Conventional wisdom when it comes to cinema of old suggests that if a film approaching 70 or more years of age is still in the public eye in some way, or has not been consigned to the reels of history, then it must by definition be a classic motion picture. Born Yesterday very quickly puts paid to this statement. George Cukor’s film, in a modern context, should be ranked along the lines of many a Melissa McCarthy or Will Ferrell misfire.
Cukor’s picture is an adaptation of a successful Broadway play by Garson Kanin, who reputedly re-wrote most of screenwriter Albert Mannheimer’s script to Cukor’s satisfaction (even if no screen credit was given). Born Yesterday essentially takes the George Bernard Shaw Pygmalion archetypal narrative and places it in a ‘modern’ high society American context; Judy Holliday’s ‘dim broad’ Billie, the moll of crooked junkyard tycoon Harry (Broderick Crawford), is prepared for marriage through being schooled by educated journalist Paul (William Holden) and… well, surely by now you can see where this is going?
Screwball is riven through the very nature of Kanin’s comedic concept here but Born Yesterday never fires on the cylinders we later saw in the Pygmalion adaptation My Fair Lady, or even just a few years later when Gene Kelly’s musical classic Singin’ in the Rain does it’s own take on Billie with the delightfully uncouth Lina Lamont, with far more skilled comic results. Holliday, reprising the role under Kanin’s encouragement and after Cukor convinced the studio from essaying it on Broadway, is immediately irritating and stays that way.
Something is just missing from the translation to cinema. Cukor apparently had the cast rehearse in front of a live studio audience in order to gauge responses to the comedic bits and pieces in the script and story and, oddly, he seems to direct the piece less like a film and more like a two or three camera sitcom; Born Yesterday is never particularly cinematic, the script heavily loaded with theatrical dialogue, and you sense it would have come alive with a greater zing on a stage in front of an audience. It is a piece which lives and dies on performances that here appeared wanting.
Much like any comedy, this could all be personal preference and taste. Born Yesterday is a familiar story which, if you can forgive some of the archaic gender politics of the time, tells a fairly traditional romantic story wrapped up in some level of attempted female empowerment (no mean feat at the turn of the Fifties) but it feels more like a cultural artefact and less a piece of enjoyable entertainment from this distance. It hasn’t survived the test of time like a contemporary such as All About Eve, for example, which really showcased strong feminine roles in a male-dominated American world.
Points on this release for Arrow Academy primarily, once again providing a brace of special edition material for this re-release which any fan will lap up. ‘Yesterday Today’, a new video appreciation by film critic Geoff Andrew; academic Richard Dyer celebrates the lead in ‘Remembering Judy Holliday’; a new video essay by critic David Cairns ‘Da na na… BUH-BOOM!’, plus the usual image gallery, original trailer and a slick conversion to high-def Blu-Ray which gives the black and white picture a gleam.
One for collectors and die-hard fans of Golden Age cinema, though, Born Yesterday. It just never came alive for me.
Born Yesterday is now available on Blu-Ray from Arrow Academy.