The Ramblings of a Scatterbrain on Born Yesterday (1950)

1950 was a big year for William Holden. With the release of Sunset Boulevard, Holden would become a star with a capital "S," no longer to be relegated to forgotten B-films. The movie was an instant classic, with most of the praise being heaped on Gloria Swanson's glorious, go-for-broke performance. Curiously, the same thing happened with Holden's other 1950 hit, Born Yesterday. Judy Holliday's presence overwhelms the film and dazzles the viewer, which ultimately allowed her to win the Oscar over Swanson.

While both women were powerhouses on their own, it wouldn't be fair to ignore the importance of Holden's support. It was with this mindset that I rewatched Born Yesterday. I'll admit it was hard to keep my eyes off of Holliday -- that woman was so magnetic! -- but for this viewing, I wanted to focus on Holden. His work as journalist Paul Verrall is seldom discussed, probably because he is the film's least showy character. He is also its moral compass. Everyone bows down to Broderick Crawford's blustery and cruel junk dealer Harry, except Paul. He knows corruption when he sees it, making him reluctant to become Billie's teacher.

The relationship that grows between Paul and Billie is fascinating and frankly quite rare to see in film. Whereas most people dismiss Billie as a dumb broad, Paul never talks down to her or acts condescendingly towards her. Both of them recognize that Billie has made herself willfully ignorant, something Harry and his lawyer Jim encouraged wholeheartedly because it let them take advantage of her. Thanks to Paul, though, Billie realizes what all she has been denying herself, from learning about the Constitution to reading the newspaper.

Most importantly, Paul's influence doesn't require Billie to erase what makes her, well, her. In one scene, for instance, she is listening to Beethoven when it suddenly switches to an upbeat big band song. She apologizes to Paul for not sticking to purely classical music, but he assures her that she has nothing to be sorry about. The whole point of knowledge is to expand yourself, not limit.

I must admit that the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Born Yesterday is a pair of glasses. It's a little odd, I know, and I always felt a little shallow about it because I knew why it was that image that stuck with me...


However, during my latest viewing, I noticed it wasn't just Holden's gorgeous face that made glasses such a dominant symbol of the film -- it was the film itself! Consider Billie and Paul's second scene together. He brings her some books to read, which makes her a little uneasy. She finally admits she has trouble reading because she won't wear glasses, explaining that they're "terrible." Realizing that she said that to a man who is wearing a pair, she starts to apologize by gently putting her hand on his chest. Suddenly, they share a passionate kiss, one that leaves them both surprised. "Of course they're not so bad on men," Billie breathlessly remarks. Dazed, they say goodnight and he leaves.

For years, glasses have served as a sign of intelligence. Somewhere along the way, wearing glasses became a stigma for women as it was considered unattractive, hence Billie's reluctance to wear any. (As Marilyn Monroe says in How to Marry a Millionaire, "Men aren't attentive to girls who wear glasses.") The next time Billie and Paul see each other, he isn't wearing his, perhaps because of her dislike of them. However, as they spend the day together, she tells him he looks better with them, demonstrating that she likes Paul just the way he is. When she sheepishly puts on her own pair to read something, Paul is delighted and says "They make you look lovelier than ever." Not only does he assure her that the glasses don't detract from her looks, he also encourages her to be herself.

With Paul, Billie finds what she has been missing: someone who is kind, who listens to her, and who reminds her that she isn't some cheap dame without a thought in her head. In short, Paul treats her like a person. He becomes her conscience, and in turn, she becomes the conscience for Harry's pathetic lackeys. For the eight years she has been with Harry, Billie has been slowly suffocated. She is still sassy and tough, but she isn't allowed to be anything beyond what Harry wants.

One of the hardest scenes I've ever witnessed in a film is when Billie refuses to sign more of Harry's sketchy paperwork and he hits her. Watching Holliday sob as Billie helplessly signs her name is heartbreaking. It is in that moment, though, when something snaps in her. When she returns with Paul, they're both like knights in shining armor coming to slay the dragon. It is an absolute triumph when Harry raises his hand to Billie, his eyes almost giddy from the anticipation of seeing Billie's fear -- only it is no longer there. This woman will never flinch from Harry Brock again. It's a proud moment for the audience, and you feel that it's a proud moment for Paul, too. With Billie by his side, they promise to put a stop to Harry's corruption, making the man rue the day he ever decided to hire Paul.

