Film Review: Born Yesterday (1950)

George Cukor directs this 1950 American comedy-drama for Columbia Pictures based on the acclaimed stage play of Garson Kanin, which premiered on Broadway in 1946.


Emma ‘Billie’ Dawn  (Academy Award winner Judy Holliday) is the ditzy gangster’s moll and ex-showgirl from Brooklyn, who has moved to a luxurious penthouse in  Washington D.C with her lover, small-time hoodlum & Junkyard tycoon Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). Harry claims to be ‘nuts’ about the ‘dumb broad’, but his passion quickly turns cruel and violent at every turn, with Harry mentally and physically abusing Billie due to his pent-up frustration at the lack of control in his business affairs.

Pressured into signing a succession of ‘legal’ documents in the presence of crooked lawyer Jim Devery (Howard St John), Billie doesn’t realise the implications of her spontaneous actions, or the cold, hard fact that Harry is trying to buy the favours of a congressman. Devery suggests to Harry that Billie will be useful if he marries her, as she cannot testify against him in a court of law.  But Harry’s primary focus is to first smooth away Billie’s rough edges to make her into the woman he wants. Harry hires local journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) to teach Billie some social graces by providing her with a more rounded education in culture and public history through visits to The Library of Congress and The Jefferson memorial on Capitol Hill.

Judy Holliday shines as the brittle Billie, who realises that she is able to forge a new life away from the toxic Harry. Originally intended as a vehicle for Rita Hayworth, Judy reprises her acclaimed performance on Broadway, in a role she played 1,200 times on stage. Here, she brings the right balance of naivety and strength to her role as Billie, who is initially depicted as the shrill bird with clipped wings who is confined to her gilded cage. Sitting in her dolls house in gaudy pantsuits and chiffon, Billie is conditioned to pander to Harry’s every whim, even agreeing with Harry’s own low opinion of her as a woman, when she says to Paul; ‘He’s right. I’m stupid, and I like it.’ But Billie has moments of showing her mettle to the exasperated Harry, especially in their competitive games of gin rummy and through her new found independence towards the end of their relationship when she discovers that she has legal control of Harry’s hidden assets.  Gradually Billie blossoms thanks to Paul’s emotional investment in her and regains her power back by rejecting Harry’s proposal of marriage, leaving Harry for Paul (whom she eventually marries). Broderick Crawford, fresh from his own Oscar-winning role in All The Kings Men (1948)  is suitably menacing as the thuggish Harry, but it is a one dimensional role, as a man teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown who has no social graces of his own. William Holden as Paul Verrall gives a more sympathetic, rounded portrayal as the young suitor patiently waiting for Billie to re-emerge from the shadows to find her own inner voice.

A poor remake was made in 1993 with husband and wife team Melanie Griffiths (in Holliday’s role) and Don Johnson in the role of Verrall. Griffiths had the misfortune of being nominated for a Hollywood ‘Golden Raspberry’ award for Worst Actress. In contrast, Holliday won her one and only Oscar for her portrayal of the vulnerable Billie over her Hollywood contemporaries including Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard) and Bette Davis (All About Eve), and it is one of Judy’s finest comedy performances.

Somewhat dated, Born Yesterday nevertheless retains the right amount of charm.

Lynsey Ford | [rating=3]

Comedy, Romance | USA, 1950 | PG | Dir.George Cukor | Judy Holliday, William Holden, Broderick Crawford

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