(1950) director George Cukor
I, myself, was not born yesterday, but I had still never seen the 1950 film that won star Judy Holliday a Best Actress Oscar, until stumbling upon the opportunity to catch it on Turner Classic Movies’ Oscar cavalcade. I’ve had it queued for who knows how long, but opportunity knocked and I answered.
Written by Garsan Kanin and Albert Mannheimer and adapted from Kanin’s stage play by director George Cukor, it’s one of those all-time Hollywood comedies, often ranked among the best ever. And it is funny, particularly Holliday, who plays the archetypal nasal, loud, gormless beauty Billie Dawn, the better half of Broderick Crawford’s brash, tasteless, brutish Harry Brock, who is a strong-arm businessman in Washington, DC to buy a congressman and get some legislation passed in a none too up-and-up manner. As lacking in sophistication as Harry is, he finds Billie’s lack of “couth” even more painful and worries that she’ll cause some embarrassment for him while he tries to finagle his way to more money. So, he hires Paul Verrall (the always charming William Holden), a reporter with class and intelligence, to teach Billie how to “talk better”.
A little education goes a long way, of course, and what Paul introduces Billie to is not just general knowledge and vocabulary, but to the whole concept of American values, free speech, independence, and a hatred against all forms of tyranny, which ends up including her brutal, semi-criminal long-time boyfriend. And, being a Hollywood movie from the classic period, there is romance to be had as well.
Holliday is terrific as Billie. Her character is so well embodied, there is not a false step anywhere. And you can see so many who have gleaned from this archetype since the time, there are traces of her character in many such characters since then.
What struck me the most about the film, which I enjoyed, was the education of Billie by Paul, set against the background of the many institutions and monuments of Washington, DC. Holden’s voice seems an archetype of its own, the consummate “movie” voice of the American 1950’s, clean, clear, adult, serious, clever, wise, paternal. There is ideology simply in his tone. And what he imbues in Billie is just that: ideology. It’s an American sense of ideals that speaks of a free-thinking, independent, liberal tone (of the period), but one which houses as well some of the veneer and image of the 1950’s that is today considered a pretense which hid much darker truths about the America of the time. It’s both explicit and subliminal, his education of Billie is meant as kind and enlightening, but echoes of some ironies now from our vantage point today.
I was also struck at their reading of the US Constitution (oddly enough Billie reads aloud the line about the right to bear arms). I’d just read an interesting article in The New Yorker that discussed America’s obsession with the document, yet the irony that few people, even those who frequently invoke it, actually are truly familiar with it word-for-word. Billie’s education could just as easily occur today, perhaps on an side of the political spectrum. I am willing to guess that there have been a few feminist theory papers written about the film, especially if I’m just picking up what I have from one viewing.
I have to say, it’s not as funny as I might have imagined, but I certainly laughed aloud a few times. Holliday’s Billie is a classic. Quite a good film, too.