George Cukor directed Born Yesterday in 1950, at the height of his fame. He is probably best-known to modern audiences for his version of A Star is Born (the Judy Garland one) and his comedies with Katherine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib. From the ‘30s into the ’60s, Cukor was the unofficial head of Hollywood’s gay subculture. While he was discreet about his sexuality (it was still illegal), he was fairly open for the times.
Born Yesterday is a comedy about political bribery in Washington DC, a sugar daddy, and a seemingly dim-witted blonde. Billie Dawn (played by Judy Holliday) is the blonde, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) is the sugar daddy who wants to “buy a congressman,” and Paul Verrall (William Holden) is a journalist whom Brock hires to educate Billie, because she embarrasses him socially. Naturally, Paul falls for Billie, and she learns about how corrupt her sugar daddy is!
It’s an amusing little satire of class, corruption and how great that US Constitution is… and since it arrived at the height of the HUAC hearings, it was deemed by one Catholic critic to be a “clever film satire strictly from Marx.”
It’s not perfect, but the performances are very strong, even if Holliday’s high-pitched voice can be extremely grating at times. Nonetheless, she won a Oscar for the film. Marilyn Monroe reportedly screen-tested for the role, but the head of the studio was too lazy to watch the test, which would’ve took him 6 steps—supposedly she was excellent. The film was remade in 1993, where Melanie Griffith was cast in Holliday’s role and has a similarly high-pitched voice.
The film also has some rare location footage for a studio picture from 1950: large chunks of the film were shot in Washington DC, most prominently the Lincoln Memorial. Cukor was reportedly so moved by it that he demanded they shoot at the real location. The location photography also opens the film up beyond the stage play on which it’s based. Halliday originated the role on stage, and initially turned down the role.
It’s no masterpiece by any stretch, but the strong performances from Halliday, and especially the always reliable William Holden (who also turned it down initially because he thought it a lesser role), make it a smart little satire. The release from Arrow as part of their Arrow Academy range includes appreciations of the film and its stars, a video essay, an image gallery and the original trailer. Initial pressings include a booklet with an essay by Pamela Hutchinson.