Next month’s screening contains one of the funniest card games in cinema and showcases a rare, short-lived talent that deserves to be remembered and appreciated by all discerning film fans! Directed by George Cukor, this is a smart, romantic comedy/drama that won Judy Holliday a best actress Oscar for her performance as Billie Dawn.
Despite her image as a “dumb blond”, largely created by this film, Holliday had an IQ of 172. She often said that it took a lot of work to convince people that her characters were stupid: “You have to be smart to play a dumb blonde over and over and keep the audience’s attention without extraordinary physical equipment.” (No one knows who she had in mind for the last part of that statement).
Uncouth, domineering, loudmouth scrap-metal magnate, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) goes to Washington, D.C. with his brassy mistress, ‘Billie’ Dawn (Judy Holliday) to “influence” a politician or two. (Probably the only unbelievable part of the plot is that he can’t find one!!!) Anyway, his lawyer presses Harry to marry Billie on the grounds that a wife cannot testify against her husband.
But Harry thinks Billie needs educating and hires a tutor, journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) to improve her etiquette. In a sort of parody of My Fair Lady and Pygmalion, and like Rita would twenty-odd years later (under Michael Caine’s Open University tutelage), Billie blossoms and turns out to be much smarter than anybody knew. Meanwhile, Harry has been persuaded to sign over to Billie many of his assets to hide them from the government. But when he needs to get them back, he finds Billie has a new-found independence….
It is the layered meanings of this film that give it endurance. The overbearing Harry is unlikable without becoming a caricature and we almost feel sympathy for him thanks to Holliday’s performance of unconscious intelligence. She shows a tyrannized, inhibited silence in the film’s first part— which is also why she so cleverly annoys Harry during that delicious card game.
Beneath the comedy are serious issues: this ex-show girl may be a well-kept victim (check out her suitcases in the hotel lobby), but she’s a victim none the less – not only of Harry’s abuse, but of her own difficult background. The trouble is she’s also a victim of her own assumptions and expectations. And note how the sexual conventions of the time are slyly finessed — the sleeping arrangements, Billy’s withholding sex after the gin game, the suspicious hundred dollars her dad refuses, etc. These amount to a more suggestive screenplay than usual either for comedy or for the straitjacketed times of 1951.
In the well chosen tutoring scenes in the nation’s capital, democratic ideals are shown to apply not only to nations, but to individuals. And when Billy finally recognizes how the two converge, she opens up a serious edge to the film which she never allows to overpower the comedic scenes.
Tutor: What’s a peninsula?
Tutor: Don’t gimme that “shush.” You think you’re so smart, huh – what’s a peninsula?
Paul: It’s a …
Tutor: Not you, her.
Billie: It’s that new medicine…
Originating the role on stage did not mean Judy had first option to play Billie on film. The (sometimes monstrous) head of Columbia, Harry Cohn wanted Rita Hayworth. However, Katherine Hepburn deliberately leaked a story to the gossip papers that Judy had stolen the spotlight from herself and Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib. And this got Cohn’s attention.
The part of Billie Dawn was written by Garson Kanin for Jean Arthur. A couple of nights before the play was due to open, Arthur abruptly dropped out and Judy Holliday was drafted in. Arthur was briefly considered for the film version, but in the end turned the part down. A move to hire Lana Turner from MGM for the role was later abandoned.
Scriptwriter Garson Kanin claimed that he modelled the part of the obnoxious Harry Brock after Harry Cohn, but (probably lucky for him) the studio chief never did realized it. In the other hand maybe he did, but it is quite likely that he didn’t give a rat’s ass!
Born Judith Tuvim in New York City on June 21, 1921, Judy worked as a switchboard operator for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre in the 1930s and toured the nightclub circuit with a group called “The Revuers” before trying her luck in Hollywood and appearing briefly in Something for the Boys and Winged Victory (both 1944). After a five year break from movies in a New York stage career, she returned to Hollywood to appear in Adam’s Rib (1949) as Doris Attinger opposite Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Success in that role led to another Broadway role as Billie Dawn. After getting an Oscar for Born Yesterday and filming The Marrying Kind (1952), Judy was summoned before the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to testify about her political affiliations.
In its search for subversives in the film industry, HUAC was flummoxed (according to biographer Gary Carey) when she essentially playing her Billie Dawn character on the witness stand: Judy Holliday deserves a much higher place in the history of cinema for being the only person ever called before HUAC who was neither blacklisted nor compelled to name names. Nevertheless her film career took a dive and, after a divorce, she became involved with jazz musician Gerry Mulligan. Her last film, Bells Are Ringing (1960) with Dean Martin, was one of her best. After learning she had breast cancer, she stopped filming and wrote songs with Mulligan, some of which appear on the album “Holliday With Mulligan” which they recorded together in 1961. It was not released until 1980.
Judy died three weeks before her 44th birthday in New York City on June 7, 1965.