Monday, July 20, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Born Yesterday" (1950)

Judy Holliday had one of those comet-like Hollywood careers, burning fast and bright. She won an Oscar for "Born Yesterday," her first lead role after a lauded turn in "Adam's Rib." She starred opposite Jack Lemmon in his first two films, went back to Broadway, endured ill health and died of breast cancer in 1963 at the age of 43.

It seemed like Holiday was everyone's second choice for a role that she then knocked out of the park. Playwright Garson Kanin wrote the part of Billie Dawn, the tough moll with the squawky voice, for Jean Arthur. When she left the show, Holiday was picked to replace her for the Broadway run, which was so successful the movie studios soon came calling. But the Columbia Pictures chief didn't want her. It took a lot of wrangling by director George Cukor and some big stars to help her land the part.

She was rewarded with a Golden Globe and the aforementioned Academy Award, beating out the likes of Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard" -- which also featured William Holden in the supporting role of the boyfriend. Though instead of being an object of degradation, Holden's character in "Born Yesterday" serves to lift Billie up out of her dreary circumstances.

The film also received Oscar nods for screenplay, director, best picture and costume design.

The story centers around a junkyard magnate/mobster, Harry Brock, played by Broderick Crawford. He's an abusive bully, lording it over everyone in the same room, including the Congressman (Larry Oliver) he's come to Washington, D.C. to help him pass desired legislation for his junk business. Harry treats his longtime fiancee Billie like an accessory, often bellowing at her, "Do what I tell you!!"

I was surprised watching the film how edgy it is. Harry says the word "pregnant" at one point, which was banned on nascent television but still more or less verboten in the days of the Production Code, which was still very much in effect in 1950. Even more surprisingly, Harry's threats of violence against Billie result in a sudden moment where he belts her very hard several times onscreen. Billie's face is turned toward the camera when it happens, so we see the impact of his neanderthal blows.

Harry, with the help of his obsequious attorney Jim Devery (Howard St. John), hires high-minded journalist Paul Verrall (Holden) to tutor Billie so she'll be more acceptable to the hoity-toity D.C. social crowd. Verrall takes the job less for the money -- $200/week, or twice his newspaper salary -- than an opportunity to infiltrate Harry's circle and get the scoop on what he sees as a greedy sod working the system for his own benefit.

But he doesn't count on Billie falling for him, or him eventually returning the favor. It's interesting to see Holden in two movies in a single year where he is the pursued object of feminine attraction, rather than the traditional wolf on the hunt.

There's not much of a plot to speak of -- Harry's various machinations getting tripped up by Billie's increasing social consciousness being about the extent of it. Half his business is on paper in her name for legal protection, an asset she eventually puts to good use.

The movie is really just a showcase for Holliday. Her Billie is a tramp with a heart of gold buried underneath seven years of cynicism and abuse from Harry, whose taint has infected her outward behavior if not yet her soul.

Her voice is hard to listen to for 103 minutes -- screechy, nasal-y timbres tend to give me a headache.  Holliday makes Billie's tawdriness a feature rather than a bug, though. She'll never lose her brash style and rapport with regular folks. That's integral to her charm. Paul doesn't try to change her, just expand her ambition and internal library.

The film's political commentary is a mite heavy-handed at times -- Albert Mannheimer is given sole screenwriting credit, though Kanin contributed, too. Harry is in many ways a cartoon version of the brute subverting democracy to his own self ends. If instead of ordering people around and paying off a congressman he started a PAC, Harry would be indistinguishable from traditional lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, Verrall seems to be advocating for a collectivist hive of selfless citizens working together for the good of the people, which is an awfully naive mindset for a cynical reporter.

"Born Yesterday" is also something of a love letter to the city of Washington, D.C., showing all the various tourist spots and hidden lovely vistas. It's a fun, romantic dash of a movie that also has something to say. And it features one of the all-time iconic female comedic performances.

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