A million dollar Tycoon hires a tutor to teach his lover proper etiquette.
Judy Holliday only lived 43 years and made about a dozen movies, but her impact as a comedienne and contribution to cinema cannot be understated. Few actresses command the screen with as much unassuming authority or radiate as much warmth and ebullience as the diminutive blonde, and no other film captures her unique brand of magnetism and sunny disposition better than 'Born Yesterday,' George Cukor's sparkling adaptation of Garson Kanin's hit stage play. As the dimwitted paramour of Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), a corrupt businessman anxious to exert his influence in the nation's capitol, Holliday is iconic, crafting a multi-faceted portrait of a surprisingly dimensional woman in this perceptive tale of individualism, self-improvement, and empowerment.
Holliday originated the role of Billie Dawn on Broadway, playing the (not-so) dumb blonde a whopping 1,642 times, but like many stage actresses, she had to fight to be cast in the film. When crass Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn - upon whom Kanin supposedly modeled the crass Harry Brock - heard she was interested in reprising her part, he reportedly responded with outrage, "That fat Jewish broad?!" Holliday, however, persevered, taking a supporting role in the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy 'Adam's Rib' for the sole purpose of proving her cinematic mettle. The ploy worked, and she eventually beat out such competitors as Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, and Paulette Goddard for the plum part. (Reportedly, a very young, unknown Marilyn Monroe also made a screen test for the role in 1948, and her performance was considered quite good. Unfortunately, Cohn refused to watch the test, and Monroe's chance for discovery fizzled...for a while.)
Much like 'My Fair Lady' and 'Educating Rita,' 'Born Yesterday' is a classic transformative tale. Kanin, an early champion of feminism, introduces Billie, a brassy, rough-around-the-edges ex-chorus girl, as a ditzy doormat who's happily dominated by her brusque, bullying lover, a corrupt junk dealer and small-time mobster who's even more unmannered than Billie, simply because she doesn't know any better. The boorish Brock arrives in Washington, D.C. with the intention of putting a congressman in his pocket, but after one awkward meeting, he deems Billie's lack of refinement a liability, and hires Paul Verrall, a brainy newspaper writer, to expand her mind and tone down her personality. "She's a good kid," Brock tells Verrall, "but a little on the stupid side." Yet as Billie and her tutor tour the Washington monuments, she becomes educated and enlightened, and quickly realizes her ignorance has stunted her personal development and fostered insecurities of which Brock takes egregious advantage. She soon opens her eyes to Brock's personal effronteries and professional improprieties, and refuses to allow him to push her around - both literally and figuratively - any longer.
Cohn paid the then-record sum of $1 million for the screen rights to Kanin's play, and it turned out to be a wise investment. After the initial script proved unsatisfactory, Cukor persuaded Kanin to do a rewrite, and his version strikes just the right tone, balancing arch political and social commentary with a touching and tender love story and masterful portrait of one woman's intellectual and spiritual awakening. Blending laugh-out-loud humor with some real pathos, Kanin creates three-dimensional characters within the boundaries of well-worn stereotypes, and the result is a wholly satisfying and wonderfully entertaining motion picture. Unfortunately, due to issues with the Writer's Guild, Kanin sadly did not receive any screen credit for his work, and the Oscar nomination the script eventually garnered went to the original adaptor, Albert Mannheimer.
The Washington location shooting nicely opens up the play and lends the story a vital authenticity that helps hammer home its points. Scenes at the National Archives, National Gallery, and especially the Jefferson Memorial emphasize Billie's "dawn" of discovery while instilling in us a patriotic fervor that reinforces such precious American values as freedom, optimism, and individuality. 'Born Yesterday' isn't particularly deep, but beneath its charming antics lie just enough substance to give Billie's personal journey some resonance.
And, of course, Holliday's performance resonates as well. Like many iconic portrayals, once seen, it's impossible to forget. As the film opens, Kanin and Cukor cleverly fool us into believing Billie epitomizes sophistication and good breeding, holding off the big reveal of Billie's brazen and brittle New Yawk accent until it wields the greatest impact. (Betty Comden and Adolph Green would copy the routine two years later, keeping Lina Lamont's squeaky voice a secret for the first 20 minutes or so of 'Singin' in the Rain.') From her first grating outburst of "Whaaaaaaaaaaat?!!!" yelled across a hotel courtyard to her deliciously annoying sing-a-longs with the radio, barely intelligible mutterings, and twinkling doe-eyed quips, Holliday is an unqualified delight. She's also impressive and disarmingly real in her dramatic moments, justifiably earning a Best Actress Oscar in a year of fantastically formidable competition. (The Academy usually does not reward the work of comedic performers, but in a rare about-face, it honored Holliday over both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in 'All About Eve,' Gloria Swanson in 'Sunset Boulevard,' and Eleanor Parker in 'Caged.')
