By Lawrence Henley
Born Yesterday, a play written well in advance of its time, is a comic drama whose subject matter foreshadowed a number of socio-political developments that slowly began to gain momentum soon afterward. The play’s subject matter portended such significant trends as the rise of women’s movement, consumerism, the resurgence of higher education, and the phenomenon our generation has come to know as “whistle blowing.”
Playwright Garson Kanin could scarcely have imagined the progressive changes that would develop as a residual of societal reform movements in the fifty years since Born Yesterday was penned in 1947. Astonishingly, the behavioral tendencies of his characters have a shared resemblance to numerous social and political developments that have taken place during the ensuing six decades.
Kanin, also husband to legendary actress Ruth Gordon, wrote and directed numerous works for the Broadway stage, as well as several more for the silver screen. At the head of the class stands Born Yesterday, most likely due to its enlightening power over postwar America, just beyond the midpoint of the twentieth century. The play was more than entertainment: it served a dual purpose, offering an accessible model for the way attitudes about ethical behavior, the pursuit of knowledge, and male-female relationships might be reformed.
Born Yesterday made its New York debut at George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Lyceum Theatre, premiering on February 4, 1946, subsequently moving to Henry Miller’s Theatre on 42nd Street. The show ran for a whopping 1,642 performances, a staggeringly large number of outings for a non-musical. Shortly after it closed, Kanin signed a deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to have the play adapted for nationwide distribution in Hollywood. The screen version was to be directed by the late, great George Cukor (also the director of The Philadelphia Story, A Star is Born, and My Fair Lady). Both of the original productions of Born Yesterday received an enormous boost from the performances of one of the greatest stars of the 1950s, the inimitable and somewhat forgotten Judy Holliday, who was featured as the female lead in both mediums.
Holliday was born Judith Tuvim (her surname can be loosely interpreted in Yiddish as “holiday”) on June 21, 1921. Her Queens, New York family was of Russian-Jewish descent. Attracted to the performing life well before her teenage years, Holliday eventually signed on with Adolph Green’s group of nightclubbing post-vaudevillians, The Revuers, after turning eighteen. By the early 1940s, this reasonably successful act found itself in Los Angeles, and, like so many other performers of the era, both Judy and her colleagues signed on as Hollywood contract players at Twentieth-Century Fox. After being dropped by the studio, she returned to New York where she was almost instantly recruited to replace Jean Arthur less than a week before Born Yesterday’s out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia. Holliday seized the opportunity and turned it into gold, becoming an “overnight” sensation in what became her career-making signature role.
Her character, Billie Dawn, was the seven-year “fiancée” and trophy girl of shifty New York junk-tycoon Harry Brock (played brilliantly on Broadway by Paul Douglas and matched on film by tough guy Broderick Crawford). In the role, Holliday successfully masked her innate intelligence, transforming herself into the classic ditzy blond and ex-chorus girl. For her efforts, she was honored with the ultimate trifecta of awards for an actress in a leading role: a clean sweep of the Tony, the Oscar, and the Golden Globe!
This past century-and-a-half of American history is full of non-fictional characters that should remind audiences of Harry Brock. You know them. They were the low-born, hard-fought success stories of Joseph P. Kennedy, Jimmy Hoffa, Al Capone, and Don King. New York’s infamous Tammany Hall was chock full of Harry Brocks, led most notably by the notorious “Boss” Tweed. Brock’s character can be interpreted somewhat euphemistically as the seething underbelly of modern American business culture: always looking for legally defensible ways to carry out illegal or barely legal (and lucrative) acts. Today, the U.S. continues to be scarred by such scandal. The likes of Enron and World Com have become all-too familiar to us. An easy identification with corruption in the present-day can be made through Harry Brock.
Brock, who is without question a bully in both business and personal relationships, believes himself to have a noose-tight grip on the universe. He is the archetypal “legitimate” business man, forever trotting out weapons from his legal arsenal, men that possess the strong command of non-street education well beyond his grasp. The personification of this is the play’s slick D.C. attorney Jim Devery, an alcoholic who long ago compromised his youthful idealism in exchange for his employer’s tainted money. While he is, admittedly, ashamed of what he has made of his life, Devery represents the antithesis of the whistle-blower. He cultivates and enhances Brock’s hold on power, sustaining it not only through the boss’s heavy-handed tactics, but through the deployment of dexterous legal manipulation. He is responsible for the orchestration of what we know as political “payola.”
