AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from ARROW ACADEMY
RUNNING TIME: 103 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Bullying, uncouth junkyard tycoon Harry Brock goes to Washington with his brassy girlfriend, Emma “Billie” Dawn, and his crooked lawyer, Jim Devery, to “influence” a politician or two. As a legal precaution, Devery presses Harry to marry Billie, as a wife cannot be forced to testify against her husband. Harry, disgusted with Billie’s ignorance and lack of manners, though his are much worse, hires journalist Paul Verrall to educate her and give her some culture. She begins to blossom under Paul’s encouragement and her own hard work….
Watching a film decades after the time it was made can sometimes bring up thoughts that wouldn’t have even been possible originally. I doubt that I’m the only first time viewer of Born Yesterday who, upon seeing its loud mouthed vulgarian bully people about while we’re given a message on how the public need to educate themselves as to what’s really going on, who will relate all this to the United States of Donald Trump. I don’t normally like to begin a review getting all political, but there’s no doubt that if they made this film today it would most definitely be seen as a commentary on this by many even if that wasn’t intended by the filmmakers. Of course unpleasant, corrupt people being in charge and gullible folk going along with what say and do is nothing new, and fortunately Born Yesterday has a great deal else to offer. To my shame I’d heard of nothing more than the title before Arrow’s Blu-ray dropped through my letterbox, though the name of George Cukor, director of The Philadelphia Story and My Fair Lady is almost synonymous with witty, smart and civilised entertainment. Cukor doesn’t seem to have tried to disguise the fact that it’s based on a stage play, the majority of the film taking place in one hotel suite set, and initially dumb blonde Billie seems so totally dumb [even though in actuality she’s more uneducated than stupid] that she’s rather irritating especially with that grating voice of hers, but the proceedings are generally so enjoyable, combining humour, romance and just a bit of social commentary in a expert manner, that it doesn’t matter too much, while the aspect of the story concerning female self-empowerment in a world seemingly dominated by men would fit in very well with today’s fad for films dealing with that subject.
Though all the major Hollywood studios wanted to film Garson Kanin’s successful Broadway play of the same title, it was Columbia who purchased the rights in 1948. The screenplay was credited to Albert Mannheimer, but in fact Cukor didn’t like Mannheimer’s work much, believing it departed too much from the play, so he got Kanin to write a new screenplay – but because of legal entanglements, Kanin did not receive screen credit. He opened things out a little and once William Holden came on board, beefed up his part because Holliday was still not too well known as a screen performer. In fact Holliday, who’d played the role in the play, didn’t want to reprise it t first, so Rita Hayworth, Gloria Grahame, Jean Arthur and Lana Turner were all considered for the part of Billie before the project was put on the shelf for two years until Columbia head Harry Cohn assigned Cukor to direct the film. Cukor’s preparatory work for Born Yesterday was quite innovative. The cast members rehearsed the screenplay for two weeks, then performed it before an audience drawn from studio employees. Cukor’s idea was to give the actors a chance to develop dimensional characters, and clock laugh values from audience reactions before the cameras began rolling. The film was a success, but some showings were picketed by the Anti-Communist Committee of the Catholic War Veterans because Holliday and Kanin were affiliated with organisations on the U.S attorney general’s list of subversive groups. Eventually Holliday was brought to face McCarthy’s infamous witch hunt committee to name names. Though actually very intelligent, she played dumb in court and so avoided implicating anyone else in the lunacy, whilst at the same time avoiding any major blacklisting for herself – though her film career was tainted somewhat. Born Yesterday was remade in 1993 with Melanie Griffith as Billie.
So it’s all hands on deck to welcome Harry to a plush hotel, but the arrogant scumbag is never thankful and even moans when he gets a whole wing to himself even though he asked for [or should that be demanded] a whole floor. He’s a self-made businessman only slightly to the right of a common hood, but has turned his collection of junkyards into a thriving industry and is now in Washington D.C. on the advice of his lawyer Jim Devery who, in a nicely understated performance by Howard St. John [just watch his body language], uses constant liquor to fortify himself against his boss’s verbal abuse and probably also the shady nature of some of the things he’s involved with. Harry seems to want to influence some legislation in his favour, though the exact details are unknown and I guess didn’t really need to be made explicit. Broderick Crawford in the part shouts and shouts, and you could say that his performance isn’t a very nuanced one, but then there’s probably little nuance to this person anyway, what you see is what you get – which isn’t much really despite his size. Former showgirl Billy has been with Harry for six years and is pretty much controlled by him, though he sometimes buys her a mink coat or two to keep her placated. He’s also using her to hide his assets, figuring that she’s too stupid to ever figure it out. She’s not a complete airhead, and some of her responses have some common sense to them, but she really embarrasses Harry when Congressman Norval Hedges and his wife come to pay Harry a visit. She’s rude because she doesn’t know any better, refusing an invitation to play bridge and continually switching on the radio to listen to music even though Harry keeps turning it off. She doesn’t even know what the Supreme Court is. To enable him to move up in the world of politics, Billy needs to change in Harry’s eyes.