Crawford, who was coming off an Oscar of his own for the previous year's 'All the King's Men,' sacrifices likability for a realistic portrayal of a chauvinistic, pompous, and unscrupulous pig, while Holden is smooth as silk as the handsome yet nerdy reporter who coaxes Billie out of her shell and into a thicker and more confident skin. Though he plays straight man to Holliday most of the time, Holden's easygoing charm enlivens a bland role, and contrasts nicely with his tough, Oscar-nominated performance as kept screenwriter Joe Gillis in 'Sunset Boulevard,' released earlier the same year. Both films revitalized Holden's sagging career and paved the way for a stunning renaissance that would lead to a Best Actor Academy Award for 'Stalag 17' in 1953 and consistently rank Holden among the top echelon of box office draws throughout the 1950s.
'Born Yesterday' would be remade in 1993 with Melanie Griffith, Don Johnson, and John Goodman, but even that misguided debacle can't tarnish the original. With five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as Holliday's win for Best Actress, this engaging, always relatable comedy continues to captivate audiences more than six decades after its initial release. Never again would Holliday appear to such fine advantage, but 'Born Yesterday' cemented her reputation, giving her a role we will forever identify with her and remember always.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Born Yesterday' arrives on Blu-ray in a limited to 3,000 edition packaged in a standard case. An eight-page booklet, featuring an essay on the film by historian Julie Kirgo and several black-and-white production stills, is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
As sparkling as Judy Holliday's performance, Twilight Time's lush and brilliant 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer makes this 64-year-old film look brand new. Sleek and stunningly crisp, the image flaunts a lovely grain structure that maintains the appearance of celluloid without compromising the sharp lines and enhanced clarity of high definition. Some of the location work exhibits a rougher, flatter look, and a few scenes sport a thicker layer of grain, but for the most part, the picture remains admirably consistent. Contrast is superb, with deep, inky blacks offset by bold, creamy whites, and a marvelously varied gray scale helps background elements and textures pop. Costume accents, such as sequins, and intricate patterns remain rock solid and resist shimmering, while excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Close-ups show off fine facial features well, and only a few errant specks and marks mar the pristine source material. This is truly a spectacular rendering of a vintage motion picture, and fans of this bright and amusing comedy will be thrilled with this presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track funnels clear, well-modulated sound into the center speaker. Any age-related hiss, pops, or crackles have been erased, leaving a clean, if somewhat flat, mix. Dynamic range is wide enough to handle Holliday's repeated shouts of "Whaaaaaaaaat?" and Crawford's blustery outbursts without a hint of distortion, and though the music score is sparingly employed, the orchestral strains sound lively and full-bodied. Of course, dialogue is the star of this track, and all conversations - even Holliday's throwaway mumbles - remain easy to comprehend throughout the film's course. Though the audio here doesn't boast any bells and whistles, it gets the job done, wisely allowing the story to grab the spotlight.
Two theatrical trailers, totaling a scant five minutes, comprise the disc extras. The first is a re-release preview, evidenced by the positioning of William Holden in the primary star spot (he received third billing behind Holliday and Crawford in the actual film). The second mixes scenes from the movie with newsreel footage from the picture's premiere at Hollywood's Pantages Theater that features glimpses of several arriving stars.
'Born Yesterday' shows its age around the edges, but remains a delightful, relevant social comedy about acceptance, empowerment, and personal growth. It's also a spectacular showcase for the multi-faceted talents of Judy Holliday in the role she created and immortalized. (Sorry, Melanie Griffith, you just can't compete.) Broderick Crawford and William Holden also file fine portrayals in this clever and surprisingly substantive romp. Despite a disappointing selection of supplements, Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation does the picture proud with a first-class video transfer and clean audio, both of which enhance our enjoyment of one of Hollywood's most successful and faithful stage-to-screen adaptations. Whether you were born yesterday or long ago, you'll enjoy and relate to this comedy classic, which earns high marks across the board.