Brock sees the world as his to control, treating all he encounters as existing to be subservient to his desires. No exception to this is his lackey, Eddie (who happens to be his own brother). Even Brock’s girlfriend is nothing more than a testimonial to his power. Billie Dawn is simply another attractive blond bimbette whose rescue from the tawdry existence of a chorus girl must be repaid through indentured companionship. To be sure, Billie has most everything she could possibly want from a material point of view. Harry has made certain of that: furs, jewels, lavish hotel suites, all in quantity. She has everything except the real love and sense of self-worth that she desperately needs, something to which Harry, child of the streets that he is, is completely ignorant of.
In truth, despite plentiful material goods, Billie Dawn lives in isolation. Admittedly, she hasn’t seen her family in nearly a decade. She feels a deep sense of guilt resulting from the alienation of her father, a simple and honest man she deeply admires. Worse yet, Brock and Devery continually manipulate her trust, using Billie’s legal signature as a tool with which to create shelters for the slimy cartel they are in the process of engineering. Billie, innocently enough, affixes her name to a plethora of contracts and documents, the true purpose of which she is ignorant. Although Brock, in weaker moments, professes to be “nuts about her,” his treatment of her belies that statement. To make matters worse for Billie, Harry focuses on her social inadequacies. In her uneducated state, she proves herself socially and intellectually incapable of mingling with the wives of Washington politicos.
Billie has grown weary of waiting for Harry’s absent proposal of marriage, as well as the rough treatment she often receives from him. Truth be known, she would probably prefer to see her fiancé rot in hell. The couple’s frenetic game of Gin Rummy in the original film version of Born Yesterday exemplifies her streak of defiance. As he rails at her for her lack of social graces during the card game in their hotel suite, she infuriates Harry with her astonishing card playing skills, absolutely dominating him. Through her superiority in card games, she channels her resentment into thoroughly pasting her hot-headed sugar daddy time after time.
Nostalgic for a time in the not-so-distant past when she, in her own mind, could have been a “star,” Billie can see the contrast between those days and the present, becoming restless for something more in life. Unknowingly, Harry provides her with the unlikeliest of keys to this fulfillment, accidentally transforming Billie’s ignorance and isolation into the richness of culture and intellect. Counselor Devery has invited an idealistic young maverick up to Brock’s massive suite. He is Capitol journalist Paul Verrall. Verrall is offered the chance for an inside scoop, an attempt on the part of Devery to employ the “keep your enemies closer” theory of public relations in an effort to improve his employer’s tarnished image.
A sudden brainstorm of Harry’s takes the lawyers idea a step further. Impulsively, Brock puts Verrall on the payroll. His assignment will be to educate and sophisticate Billie Dawn, in order that she might advance her compatibility with the Washington cocktail set. Through his initial acceptance of Harry’s offer, Verrall seeks only to dig up as much dirt as he can on Brock’s operation. He takes the money without suspecting the miracle by which his true reward will be paid.
The plan backfires completely on a dumbstruck Harry Brock, who sees his plans to corner the scrap iron market by way of bribery and chicanery torn to shreds. Of equal import, he loses both the girl and his corporate shill to a return to idealism inspired by the man he put on his own payroll! A Pygmalion-esque relationship develops between Billie Dawn and the handsome tutor, and she discovers the value and power of consideration, morality, and thought through Verrall’s teachings. To his surprise, Paul is powerless to do anything but fall in love with his pupil, and he demonstrates to Billie exactly how she has been played for a fool by her manipulating boyfriend and his lawyer.
Born Yesterday is a play loaded with priceless lines, many of which serve to indicate Kanin’s political and social leanings. In the opening segment of the play, attorney Devery remarks defensively: “Just because I’m a lawyer does not mean I own the law!” From Verrall, we receive the following gem of a thought: “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.”
Revived both on the New York stage and as a Hollywood film, the show has in modern times featured such luminaries as Edward Asner and Madeleine Kahn in lead roles. In their most recent film reincarnations, Billie Dawn and Harry Brock were played by Melanie Griffith and John Goodman, with Griffith’s then-husband Don Johnson appearing as Paul Verrall.
In conclusion, Born Yesterday is far from an old warhorse in revival. It is a true chestnut, maintaining both strength and substance as a play. In tribute to Kanin’s monumental talent and forethought, it proves that, even in today’s world, we can learn valuable lessons concerning ethical behavior, the value of teaching and learning, and human relationships.