“Born Yesterday”, A Look Back to 1950, and Becoming American

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If you’re under 70 you’ve probably never heard of Judy Holiday.

She was a one-hit wonder of sorts, having done “Born Yesterday” on Broadway in 1946 at age 25, then reprise it in the film adaptation of the play in 1950 at age 29, where she won an Academy Award for Best Actress. Sadly she died very young of breast cancer, at 44.

“Born Yesterday” was a play written and directed by Garson Kanin. Like film director, Frank Capra, a best friend, he was one of those patriotic writers who enlisted the war effort in 1941-1945, among other things chronicling Gen Eisenhower’s war in Europe. He did several of the screenplays of the Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn films.

In his day, Kanin would have been called a ‘classical liberal’ and it was his words that came out of the actors’ mouths in “Born Yesterday”…such as “I want everyone to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in”…which is engraved on a plaque at the New York City Library.

Holiday’s depiction of the high-pitched squeaky dumb blonde defined this type for thirty years until modern feminism made it difficult to satirize dumb broads. Probably more importantly, unlike film molls from the Depression era that depicted “the type” as finding true love or a good man among the swarms of humanity found in Brooklyn or Chicago’s South Side, this little chorus line refugee named “Billie” found America, an America she and millions more just like her, never knew existed.

And that was the central theme of “Born Yesterday”…only don’t rely on Wikipedia to tell you that.

 

“Born Yesterday” is a story of a corrupt New Jersey tycoon, Harry Brock (played wonderfully by Broderick Crawford) going to Washington to “buy” a congressman, which had been arranged by his corrupt Washington lawyer, who he paid $100,000 a year (mentioned in the story) to handle his interests. That was about $1 million in today’s money, so not chump change.

Washington had been under Democrats since 1933, but the story wasn’t party-political at all. It was about corruption of the system, the buying and selling of influence, only as seen through the cynical eyes of power brokers instead of Jimmy Stewart’s “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” 20 years earlier. Stewart’s Jeff Smith was a tenderfoot who’d grown up worshipping the postcard images of the heroes and institutions honored in the Nation’s capital. In “Born Yesterday” its first-time visitor to DC was a former chorus-line dancer named “Billie” Dawn who escorted her bullying millionaire businessman and had never been taught a clue about what Washington stood for.

Wikipedia describes it this way—“Harry becomes disgusted with Billie’s ignorance and lack of manners, though his are much worse. He hires a journalist, Paul Verrall (William Holden) who had come to interview him, to educate her and give her some culture. Blossoming under Paul’s encouragement and her own hard work, Billie learns about literature, history, politics and the law, and turns out to be much smarter than anyone knew.”

(Film message: Women are too smart.)

Not mentioned in Wikipedia is that the William Holden character, before giving Billie books,  he first introduced her to the landmarks of Washington; the great halls in the Capitol Building, the great art, and the famous documents found there; the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, with Holden’s character specifically mentioning the Second Amendment, and its importance in allowing all those other revolutionary events to play out. They also visited the monuments, this film highlighting the Jefferson Memorial visit…twice, not once, with Holden even reciting out loud Jefferson’s famous quote chiseled on the ceiling:

“For I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

(Jeff Smith twice visited the Lincoln Memorial in “Mr Smith”, seeking inspiration under similar confusing emotional circumstances.)

(In brief: the average movie-goer didn’t have to be Rob Reiner to get the screenwriter’s message here and “women are too smart” wasn’t it.)

But Wikipedia did get it, which is probably why they didn’t mention it. Finding reasons to love America is not a message Wiki wants to promote these days, and certainly nothing positive about Thomas Jefferson. Wikipedia simply made no mention that patriotism was the cause of Billie to begin reading and studying in the first place.

This is unmistakably an “Americanization of Billie” sort of film…only you have to see the film to know this.

But you have to search film catalogues to find these anymore.

The full film, free, is found here, and Judy Holiday steals almost every scene, so it’s worth your time.

There are several 2-minute film clips found here.

Born Yesterday

 

Oh, Wikipedia does mention Censorship however, as if Ozzie and Harriet sleeping in twin beds had to be explained:

Although the film was clearly written for a mature audience, Kanin and Cukor were forced to amend the film to appease censors. (Cukor)…”And the nonsense that went on to get over the fact that Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford lived together! It required the greatest skill and some new business that Garson invented, like Billie Dawn always creeping into the apartment the back way. We managed to keep it amusing, I think, but it was so unnecessary.”

At that time, it was mandatory for intimate body areas, especially breasts, to be completely covered. The censors also requested that Cukor avoid any suggestion that Billie was trying to get Paul in bed. Billie’s line “Are you one of those talkers, or would you be interested in a little action?” was deemed offensive. However, Cukor stood his ground, and the line made it into the final cut.

When you consider Wiki had no problem in censoring America’s Founding and Thomas Jefferson’s impact on Billie, all I can say is “Sigh!”

 

 

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vassarbushmills
Citizen With Bark On

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