Paul is a journalist whom Harry wants to make Billy more bright and respectable, even though he’s no better. “What’s cake got to do with it?” he asks when suggested that he likes to have his cake and eat it. The first time they’re alone is astonishingly sexual in terms of its writing for a film from 1950 and belongs more in the early ‘30s when early sound films were able to be a bit more forthright about such matters for a couple of years until the repressive Production Code came into being. When he first says how Harry has sent him, she asks him if he’s a gigolo [shades of the even better film that William Holden also starred in earlier that year] which leads to the implication that Harry’s not at all satisfying her in the bedroom department – in fact I wonder if he pays any attention to her in that manner at all. Then she blatantly comes onto him with the line “Are you one of those talkers, or would you be interested in a little action?”, which troubled the censors [though still amazingly got through] as did the idea that Harry and Billie lived together which is somewhat disguised with the changes that had to be made but is still evident if you’re observant. There’s even the hint that she’s enjoyed a few previous ‘distractions’, Harry obviously being oblivious. Paul wants her too but doesn’t believe in crossing the line while he’s supposed to be ‘educating’ her, which largely consists of getting her to read really old books [surely he’d have been better off starting off with some lighter stuff?] and take trips with him to New York landmarks which at least get us out of the hotel though some of these bits were obviously shot on sound stages [better back projection than normal for the time though]. She initially accepts all this as another way of getting to Paul, but he just won’t get involved. Eventually she not only become knowledgeable anyway but begins to ask questions and to suss out what her fiancee is actually up to – though she never totally loses her old clutziness – I love the way that she has a dictionary on hand to check any word that she doesn’t understand.
Judy Holliday, an actress whom I don’t think I’d had the pleasure of seeing in a film before, is quite amazing here, though whether she deserved the Oscar is a matter of debate as she sure had some stiff competition. Though putting on a voice somewhere between Rosie Perez and Jean Hagen’s similar routine two years later in Singin’ In The Rain and which is as annoying as it sounds, she manages to evoke a kind of pathos among all the bimbo-ness – especially notable here are the scenes where she talks about her father – and her character’s growth and gaining of strength as well as knowledge is believably acted even if the script’s a bit simplistic in places. She’s a great comedy performer too such as in a game of gin rummy where Billie beats Harry without even trying. The way she shuffles her cards back and forth and hums a jazz tune while Brock simmers and steams is both hilarious and just a little bit tense as you sense that their relationship could so easily be, and maybe has been, physically as well as verbally and psychologically abusive. It’s one of those movie scenes you don’t want to stop. Holliday is wonderful and I now have a new favourite actress whose work I want to explore – and it won’t take long as she only made seven films. As for Holden, he’s a little weak and doesn’t seem to be trying to do much with his character, but then Paul’s quite thinly written anyway, though he makes for a fine contrast with Harry, of whom he’s the complete opposite in every way.
Things pan out pretty much as you expect them to, and some may find the worship of the founders of modern America and what they wrote to be rather naive and even uncomfortable. Jim’s speech about how hard it is to find a corrupt politician in Washington may even get laughs seeing as today it’s impossible to find an honest one. However, like many of the films of Frank Capra [who I’d probably have named as the director of this if I didn’t know that it was a Cukor film], the sentiment is honest and I can’t imagine many who won’t disagree with the continually timely message about the way our environment, whether political or social, encourages ignorance to placate the downtrodden, while I personally can never fail to like a film that extols the virtues of learning. Born Yesterday is a simple, predictable but immensely likable film with a lot of both heart and savvy.
As I’d never seen this film at all until now I can’t compare this restoration with previous releases, but Born Yesterday looks nicely sharp and detailed on Arrow’s Blu-ray. Contrast is especially impressive in this black and white film, the scale from white to gray to black being very well realised. Grain always looks natural and is well balanced. It also came out on Region ‘A’ from Twilight Time, so Arrow may have used the same restoration but probably did a new encode. They’ve also gone one better than Twilight Time whose release was virtually bare bones, and have produced three new special features. We have two contrasting looks at the film by movie academics that understandably repeat some of the same making of stuff but otherwise are surprisingly different, plus a look at Holliday. Geoff Andrew defends the work of Cukor who he thinks has been underrated, mentions Trump [I’m glad I’m not the only one] and provides more of an overview, while David Cairns goes more in-depth into the performances and the characters. Both praise Holliday greatly, who also gets her own featurette with Richard Dyer, who goes greatly into her technique and her distinction in terms of movie blondes of the time as well as also talking about Born Yesterday including – yes – mentioning Trump.
Whether the fact that Born Yesterday is so unintentionally timely today is part of its quality might be debatable, but I certainly think that it adds to its interest. It’s a very pleasant souffle of a film that also manages to have some important things to say. The special features are enlightening and may even cause you to appreciate the film more. Highly Recommended!
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation transferred from original film elements
*Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Yesterday Today, a newly-filmed video appreciation by film critic Geoff Andrew [20 mins]
*Remembering Judy Holliday, the academic Richard Dyer celebrates the Oscar-winning actress
*Da na na… BUH-BOOM!, a new video essay on the film by critic David Cairns [19 mins]
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ignatius Fitzpatrick
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Pamela Hutchinson