Born Yesterday (1950) Blu-ray Review: A Memorable Holliday in DC

In 1946, writer Garson Kanin unveiled unto Manhattan a simple Broadway play entitled Born Yesterday. The story concerned a uncouth, brazen, total jerk of a millionaire – junk dealer Harry Brock – coming to Washington DC with the intent of buying a crooked congressman to work it out so that he could make even more money by screwing people over (something entirely all-too-common today). Embarrassed by the actions and words of his equally dimwitted fiancée, former chorus girl Billie Dawn, Harry hires a local reporter named Paul Verrall to educate the former showgirl with an oh-so-obnoxious voice in the hopes that she might quit embarrassing him in front of the “important” people he’s attempting to bribe and corrupt. Of course, Brock’s dream backfires and turns into a nightmare when everyone discovers that Billie is quite capable of being a venerable smartypants.

After cranking out an impressive 1,642 performances between two theatres from February ’46 until the end of 1949, the hot item of the East Coast soon saw Hollywood film adaptation in 1950. In fact, so adamant about procuring the project was Columbia Pictures infamously headstrong head Harry Cohn, he shelled out a whopping million dollars for the rights to the Kanin’s project. What Cohn never seemed to realize, however, is that the very character of Harry Brock was based on his own uncouth, brazen, total jerk of a self – who Kanin thoroughly detested. And I suppose that’s why the great Broderick Crawford’s onscreen portrayal of Brock is so convincing in this 1950 Oscar winner: he’s not so much acting as he is paying his, er, “respect” to the very tyrannical Tinseltown tycoon he was not only employed by, but truly loathed.

Sometimes the joke is far funnier if everybody else but the victim gets it, right? Wait, it gets funnier: according to Kanin’s autobiography, Cohn only offered Kanin the unprecedented sum for the film rights – the largest sum ever paid for such a thing ever at that point – solely because Kanin had stated he wouldn’t sell the rights to Cohn for even a million dollars. Director George Cukor (What Price Hollywood?) even later brought Kanin in to rewrite the script, though only the original screenwriter – Albert Mannheimer – received credit. But then, a nice $1,000,000 paycheck makes up for that quite nicely, doesn’t it? And after his pet project went on to win an Academy Award, I’m sure Kanin was more than pleased.

But even though Born Yesterday was nominated for Best Writing the following year at the Academy Awards (along with Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Costume Design) the little gold anatomically-incorrect male statue was instead awarded – and rightfully so – to actress Judy Holliday, who originated the role of Billie Dawn onstage several years before, and who was bound to have known the character better than even Garson Kanin himself did at that point. And it is Holliday’s performance in Born Yesterday that will leave you with tears running down your face – not only because she pulls it off so damn well, but because, by that point in time, she probably wasn’t acting so much as she was just letting it all hang out. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Rounding up the trio of this comical love triangle is the one and only William Holden (albeit in a less-rugged, more-handsome and spectacled form), who had recently had part of his Paramount contract purchased by Columbia Pictures, and who also harbored a great dislike for Harry Cohn. Needless to say, future Oscar winner Holden (who would earn a new paperweight in 1953 for his work on Stalag 17) and former Oscar winner Broderick Crawford (who had won for his starring role in All the King’s Men the previous year) became great friends during the making of this comedy classic – and I can only imagine how much alcohol went down between those two heavy drinkers! And speaking of heavy-drinkers, Howard St. John is cast here as Crawford’s shady, disgraced attorney, whose character is visibly wobbling most of the time due to a permanent case of the (onscreen) drink.

Interestingly, Harry Cohn initially didn’t want Holliday to be cast in the part that she originated. He had actually bought the rights to Born Yesterday with the intention of casting the white hot talents of Rita Hayworth – an actress he was always salivating over, according to many reports, including Hayworth’s own memoirs – in the lead. Alas, Hayworth declined to commit to the project, opting instead to go off and get married to a prince, so Cohn relented and permitted Holliday to be cast – after trying out several other actresses first. But that’s a Hollywood executive like Harry Cohn for you, boys and girls. I was utterly surprised to see Cohn paid even more money to send his cast and crew out to Washington DC for actual location shooting after spending what would amount to nearly 10-million today for the film rights!

Nevertheless, Cohn’s committing to be just egotistical enough to put his money where Garson Kanin’s mouth was has paid off in more ways than one over the years (with the exception of that awful 1993 remake with Melanie Griffith – a film that, amusingly enough, earned a nomination for Worst Actress at the Razzies). And the comedy classic continues to carry on via Twilight Time’s new 1080p MPEG-4/AVC transfer, which presents the movie in a stellar presentation, as made available from the Columbia vault. Accompanying the beautiful picture here is a DTS-HD MA lossless mono soundtrack, which delivers every wisecrack and Billie Dawn squawk efficiently – and English (SDH) subtitles are available should Holliday’s Bronx accent be to unintelligible for you.

A second audio track presents us with the film’s isolated score (by Frederick Hollander) in DTS-HD MA 2.0. Surprisingly, the Limited Edition Blu-ray release from Twilight Time is rather limited on bonus materials. With all the fascinating info about the feature – the basic gist of which I have previously related to you – it would have made for a great commentary track. However, I shan’t cry foul over the usual (and always delightful to read) liner notes by Twilight Time’s own mistress of the written word, Julie Kirgo, or the two post-Oscar re-release trailers included on this Blu-ray. The second, slightly longer trailer is virtually identical to the first, though it includes some somewhat staged footage of popular stars being interviewed following the Los Angeles premiere of the movie in order to further recommend the film. And while I don’t rate as high as someone like William Bendix (and never will, I’m sure), I too can heartily recommend Born Yesterday.

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Luigi Bastardo

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