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Film Friday: «Born Yesterday» (1950)

To celebrate Judy Holliday's 95th birthday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the film for which she is best remembered, one that gave her the Academy Award for Best Actress. This also happens to be one of my favorite films of all time.
Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Cukor, Born Yesterday (1950) begins when wealthy, crooked junk dealer Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) and his brassy girlfriend, former showgirl Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday), arrive at a swanky hotel in Washington, D.C. Harry instructs his attorney, Jim Devery (Howard St. John), to buy votes in the U.S. House of Representatives to get a bill passed that will save him millions of dollars in federal taxes. For Harry's protection, Jim puts his business holdings in Billie's name and asks her to sign all his legal documents, which she does without questioning. Jim also warns Harry to marry Billie since legally wives cannot testify against their husbands on court.

Although he himself is uncouth and aggressive, Billie's unrefined behavior embarrasses Harry during a meeting with Congressman Norval Hedges (Larry Oliver) and his wife (Barbara Brown). Jim then suggests Harry hire someone to smooth Billie's rough edges and tutor her for Washington society. He offers the job to Paul Verrall (William Holden), a reporter who had earlier attempted to interview him. Paul readily accepts, both because he is attracted to Billie and because he hopes to find out something about Harry's operations. Under Paul's encouragement and her own hard work, Billie learns about literature, history, politics and the law, while also visiting some of Washington's most iconic buildings. Soon, she discovers just how deep Harry's corruption goes and refuses to sign a new stack of papers without reading them first. Harry is so furious that he hits her, prompting Billie to leave the apartment. The following day, Billie returns to the hotel to distract Harry while Paul takes the papers from his room. Harry offered Paul money to return them, but he refuses. Billie promises to sign back one company a year to Harry as long as he leaves them alone. Finally, Paul and Billie get married.

Paul Verrall: I want everyone to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world full of dangerous people is too dangerous to live in.

The son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked as a building contractor in Manhattan, Garson Kanin abandoned high school to help support his family during the Great Depression, working as a Western Union messenger and as a stock boy at Macy's department store. When he made enough money, Kanin decided to pursue his dream of being an actor and enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He made his Broadway debut shortly after graduating in 1933, in the play Little Ol' Boy. Upon hearing that influential producer George Abbott needed a red-headed actor for an upcoming play, Kanin promptly dyed his hair and showed up early for the audition. He did not get the part, but Abbott did hire him as his assistant, before Kanin made his Broadway debut as a director with Hitch Your Wagon. In 1937, Abbott recommended Kanin to independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, who then brought the young man to Hollywood. Due to a lack of directing assignments, Kanin left Goldwyn's staff within a year to sign a contract with RKO, where he helmed his first motion picture, A Man to Remember (1938), a critically acclaimed rural drama written by Dalton Trumbo, starring Anne Shirley, Lee Bowman and Edward Ellis.

When the United States entered World War II, Kanin was drafted into the Army, serving in a film unit responsible for turning out documentaries for the War Information and Emergency Manpower Offices. During this period, he decided to try his hand at playwriting and penned Born Yesterday, a comedy about a crooked junk dealer named Harry Brock who goes to Washington, D.C. looking to "influence" a politician or two. The lead female role of Billie Dawn, Harry's brazen "dumb blonde" mistress, was written for Jean Arthur — a part based, Kanin later commented, "on a stripper [I] once knew who read Karl Marx between shows." Kanin had previously worked with Arthur on The More the Merrier (1943), a hit comedy in which he had contributed to the script without credit. After preview performances in late 1945, however, Arthur became ill and was forced to withdraw from the play. Kanin and producer Max Gordon subsequently replaced her with Judy Holliday, who had recently made her Broadway debut in a small, though award-winning, supporting role in the comedy Kiss Them For Me. Holliday learned her lines for Born Yesterday in just three days.

Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn
Born into a family with ties to the Jewish immigrant left, Holliday secured her first job — as a switchboard operator for Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre Company — after graduating first in her class from Julia Richmond High School in 1938. At the same time, she began writing original material to perform with friends and aspiring entertainers Adolph Green and Betty Comden, who would later pen such acclaimed musicals as On the Town (1949) and Singin' in the Rain (1952). Calling themselves "The Revuers," the troupe soon gained a loyal audience with their humor and songs, which parodied Hollywood, Broadway, radio, advertising and even news headlines. In September 1943, they moved to Hollywood on the promise of a film with 20th Century Fox and a long-term contract for Holliday, but their performance scene ended on the cutting-room floor. The Revuers split up thereafter and Holliday had small parts in two pictures, including George Cukor's "morale booster" Winged Victory (1944), before returning to New York in December 1944. 

Directed by Kanin himself, Born Yesterday opened at the Lyceum Theatre in New York on February 4, 1946, with Paul Douglas as Harry Brock and Gary Merrill as Paul Verrall, a reporter who becomes the intellectual tutor of Billie Dawn, with whom he falls in love. Audiences loved the play's humor and warmly responded to its political sensibilities. They were especially delighted by Holliday's performance, which reviewers widely credited as key to the success of Born Yesterday. Theatre critic Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times that Billie Dawn's transformation "into a human being aroused by a new interest in the life of other people" was "conveyed by Holliday's acting as vividly as by the script Mr. Kanin has written." Holliday starred in Born Yesterday for the next three-and-a-half years, until the show closed on December 31, 1949 after 1,642 performances. 

William Holden and Judy Holliday
With the remarkable success of Born Yesterday on Broadway, Hollywood staged a bidding war for the screen rights to the play. Because Kanin had had bad dealings with Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn earlier in his career, he instructed his agent to offer the script to everyone except him, stating that he would not sell him the rights for a million dollars. Two months later, Cohn acquired the property for exactly that amount, one of the biggest deals ever made by Columbia. Shortly afterwards, in September 1947, it was announced that the studio's reigning female star, Rita Hayworth, would play Billie Dawn. However, when she left her film career in 1948 to marry Prince Aly Khan, Cohn put the project on hold. 

Meanwhile, Cohn offered George Cukor the opportunity to direct Born Yesterday. A veteran of the Broadway stage, Cukor began his Hollywood career in 1929, when Paramount Pictures hired him as a dialogue coach. He made his solo directorial debut with Tarnished Lady (1931) and went to helm such acclaimed films as Little Women (1933), The Philadelphia Story (1940) and A Double Life (1947) — all of which earned him Academy Award nominations. At the time, Cukor was waiting for independent producer David O. Selznick to raise the funds for a screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1934 novel Tender Is the Night, slated to star Selznick's wife, Jennifer Jones. When it became clear that Selznick would not be able to get the necessary money, Cukor accepted Cohn's offer. Tender Is the Night would not be filmed until 1962; although Jones played the female lead, the film was directed by Henry King and produced by Henry T. Weinstein. 

William Holden, Judy Holliday and
Broderick Crawford in a publicity still
With Hayworth out of the running, Kanin suggested casting Holliday to reprise her stage role in the film. Cohn, however, resisted the idea, as he did not want to risk his already large investment on an unknown actress he publicly referred to as "that fat Jewish broad." Among the actresses then considered for the part were Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Jean Arthur, Gloria Grahame, Marie Wilson, Evelyn Keyes, Barbara Hale and Jean Porter, who had toured with the play. Having already rejected the unknown Holliday, Cohn also refused to hire an up-and-coming actress named Marilyn Monroe.

Hoping to persuade Cohn to sign Holliday in Born Yesterday, Kanin and his wife the actress and screenwriter Ruth Gordon schemed with Cukor and their friend Katharine Hepburn to showcase the young star in their film Adam's Rib (1949). One particular long scene in which Holliday's character recounts how and why she shot her unfaithful husband was written almost as a monologue, which Cukor shot in close-up and in one take. That scene convinced Cohn to test Holliday, whom he finally cast after three tests.

