Label: Twilight Time
Released: July 8, 2014
Genre: Comedy / Drama
Synopsis: The girlfriend of a politically connected mobster becomes emotionally and socially emancipated when she’s tutored by an idealistic reporter at the behest of her luggish boyfriend.
Special Features: Isolated mono music track / Theatrical Trailers / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.
Although starring handsome William Holden and dynamic Broderick Crawford, the person most audiences probably couldn’t get out of their minds was Judy Holliday, who reprised the role that established her theatrical career in the original 1945 stage production of Garson Kanin’s play.
Holliday should’ve enjoyed a prolific career, but perhaps in balancing stage & film work and not wanting to overexpose herself in lesser roles, the actress went on to star in just six further films and a few pays before breast cancer killed her at 43.
Kanin’s play is often regarded as a comedy, but it’s not really. Born Yesterday, even in film form, is a dark portrait of a tough yet vulnerable young woman (Billie Dawn) who manages to escape an emotionally and occasionally physically abusive relationship with a thug (Harry Brock) through a process of emancipation choreographed by a smitten and ridiculously idealistic political beat reporter (Paul Verrall).
The darker elements are frequently hovering just under the story’s surface and obfuscated by several brilliant comedic moments and performance gestures, and 60 years later it’s still remarkable how fresh and daring this provocative work remains.
As a comedienne, Holliday was very skilled – the oft-cited gin game with Crawford is a perfectly directed, performed, edited set-piece in which a so called dummy outwits her bulldog fiancée – but even in that scene there’s an undercurrent of violence emanating from Harry.
His physical outburst (itself quite horrific) is saved for the final act, but certainly early into the story, Kanin makes it clear Harry does care about Billie, reluctantly confessing his affection to loyal yet soulless lawyer Jim Devery (Howard St. John), and expressing some remorse for being too verbally harsh.
Cukor was readily aware of Kanin’s deliberate efforts to humanize Harry, and those moments of regret (or at least a crude sense of it) allowed the director to set up intimate reaction shots where the two actors turn away from each other, and for brief moments, allow vulnerabilities to seep out. Crawford’s still a thug, but after the smoke has cleared he knows when he’s pushed too far, and compensates with a lame joke and back-slapping.
Billie drinks to cope with Harry’s vacillating moods, but any binging is implied but never shown; her little efforts to exert some independence – turning up jazz music on the radio, humming annoyingly during gin, and playing up her dumbness in important social meetings – represent her way of pushing back at Harry, and when she doesn’t succeed, Cukor allows us to see the emotional bruising normally kept below her wisecracks. What awakens Billie from an extended state of dumbness is a cute guy with an intriguing combination of forthright idealism and patience.
If there’s any aspect of the film that’s dated, it’s Paul’s idealism, taking Billie to Washington’s major monuments and center of government, edifying her in Democracy and the virtues of congressmen. Paul’s speeches and Billie’s awe in visiting houses of power may have seemed uplifting to 1950 audiences, but they’re so pure and golden one wonders if Kanin was being a little satirical, with the awe played up as HUAC was attempting to rout out Red sympathizers in Hollywood during the late forties and deep into the fifties.
Present-day cynicism towards these scenes are hard to suppress when statements extolling the purity of senators run contrary to the current partisan and divisive behaviour within American and Canadian politics in which the people have little control or means to throw out greedy, rotten politicians. There are good people in government, but the current discord and divides as publicized by news and social media make Billie’s idealistic transformation amusing, rather than emotionally affecting.
The 1993 version
A higher degree of cynicism would’ve probably figured in Cannon’s aborted attempt to mount an update in 1987, and while Disney’s 1993 film has its share of contemporary critiques aimed at corrupt government, that production perhaps killed any further attempts to redo Kanin’s prose on film (at least for a while).
Adapted by Douglas McGrath (Saturday Night Live, Bullets Over Broadway), the 1993 film is a terribly misguided attempt to update without adding any edge, tweaking characters with grievously flawed changes, plus an awfulness that rises to nose-pinching degrees in several scenes.
The chief dilemma with Kanin’s play and the 1950 film is the lengthy stretch involving Billie’s edification of the democratic system, as explained by Paul, including tours of the city’s monuments as satellites of societal divinity. They work in a circa 1950 screenplay, but the cynicism in 1993 makes such wide-eyed worship of Democracy’s heroes a little precious. With McGrath deleting these extended scenes in his loose adaptation, Billie’s moments of social embarrassment and gradual enlightenment are gone, as are most of the scenes in which Paul develops as a proper character.