Just like Judy Holliday was perfect for Billie, William Holden was perfect for Paul. It's a bit of a tricky character. To be frank, Paul isn't exactly an exciting guy. He is a smart, steady, reliable, sweet man, a description that could easily be read as "boring." With Holden, though, you feel yourself hanging on his every word. I often thought What will Paul do now? How will he handle Harry? What will he say here? He never comes across as smug or a know-it-all, a fate that many highly intelligent characters fall victim to.

And his chemistry with Holliday! Within the first five minutes of knowing one another, this happens:

Billie: "Are you one of these talkers or would you be interested in a little action?"
Paul: "What?"
Billie: "I got a yen for you right off!"
Paul: "Well, do you get many?"
Billie: "Now and then."
Paul: "What do you do about them?"
Billie: "Stick around, you'll find out."
Paul: "All right, I will."

A few minutes later, they're in the middle of a steamy embrace. And we buy it, because the connection between the actors is that good. When Paul proposes to her at film's end, you can tell that Billie is afraid he is only in love with her newfound intelligence, the intelligence he helped create. "You don't love me. You just love my brain," she says. "That too," he replies as I sigh and melt.

I can't pretend that Born Yesterday is one of my favorites. But I do believe that for fans of Holliday and Holden, it is a vital part of their respective filmographies. The fact that it is still a timely piece of cinema -- you'll be nodding until your head hurts when Holden warns "A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in" -- makes it all the more important.
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This is my entry to the Third Golden Boy Blogathon: A William Holden Centenary Celebration. To honor Holden's 100th birthday, check out the other contributions here!

Comments

  1. Born Yesterday wouldn't work without Paul Verrell, but everybody talks about Billie and Harry. Aren't we silly? Aren't we lucky William Holden was around to be cast in this movie?

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    1. We certainly are! I couldn't imagine a more delightful Paul.

      Thanks for reading!

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  2. Though I don't love this film, I enjoy it. I adore Judy Holliday and Holden's performance here is memorable for its' uniqueness, both in his repertoire and as a film character in general. Your mention of how Paul treats Billie as a person reminds me of Eliza Doolittle's statement to Higgins' mother in My Fair Lady. That Colonel Pickering treated her like a lady, but to Higgins' she will never be more than a flower girl. It's such an interesting argument that how we treat others matters in how they can live up or down to our expectations of them.

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    1. Funny you should mention My Fair Lady. I almost did a whole section about the similarities, but decided maybe that'd be best for another day. They would make for an interesting double feature!

      Thanks for reading!

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  3. Bill looked so good with glasses! Your review was truly excellent Michaela and really seize the characters personalities. I agree that both Judy Holliday and William Holden were perfectly cast. I have to admit I've only seen the film once and either can't I pretend it's my most favourite but I have to give it another chance. I have the feeling it's that kind of film that I would like better on a second viewing. Thanks for this awesome contribution to OUR blogathon! ;)

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    1. Thanks, Virginie! I know how you feel. I only saw it once before and I liked it, but my appreciation grew a little more on my second viewing. It's more of a thoughtful film rather than a laugh riot.

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  4. OH This MOVIE! THIS MOVIE made me a true Holdener as Ginnie says- GLASSES BILL IN GLASSES- I really love this movie and totally have a crush ON Paul Verrell I really want him as my tutor to life! Michaela it was a blast hosting with you and Ginnie! I hoped we three Millennials showed the world that our generation can adore and Love Bill Holden just as much as our grandparents generation did!
    Until the next blogathon- which I wanna do your Astaire- Rogers one- THANK YOU fior being a co-host and writing this magnificent post!!

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    1. I may or may not be looking for a photo of Bill in glasses to hang on my wall...

      Thanks, Emily! It was indeed a lot of fun, and it's made me love Bill even more. Hopefully I get through the rest of the entries today, including yours. :)

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