One of the many wonderful things about being involved with the Funny Lady Blogathon held at Movies, Silently, is that I was able to read passionate and loving breakdowns of many other bloggers favorite classic comedic performances, many of which I had already encountered and a ton more that sounded absolutely fascinating. One such performance was that of Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Having been made aware of this film by its inclusion in a handful of "must see movie" texts, I was destined to eventually come across it in a viewing, yet when Holliday was mentioned by Caftan Woman, I knew that prolonging this film was out of the question and am I glad I finally caught up with this work. Not only is it a refreshing work from George Cukor, but Holliday is nothing short of perfect in a role as the longtime girlfriend of a mob boss, a role which would be reworked and rehashed by multiple directors in the following decades with little to no success and would often cause the actress performing the roles to come off as grating or completely idiotic. This is not the case in Holliday's delivery of the character, her wandering eyes and cleverly delivered pauses between lines make for one of the best executions of a character archetype ever witnessed on screen. It would be one thing if the film was entirely carried by Holliday, but that is not the case Cukor makes a Billy Wilder level comedy with the frenetic pacing of a Hawks comedy, often allowing for moments of introspection only when he feels it necessary to allow for the sweeping cinematography of the film's Washington D.C. setting to take over. Furthermore, Born Yesterday manages to be a rather earnest look at the idea of learning and breaking out of pre-prescribed expectation, a rather powerful narrative when one considers that the film focuses on the empowerment education provides for one woman, who learns to appreciate not only her place in relation to the prestigious history of democracy in America, but in regards to her own gendered relationships with those near and dear to her daily engagements.
Born Yesterday begins with the arrival of noted "tycoon" with mob ties Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) arriving to Washington D.C., for some unspecified business with big wig senators. Along with Brock come a variety of lackeys, as well as his mistress Emma "Billie" Dawn (Judy Holliday). With the help of his somewhat devious lawyer Jim (Howard St. John), Brock hopes to strong arm a few people into making favorable decisions concerning land he owns, while also considering the necessity of marrying Billie who possesses much of his stock through a legal loophole to assure his financial advancement. Realizing the general pomp and circumstance that comes with the world of Washington politics, Brock becomes hypocritical of Billie's manners and ignorance, thus leading to his hiring of a local journalist named Paul (William Holden) to tutor her in the way of the world. Of course, Brock assumes that this means some simple rules in etiquette, whereas Paul takes it upon himself to educate Billie in the ways of the world. Billie takes to her education with much fervor and begins picking up the ideas of democratic values and correct sentence structure, which causes Paul much elation and a growing fondness for Billie, who seems keen to recuperate the feelings. It is during this learning the Brock finally grows suspicious of Billie's education, seeing her movement towards enlightenment as her stepping above her place, particularly when she begins to correct his grammar and ridicule him for not being aware of basic American history. Nonetheless, at the demands of Jim, Brock begins to sign away his belongings to Billie in hopes that it will allow them to take further advantage of government loopholes and make huge financial gains. Billie, however, now fully aware of the ethical division between just and unjust actions and along with some loving prodding on the part of Paul begins to outright refuse Brock and Jim's demands, deciding that she is her own person capable of making singular decisions that will not be predicated upon Brock and his tough guy demeanor. Wanting nothing more than to escape her lackluster lifestyle, Billie agrees that she will slowly return Brock's holdings to him on the agreement that he never bothers her again, a bargain to which Brock begrudgingly agrees. Billie now free from the burden of embraced ignorance gets married to Paul and the two are assumedly headed to carry out their life of love and an unending quest for knowledge.
It is precisely the rejection of celebrated ignorance that makes Born Yesterday not only a great film, but one with a particular pertinence in the past few years of American politics. Indeed, it is not small accident that this film was set in Washington D.C. a place that seemingly thrives upon it being alright to "not know a whole lot." It should come as both a shock, as well as no surprise, that America has only elected one person with a PhD in all its history, being of course Woodrow Wilson. It seems as the American voter fears somebody far too educated and well-versed instead preferring people with more reliability, as though to be highly educated is both alienating and undesirable. This is not to say we have not had intelligent men and women hold public office, it is just made clear in media dialogue that it is less desirable and a thing to be questioned. To tie this directly to Born Yesterday and Billie's quest for self-knowledge and enlightenment, it is necessary to stand her up against a woman who exuded the idea that ignorance is idea...Sarah Palin. On the road, Palin constantly reminded people that she did not have time to read current events or keep abreast to issues since she was a mother who worked, amongst other excuses. In what Palin seemed to think was an empowering statement of her maternal status, ultimately, betrayed her gender by suggesting that the woman is incapable of pursuing learning particularly when she has domestic priorities. To draw attention to this issue is important no doubt, but to make it excusable and, subsequently, acceptable is highly problematic. I do not mean to get so political here, but it is worth considering this in contrast to a character like Billie who is expected to occupy her own unique domestic space, one that deters her from education and dismisses her as a stereotype to be consumed by Brock when necessary. Where Palin would be afforded opportunities to educated herself, she simply avoided it, in Born Yesterday, Billie is at times ridiculed and denied access to her education, particularly when Brock destroys her books. Yet, it is Billie, a fictional character, who better represents what it means to be an empowered woman, that is both aware of her place in a problematically masculine world, but also willing to cement herself as a woman with her own power in knowledge, a thing that allows her to stand against the most brutish of men.
Key Scene: The game of gin rummy between Billie and Brock is a moment of perfectly executed cinema that is also incredibly funny. Holliday's mannerism and delivery are spot on during this entire sequence.
The DVD for this film is rather cheap and while I would hope for an imminent bluray release it does not appear to be in the near future, therefore renting might be the best course of action as it stands.