The substitute material retains bits of Kanin’s dialogue, but what’s left sounds even more precious, which begs the question: Can Kanin’s play be transplanted unaltered to a contemporary setting, or must it be restaged circa the late forties / early fifties?
With Paul reduced to an occasionally recurring figure, Billie must carry the story solo, but aside from repeating Holliday’s coarse ‘What?’ cry at the beginning of the film and once in the hotel, Melanie Griffith does a variation of her Working Girl (1988) character, a woman who similarly grows through attaining knowledge, stepping out from under the shadow of a bully after becoming emancipated, and getting the decent guy in the finale.
McGrath’s new material includes a NPR talk show host (SNL’s Nora Dunn) who initially embarrasses Billie on air for not being familiar with a classic text, but later seeks contrition after admitting she never read the book; Harry’s right hand man / thug is now a green-eared nephew (Homicide’s Max Perlich); and the locations are broadened by transplanting the core of the Paul-Billie touristing through Washington to a pair of cocktail parties in which Billie is first seen embarrassing herself, and later ‘wowing’ peers with a list of memorized phrases supplied and coached by Paul.
The problem with both cocktail scenes is the drama is set up by McGrath to emerge from Billie’s own interaction with banal guests while Harry and Paul observe from a distance; without their participation through meaty dialogue exchanges, Griffith is stuck with stale lines, offering audiences a poor version of Billie so early in the film.
McGrath follows the first cocktail party with a short bedroom and dancing scenes between Billie and Harry to show the two share some genuine affection, but there’s also a terrible dinner scene where Billie leads a table of senators and their wives in a version of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” reset with lyrics about Constitutional Amendments; they actually go through each Amendment, making the audience feel as horrified as Harry.
With Paul reduced to a lesser character, McGrath uses the extra wiggle-room to give Billie a personal crisis akin to My Fair Lady (1964): imbued with wisdom, morals, and a better self-awareness, Billie rejects Paul and Harry, and becomes a somewhat tormented character, feeling used and a little freakish, half-created by Paul rather then herself.
In terms of screen time, Harry doesn’t benefit from Paul’s reduction onscreen, but McGrath does try to show Harry as a thug with palpable affection for Billie which, as in the original film, is subjugated when issues of money, power, and personal security arise. John Goodman is adequate as a gruff but boisterous Harry, but Edward Herrmann is wasted as Harry’s soulless lawyer, playing the character broadly rather than focusing on his internal suffering through emotional subtext. (It also doesn’t help that Herrmann’s dialogue is weak.)
Griffith’s scenes with Goodman are fine, but Luis Mandoki’s staging of the famous gin game is utterly lifeless; you literally expect the ghost of Judy Holliday to pop up and smack Griffith in the head, screeching ‘Are you kiddin’ me? Get off the set!’
Don Johnson and Griffith have fleeting moments of chemistry (the couple remarried following a reunion of sorts after acting in an episode of Johnson’s Miami Vice), but only when they kiss; the actor is otherwise quite banal as Paul, which perhaps proves Johnson is more suitable to playing wry, cynical characters (like the smarmy tennis pro in Tin Cup) instead of an affable leading man.
Mandoki’s direction is workmanlike in spite of the production’s otherwise glossy design, and George Fenton’s score has dated very badly, emphasizing treacly material and poppish rhythms redolent of a late eighties comedy of errors.
That the 1993 version exists widely on Blu-ray but the 1950 film is available in limited quantities is a sad example of perception and worth: one studio (Disney) favours the circulation of a creative failure, and another studio (Sony) feels the definitive translation of Kanin’s play is best reserved for licensees. Although limited to 300 copies, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is a badly needed release that proves the brilliance of its cast, director, and witty writer is far ahead of the flat 1993 update.
The 2014 Blu features a really lovely transfer from a clean print, preserving the details of Joseph Walker’s radiant cinematography. (The details are so fine, one can make out the weightlifters stacked on top of each other in Crawford’s pant suspenders!) Whereas Sony’s prior DVD included cast files, William Holden trailers, and a short publicity gallery of posters and lobby cards, Twilight Time’s added an isolated track for Frederich Hollander’s score (enhanced with a little spatial tweaking), and two trailers of which one features some footage from the premiere.
Kanin’s play has been remounted several times for the stage since its debut, and the author also directed a live teleplay (reportedly broadcast in colour) in 1956 as part of Hallmark Hall of Fame – a version that would be fascinating to see with Mary Martin (Peter Pan) as Billie, Paul Douglas (A Letter to Three Wives, The Big Lift) as Harry, and Arthur Hill (The Andromeda Strain) as Paul.
© 2014 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review