At Holliday's first official meeting with Cohn, he looked her up and down and said, just loud enough for her and everybody else in the room to hear, "Well, I've worked with fat asses before." Cohn then tried to sign her to a standard seven-year contract, but Holliday, who intended to continue living in New York between pictures, negotiated instead a one-film-a-year deal for seven years that also allowed her to do stage, television and radio work. In return, he got her for the then low salary of $30,000, with only $10,000 raises promised for each subsequent film. Just to prove how committed she was to Born Yesterday, Holliday lost 15 pounds (6.8 kilos) in only three weeks.

Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford and William Holden
Paul Douglas was initially approached to reprise his role as Harry Brock, but he turned it down after reading a revised, heavily censored script, completely altering the original play. To replace him, Cohn cast Broderick Crawford, who had recently won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Robert Rossen's political drama All the King's Men (1949), which was also named Best Picture that year. Cohn's choice of Crawford was strongly disapproved by Cukor. Although the director believed that Crawford was indeed a more talented performer than Douglas, he felt that the experience Douglas had gained playing the role on stage for nearly four years and the chemisty he shared with Holliday would have been far more relevant for the picture. According to Kanin, Harry Brock was modeled on Cohn, who knew of the connection, but was not bothered by it.

William Holden, whose contract was shared by Columbia and Paramount Pictures, was offered the role of Paul Verrall, but he was initially reluctant to accept it, realizing that he would be overshadowed by the other leading roles. Both Kanin and Billy Wilder, who had just directed Holden in Sunset Boulevard (1950), advised him to take the part, arguing that such a promising project could only advance his career. Aware of Holden's apprehension, Holliday tried to persuade him to appear in the film by saying, "It's a wonderful script, and there are a lot of opportunities for everybody." When Kanin, whom Cukor had asked to revise Albert Mannheimer's script (after a first unsuccessful attempt by the Academy Award-winning brothers Julius and Philip Epstein), offered to build the role up for the screen, Holden finally accepted the offer.

William Holden, Judy Holliday and George Cukor
Cukor prepared his cast for the filming of Born Yesterday by rehearsing the script for two weeks as if it were still a play, a suggestion apparently given by Holliday. He even convinced Cohn to have a group of carpenters built a 300-seat theatre on the Columbia lot, where the actors then staged a few abbreviated performances in front a live audience of Columbia employees and any Hollywood insiders who were interested in seeing the show. Holden's parents, William and Mary Beedle, were present during one of the sessions. This gave Cukor the opportunity to time the delivery of the lines before they could be filmed, while also generating positive word-of-mouth within the industry.

Filming on Born Yesterday took place between June and August 1950. Cukor instructed production designer Harry Horner to construct an entire hotel suite that would allow him to move the action from room to room and give the scenes a more natural flow. While revising Mannheimer's screenplay, Kanin had decided to illustrate Billie's description of her trip to various sites in Washington, D. C. In doing so, he made it possible for Cukor to shoot on location at the Supreme Court, the Washington Monument, the Treasure Department, the National Gallery of Art, the Jefferson Memorial and the National Archives. In this last building, the archive officials feared that the powerful lights used in film photography might fade or crumble the U.S. Constitution on display under glass. Cukor was forced to have his cameraman reduce his normal lighting by half in a scene where Holliday and Holden were looking at the historical document.

Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford and William
Holden in Born Yesterday
One of the most iconic scenes in Born Yesterday involves a game of gin rummy between Billie and Harry, in which she easily wins despite constantly rearraging her hand and humming the song "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby." Holliday and Crawford actually extended their gin rummy scene to their off-screen relationship. Afraid of flying, Holliday insisted on taking the train to Washington, D.C., while the rest of the cast went by plane. As he did not want Holliday to travel alone, Cohn ordered Broderick to join her on the train, which he did reluctantly. During the four-day journey, they spend their time by talking and playing gin rummy for money. When they arrived in Washington, she had apparently won $600 from him. Crawford and Holden also became friends throughout the making of Born Yesterday. While staying at the Hilton Hotel in Washington, they would order caviar and champagne charging it to Columbia and have drinking competitions.

