by Jeric Llanes
Let’s take another trip from Broadway to the big screen, folks! A film adaptation of Garson Kanin’s stage play, Born Yesterday (1950) is a classic romantic comedy starring Judy Holiday as Billie Dawn, a young and simple woman who finds herself in Washington D.C. while her romantic suitor, the arrogant and brash Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), does business with some of the politicians in town. After Billie embarrasses Harry by showing a lack of manners during an awkward meeting with a congressman, Harry decides that she needs to be more cultured and hires journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) to be her personal tutor. However, after reading a ton of books and taking a few informational trips around the nation’s capital, Harry gets much more than he bargained for when Billie starts to act independently and think for herself. This, of course, becomes an even bigger issue when Billie opens her eyes to the corruption in Harry’s business, and starts getting more romantic with her new tutor.
In a role that won her the Academy Award for Best Actress, Judy Holiday’s performance as Billie is the clear stand out in this classic comedy. What amazes me about Billie as a character is her growth and development as the film progresses. At the start of the film, it’s fairly obvious that Billie doesn’t fit among Washington’s elite. Implied to be a former showgirl, she’d rather sing a tune than talk important business, and when she doesn’t understand what the others are saying she’ll ad-lib a general phrase that doesn’t share the context of the conversation by the others in the room. It’s totally awkward to watch, but that’s where the majority of the comedy comes from in the early going. You might face-palm in some of the early scenes, but not without letting out a few chuckles!
It’s easy to consider Billie as a ditz, but there are hints to how sharp she could be, even before her tutoring begins. Even if she seems like an airhead at times, it’s hard not to fall in love with the character. What makes Billie charming is that she knows that she doesn’t know, and that makes her journey so much more rewarding. Admitting that she lacks a fundamental understanding with how society works, she then chooses to accept the journalist Paul’s advice and diligently works at gaining more knowledge about the government. But even as the character displays more intelligence, Holiday’s performance never drops that former showgirl attitude, practically blending the new and old Billie in a way that feels natural. Despite new found knowledge, Billie’s character still remains comedic when she makes quirky comeback remarks instead of her early cute and ditzy responses when attempting to fit in.
Though, as great a performance Holiday gave, I was equally amused with Broderick Crawford’s take with Harry’s character. Harry Brock is every bit as ignorant as Billie is, but in a less innocent way. The character is meant to be a rude and selfish man, tied with corruption and not afraid to strong arm people who get in the way of his booming business. But it’s his success that makes him the true opposite to Billie, since his pride will blind him from accepting or admitting when he is in the wrong. Instead of the charm and humor we’ve grown accustomed to with Billie Dawn’s character, Harry’s fits of anger and frustration make him a somewhat menacing character. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely comedy in Crawford’s acting (check out his facial reactions during Billie and Harry’s card game scene), but I loved the duality of performance. He offers a balance that grounds the comedic film with moments that are meant to be taken seriously.
There is also an overarching theme throughout the movie, which is mainly represented with the journalist character Paul Verrall. The message is indeed an important one, with the character preaching to Billie (and perhaps the audience) to awaken their minds to see the corruption in business and politics, and perhaps take action to keep the government clean. While I do agree with what the characters believe, I felt that the film got too caught up in the preaching through dialogue instead of allowing for the action on screen to deliver a powerful ending. William Holden is as savvy and smooth as ever in his role as Paul, but the constant pressing of his message seemed to take away time from his romantic development with Billie, which felt a bit forced after being held in the background of the story for so long.
Yet, this classic is truly a fun movie, even with the tendency to preach towards the end of the film. There are great laughs, memorable quips, and even some room to learn along with Billie during her climb for more knowledge! Learning is always fun. As is finding someone who will push you to be a better you! Based off the amazing performances from our trio of characters and a story that is both charming and inspirational, this is definitely a film to watch for anyone looking for a fun classic romantic comedy.
Where to watch this film: Born Yesterday (1950) is available for rent/purchase on YouTube, Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, iTunes, and Netflix DVD.