a few things” so it doesn’t happen again.
This does not go well for Brock. If Born Yesterday does feel dated, it is because of Verrall’s unrepentant idealism, the way he refers to “the people” like he really means it. He quizzes Billie on the writings of Thomas Paine and takes her to the Jefferson Memorial. Born Yesterday’s basic premise is that being smart is better than being “dumb,” and it says it repeatedly. It also takes to task those who put up with “dumb people” in the name of money, like Brock’s shyster lawyer (Howard St. John), who tells Brock he needs to marry Billie because “they can’t make a husband and wife testify against each other in court,” yet clearly knows better.
Born Yesterday is based on a hit 1946 Broadway play by Garson Kanin, who apparently intended Brock as a lampoon of many rich people around at the time, including Columbia Pictures boss Roy Cohn. Ironically, it was Columbia that won the bidding rights to the play, with Cohn apparently oblivious to the resemblance. Holliday had starred in the Broadway version of the play, but was an unknown in Hollywood, and the studio only settled on her after trying to cast basically every other leading lady in town. Though she was clearly exaggerating, Holliday’s accent as Billie wasn’t a put on: she was born into a very Jewish family on the East Side of Manhattan, and her birth name was “Judith Tuvim.” She became a big star from this movie, winning a Best Actress Oscar. She was so identified with the role that when she was called before HUAC a few years later as a “suspected Communist,” she admitted to her friends that she “played Billie” (i.e. played dumb), and the committee’s report stated they found no evidence of her being a communist.
Born Yesterday could easily turn into “Mansplaining: the Movie,” and it certainly has moments in that vein, but overall I think it has a key difference from the My Fair Ladys of the world, which is that Billie never loses her own agency. The myth of Pygmalion, and Shaw’s thematically similar play, is about a sculptor falling in love with his creation, but Billie likes Paul from the moment she sees him (in their first conversation she asks him if he “just wants to talk, or if [he’s] looking for a little action,” a line Kanin had to fight to get past the censors). She’s realized already that she doesn’t enjoy staying with Brock. She studies because, whether consciously or subconsciously, she sees it as a way out. And in the end, it’s Billie that takes the initiative and sets into motion the events that lead to her freedom. And while perhaps her dresses get less showy over the course of the movie (this is one of the only movies I’ve ever seen where somebody gets a credit for “Gowns” in the opening credits), she’s still fabulous. There is no Eliza Doolittle-esque physical transformation where it’s revealed she is no longer an ugly duckling. She was never either ugly or a duckling.
If I had complaints about this movie, one might be that it never quite transcends its stage play roots. There is some location shooting at the Jefferson Memorial, the Library of Congress, and the National Gallery of Art (Billie’s take: “It smells nice!”), which I found fun as someone who used to work in Downtown DC. However, 90% of the movie takes place in that penthouse suite, mostly in long, talky scenes. I like talky scenes as much as the next person, but director George Cukor doesn’t make too many attempts to jazz things up visually. He is more interested in the performances, all of which are pitch perfect, even if that pitch is so high I can barely understand what they’re saying.
Born Yesterday is meant to be a comedy, I think, but it’s a comedy with a lot on its mind. Nor is it really a “romantic comedy” in structure, despite what Amazon Video wanted me to believe. Its two romantic leads are always into each other, there’s no big set-back in the middle preventing them from being together. And no romcom I’ve seen has a bit where the heroine gets slapped repeatedly by her current boyfriend because she won’t sign merger papers for his business. While Holliday was the huge breakout star, and with good reason, it’s Broderick Crawford I’m left thinking about after watching this movie. His character isn’t just a bully, or just a villain, even if he is a guy who likes to bribe congressmen and hits his girlfriend. We see very clearly that he is self-deluding, too. He genuinely doesn’t understand why everyone doesn’t just shut up and listen to him, and he’s too dumb to understand that yelling at a Congressman or trying to choke Billie in front of a bunch of other people is going to be counterproductive. At the end of the movie, his lawyer scolds him that “I thought you knew better, the time of the bully is over. Knowledge is power, and all that.” If only.