There was only one moment of tension during the making of Born Yesterday, when Crawford asked Cohn permission to miss the next day's shooting to retrieve his son Kim from the hospital after an eye operation. Cohn refused, threatening to sue Crawford "for seven million dollars" if he left the set unauthorized. Crawford was furious, but he reported for work anyway. Shortly before the lunch break, an ambulance through a stage door and drove right onto the set. Crawford's son was on a stretcher in the rear. Cohn suddenly appeared from behind a backdrop and told Crawford, "Now you go home with the boy. And don't you ever tell me you're going to leave the set!"

William Holden and Judy Holliday in a
publicity still for Born Yesterday
Born Yesterday premiered at the Victoria Theatre in New York on December 26, 1950 to positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for instance, described it as a "beautiful integrated compound of character study and farce." Almost all the attention naturally went to Holliday's performance, which Crowther called "priceless," adding, "this marvelously clever young actress so richly conveys the attitudes and the vocal intonations of a native of the sidewalks of New York that it is art. More than that, she illuminates so brightly the elemental wit and honesty of her blankly unlettered young lady that she puts pathos and respect into the role." LIFE magazine also applauded Holliday's portrayal of Billie Dawn, writing, "the whole picture is Judy's, and in the intervals between guffaws you have time to reflect that you are seeing the top comic performance by an actress in American movies this year." Variety agreed, commenting that "Almost alone, she makes Born Yesterday." The film was the sixth biggest moneymaker of 1951, with $4.15 million in domestic rentals, making it an extremely profitable investment for Cohn.

At the 23rd Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in March 1951, Born Yesterday received five nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Judy Holliday), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design (Black and White). Although the frontrunners for Best Actress that year were Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis for All About Eve (1950), it was Holliday who eventually won the award. Because she was not present at the ceremony, legendary actresEthel Barrymore accepted the Oscar from Broderick Crawford's hands on Holliday's behalf. José Ferrer hosted a party at the LaZambra nightclub on West 52nd Street for all the nominees who had remained in New York, including Holliday, Swanson, Cukor and Celeste Holm, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for All About Eve. A live radio link was set among the tables, where the guests dined as they waited for their categories to be announced in Los Angeles. Both Holliday and Swanson were thrilled by the news that Ferrer won Best Actor for his performance in Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), although the older actress was visibly disappointed to lose the statuette to a newcomer.

In June 1951, Judy Holliday, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon were placed among the 151 writers, directors, singers and actors identified as "subversives" in Red Channels: The Report of Communist influence in Radio and Television, a volume released by three former FBI agents that then served a reference tool for backlisting within radio and television broadcasting. With their primary employment in the theatre, Kanin and Gordon felt less vulnerable to blacklisting, but Holliday had far more to fear over its potential impact. In 1952, she was called to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee about her left-wing political activism. She was able to sidestep contempt charges and avoid implicating compatriots by mobilizing her Billie Dawn persona before the committee playing dumb, despite her famously high IQ (she reportedly had an IQ of 172). Holliday's "dumb blonde" Senate committee performance saved her career from Hollywood's anti-Communist blacklist, allowing her to continue working on film until her death from breast cancer in 1965.

A Jewish Feminine Mystique?: Jewish Women in Postwar America edited by Hasia R. Diner, Shira Kohn and Rachel Kranson (2010) | Smart Chicks on Screen: Representing Women's Intellect in Film and Television edited bu Laura Mattoon D'Amore (2014) | The Complete Films of Broderick Crawford by Ralph Schiller (2016) | William Holden: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (2010) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review


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