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Born Yesterday (1950)

**This post is written as part of the Romantic Comedy Blogathon hosted by Backlots.  Be sure to head over after reading and check out the other participants.**

The most dangerous thing to give a person is a book.  Or in this case the movie Born Yesterday.  A surface level analysis of George Cukor’s classic presents this a woman’s picture.  Instead, Born Yesterday takes the romantic comedy structure and tells the story of our nation’s reliance on ignorance to keep people down, especially women.

Billie Dawn (Holliday) is the long-suffering girlfriend to tycoon/gangster Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford).  As Harry works to ingrain himself into New York society he realizes Billie isn’t socially acceptable due to her low-class upbringing and mental ignorance.  He enlists the help of reporter Paul Verrall (William Holden) to educate Billie.  However, Billie and Paul’s mutual education ends up pushing them into romance.

As a romantic comedy Born Yesterday reiterates the basic tropes: two people from different walks of life coming together and romance ensues.  Garson Kanin’s play, adapted by Albert Mannheimer, feels like Frank Capra wrote it with the moralistic intentions sheathed beneath the conventions of the woman’s picture commenting directly on the problems within the genre itself.  Billie isn’t stupid; her savvy comes from being street smart and desiring a better life than the one her father worked for.  Unfortunately, she lives in blind ignorance because creature comforts are bred from looking the other way.  At its core, Born Yesterday is about our environment praising ignorance to placate the downtrodden, with Holden as the crusader for the country’s future.  “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in” according to Paul.  As the romantic plot untangles, and Billie’s education causes her to question her life, the movie’s moralistic convictions become clear.

If you think the script’s philosophy preaches to the audience the airy tone prevents it.  And even if you aren’t aware of the plots’ political tension there’s no denying the gender issues brought to light.  For a director whose talents lay with featuring the female form, much is said about appearance dictating respectability.  When Harry learns about a congressman bringing his wife to dinner he demands Billie “wear something plain.”  The entire nature of her learning is so she’ll be perceived as appropriate enough to hobnob with Washington D.C.’s elite.  The double standard applies as Harry proves he’s just as misinformed about the world as Billie, yet his masculinity makes it acceptable.  Billie’s relied on men to carve out her way in life, and a beautiful sequence where Billie recounts her father’s disappointment in her showcases Holliday’s acting skills and emphasizes the reliance on men women utilized in the 1950s.  As the 1950s wore on, female dependence on men was celebrated and endorsed as a way of life.  Billie’s education isn’t just about her learning the goings-on in Harry’s business dealings, of which she’s unwittingly involved, but also the questioning of the status quo to which they’re a part.  Billie’s told where to stand, what to wear and the exhaustion is evident in Holliday’s line delivery.  Because the villains are responsible for Billie’s mistreatment, the script attacks the nation’s treatment of women turning Born Yesterday into a sly treatise on our nation’s ignorance and the growing disrespect towards women.

Holliday won an Oscar for her role as Billie Dawn, a character originally envisioned with Rita Hayworth in mind.  Holliday’s Lina Lamont voice implies a low-rent woman (her first line is a shrieking “WHAT!”), but her earnestness and naïvety is enchanting.  This is a character whose never experienced life because she’s never been stimulated (take that how you will), and Holliday eats up scenes alongside knowledge.  Her chemistry with Holden isn’t sexually enticing, but a meeting of the minds.  Paul loves Billie for a mind, a shocking prospect in a romantic comedy.  Holden looks just as gorgeous with glasses as without; a nod to his own perceived lack of intelligence due to his appearance?  The glasses work so well to dull his dashing persona that you stop noticing when he is or isn’t wearing them.

Born Yesterday’s impish righteousness is more impressive than it would be if it were a laugh riot with little depth.  Holliday and Holden act as the student and teacher of a brave new world where people shouldn’t be afraid to gain a bit of intelligence.

Ronnie Rating:


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Born Yesterday

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

17 thoughts on “Born Yesterday (1950) Leave a comment

  1. Great points about the feminism of this film. I read once that Holliday’s best performance was before HUAC, where she used her “dumb blond” rep in films like this one to avoid naming names. I read parts of the testimony–it really is an astonishing performance.
    So true that in spite of all its messages, the film (and play) avoid preaching. Leah

  2. The only thing acceptable about Crawford’s “Harry” to the DC politics is his money. He is a blowhard but he is a rich blowhard and that somehow makes it okay or at lest one with which the congress people will work. It is more irony that he thinks some education will do “Bille” some good and “Harry” not be able to see the same benefit.. Crawford’s thinking he is smarter doesn’t make him so but he misses that completely.

    I think the strength in Holden’s character is that he winds up educating both “Billie” and “Harry.” “Harry” doesn’t know it yet but he has been schooled that there are better ways to treat a lady.

  3. I read this post with interest as I was in the middle of research Adam’s Rib. I think there’s a lot of parallels between that and Born Yesterday, especially the gender questions and the way philosophy was filtered through comedy and/or romantic elements. This is my favourite Holliday role, I’m always so sad she didn’t get much time to shine.

    • I adore Adam’s Rib, my first Holliday film. This and Adam’s Rib certainly share common sensibilities. Particularly, in the exploration of unbalanced relationships. I do think Adam’s Rib has more meat (pun sorta intended) in terms of exploring marriage, infidelity, and the like. It would be great for TCM or someone to play them back to back.

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