Born Yesterday (1950)
Born Yesterday (1950)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 43 min.

Release Date: December 25th, 1950 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: George Cukor Actors: Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford, William Holden, Howard St. John, Frank Otto, Larry Oliver, Barbara Brown, Claire Carleton

 


 

A

t the Hotel Statler in Washington D.C., corrupt steel magnate Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) and an enormous entourage of suitcases, bags, and servants stroll up to an entire wing reserved just for him. His specific suite is usually reserved for foreign diplomats, and even includes a private elevator. Brock is accompanied by his fiancee, former chorus girl Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday), a young blonde with a terribly annoying, shrill voice. And despite the $400-per-night cost, she seems thoroughly unimpressed. As soon as Harry is settled, freelance political writer Paul Verrall (William Holden) arrives, interested in conducting an interview with the multi-millionaire. Ostensibly, the article will bolster Brock’s reputation; but Verrall wishes to dig deeper into the machinations of a powerful man who might have ambitions to wield his influences – primarily bribery – on politicians who can grease the wheels on scrapiron interests.

When a shave, shoeshine, and some chatter with his lawyer (Howard St. John) are interrupted by Billie’s attempts to sneak a bottle of champagne to her room, Brock creates quite the scene, rattling his colleagues and spurning the shapely woman; it’s such an embarrassment that Paul departs swiftly, unwilling to be a witness to the abusiveness of a bulldozing ruffian. Minutes later, Brock meets with congressman Norval Hedges (Larry Oliver), hoping to set up a network of contacts, but Billie’s lack of enthusiasm and limited abilities with socializing sour the mood. “She’s gonna be in the way, that dame.”

What she needs is a makeover – of the behavioral kind. Having only met a couple of people in Washington, Harry offers the job to Paul, insisting that with the writer’s worldliness and gentlemanliness, he’d be perfect in the role of a tutor. “She’s a little on the stupid side.” Fascinatingly, Billie has a self-awareness about her intelligence, but she’s not concerned. As long as she’s happy, has two mink coats, and knows how to get everything she wants (monetarily) – often through the practiced wielding of her sexuality – educating herself isn’t a priority.

The premise is immediately reminiscent of “Pygmalion” (and, by extension, “My Fair Lady”), as the rough-around-the-edges woman is destined to be schooled in the ways of speaking more elegantly and behaving more properly. Here, there’s more of a focus on the hilarity of refining the woman and getting her to fit in, though there’s no shortage of romance. And there’s also an attention to the wrongness of Harry and the rightness of Paul; with the obvious mismatched nature of the dimwitted girl (who is, uncommonly, unafraid of being antagonizing) and her overbearing, ferocious counterpart, it’s not long before amorous feelings for the more suitable suitor turn the situation into quite the vexer. A hint of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is also present, in reverse, as Paul shows the wide-eyed Billie the most touristy spots of the town (perhaps akin to “Roman Holiday” a few years later).

Brock is fairly straightforward and irredeemable; but Billie possesses an innocence and sweetness that allows her to become far more engaging than the squeaky, naive girl from the start. She has the capacity for change. And Judy Holliday couldn’t be more perfect for the role, exuding enough charm and genuineness to vastly overcome the disagreeableness of her decision to be with Harry and her complacency toward psychological mistreatment. Amusingly, her greatest weakness is when her feminine wiles don’t have an instant effect. Yet she’s the kind of underdog for whom audiences will wish only the best; for her, money can’t buy happiness, yet cultivating her mind just might provide an escape from emotional oppression. “Do you think we can find somebody to make her dumb again?”

Based on the celebrated Garson Kanin play, which Holliday perfected on the stage beginning in 1946, “Born Yesterday” contains a spectacular push for women’s independence; in the end, Billie finally learns that she doesn’t need a man’s wealth to find contentment. Even the outdated, idealistic view of governmental underpinnings and the unlikely leniency of tempestuous thugs can’t stop the film from being monumentally appealing. “Knowledge is power.”

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10