Categories
Film Essay Judy Holliday

Being Billie Dawn

How Born Yesterday informs American myth-making and the genius of Judy Holliday.

Though the American film industry has been profoundly influenced by the minds of Jewish immigrants, anti-Semitism in the U.S. during and after the second World War worked to malign the accomplishments of Jewish performers in the entertainment industry, a sentiment that was very often corroborated with a fear of communism/socialism. Anti-Semitism in America, like all forms of racist/religious discrimination, is not a one-off prejudice harbored by waves of uneducated people who “don’t know any better.” It’s a sentiment held and has a long history of being held by American politicians, lawmakers, police, barons of industry; it didn’t start nor did it end with America’s interference in WWII. But when Cold War anxieties began to blister over American culture, what are now commonly referred to as “McCarthyist witch-hunts” did discriminately target Jews in the entertainment industry, wherein the monolith of “Eastern European heritage” was treated as a harbinger of the left-leaning ideologies that America was, at the time, at “war” with.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an anti-communist investigative committee dispatched by the House of Representatives in 1938, was at the height of its power and influence from the years 1950-1954. Under the tutelage of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the HUAC tightened its aim on the entertainment industry, long-speculated to be the country’s foremost agent of communist influence; that the film industry, in particular, was founded by the likes of Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Louis B. Mayer, and Benjamin Warner (Helford 157), all Jewish immigrants, the pointed association of Jewish heritage with communist influence was acutely obvious. It was during these accursed Red Scare years that Garson Kanin’s 1946 play Born Yesterday was adapted for the screen. Released in 1950, the film’s condemnation of corrupt free-market capitalism received backlash from the McCarthy administration and shouldered Kanin and the film’s star, Judy Holliday, both of Jewish descent, into further investigations for “un-American” conduct. Concerning female agency, the importance of education as a weapon against ignorance, and the corruption of democracy, Born Yesterday gives credence to ideals that directly challenged those of the HUAC and emboldened the causes of Jewish/communist-leaning American citizens during a time of hardline marginalization. Moreover, the short-lived legacy of Judy Holliday, collaborator in her friend Garson Kanin’s affronts against bigotry, is that of a Jewish woman of intelligence and fortitude, whose smart grasp on persona saved her from succumbing to everything she believed a person shouldn’t have to stand for.

Born Yesterday, while not the most radical piece of mainstream American media from the 1950s, was concerned with pushing the envelope: Saying the quiet parts of lucrative business practices out loud. The film centers a corrupt businessman, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) who hires a journalist named Paul Verrall (William Holden) to educate his aloof girlfriend, Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday), on the basic facts of life; Dawn unexpectedly flourishes under his education, uncovering the corruption of Brock’s business dealings and liberating herself from ignorance in the process. Central to the interpretation of Born Yesterday in its historical context is the ethnic heritage of Judy Holliday, Garson Kanin and director George Cukor (though Cukor did not face the same McCarthyist scrutiny as Holliday and Kanin), who were all Jewish. Because Cukor had been working in Hollywood for decades, directing predominantly apolitical women’s pictures, by the time he joined the production of Born Yesterday, his legacy was not conflated with the fact that he was Jewish. In short: Cukor was uncontroversial, but Born Yesterday was not, and this meant trouble for Kanin and Holliday, who spearheaded the project. In 1950, the same year Born Yesterday saw its release, Holliday’s name was listed with ten citations in Red Channels, a pamphlet reporting alleged communists in radio in television; the actress was then pinned by Senator Pat McCarran’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) as a threat to American ideals, as “her celebrity status on Broadway and in Hollywood guaranteed headlines, and, she was a descendant of East European Jewish immigrants” (Barranger 11).

Judy Holliday’s citations in Red Channels (1950), pp. 78-79.

Holliday’s portrayal of Billie Dawn, who asserts her agency as a sovereign woman in both her relationships with men as well as in business, challenges the statutes of mid-century expectations of women, placing a woman of Jewish descent in a central position of power and control; this position of power, gleaned from the acquisition of knowledge, gave credence to the McCarthyist witch-hunts which “disproportionately aimed at attacking Hollywood for its alleged communist influence, an attack that was bound up with antisemitism” (Barranger 11). Dawn’s revolution of thought, even telling her boyfriend Harry Brock, “I used to think you were a big man, Harry. I’m beginning to see you’re not. All through history there’s been bigger men than you, and better” is progressive in text, and as the film asserts the dangers in being unquestioning of the powers that be —“When it gets down to what should be the laws and what shouldn’t, is Harry more important than anyone else?”— the defiance of capitalist thought is obvious, and, by the standards of the SISS, objectionable. Written by a Jewish man and embodied by a Jewish woman, Born Yesterday’s epitomization of a woman liberated through education signifies a watershed moment American film as a weapon of political agenda.

Born Yesterday suggests that while education changes the part of people that makes them blind to their personal injustices and those around them, it does not change so much of who they are. Holliday’s quick and high cadence of speech is never abandoned for something deeper, maybe slower (she does not need to slow down her pattern of speech to signify thoughtfulness, her whip-smart ways are even more indicative of how fast her mind works, pumping out an endlessly smart stream of thought without the regard for how other people might misinterpret her), her bleach-blond updo is never switched out for something natural, more polished or refined, her words which once worked to embarrass Harry in front of others because of her lack of intelligence, later embarrass him for his refusal to know more, to be a better person. The film posits the basics of self-liberation, essentializing education as the means to an end of ignorance. What Judy Holliday brings to Born Yesterday is a remarkable ability to be both smart and human at the same time. It’s something that can be understood by audiences from 1950 and 2021 alike, a perfect authenticity that compliments a story that makes of American mythos something that is all at once accessible, unique, and incendiary.

Moreover, Billie Dawn’s transformation from a “dumb blonde” to a realized woman who learns to stand up for herself inside of her domestic sphere represents a transition that many American women in a post-World War II landscape were making at the time. In one high-tension scene between Dawn and Brock, she asserts, “You don’t own me. Nobody can own anybody. There’s a law that says!” To which Brock retorts, “What do I care what the law says? If I was scared of the law I wouldn’t be where I am.” Dawn’s agency in this moment is supported by her acquisition of knowledge, which the film posits as the demise of all ignorance and corruption: By the end of Born Yesterday, Brock is left penniless without Dawn as his clueless racketeering cohort because she now understands and rejects his treatment of her as his inferior as well as his crooked business practices, asserting, “I just know I hate my life. There’s a better cut, I know it. And if you read some of these books, you’d know it too.” The education of Billie Dawn is placed in such a powerful position in Born Yesterday as it reflects a paradigm shift in government trust as well as female liberation. As “the clash of progressive and regressive forces would produce a reevaluation of cultural understandings and interactions regarding race, gender, and ethnicity, including attitudes toward Jewishness,” (Helford 158) the film weaponizes knowledge against ignorance, and the fact that this was railed against by the HUAC speaks to the aims of the committee as a powerful engineer of censorship.

Garson Kanin’s citations in Red Channels (1950), pp. 90-91.

Born Yesterday takes a strong position against the aggressive racketeering practices often overlooked or permitted by the American government through direct condemnation. As the film positions Harry Brock as a corrupt government lampoon stand-in, his actions are directly castigated by the film’s text; in one scene, Paul Verrall tells Dawn, “The whole history of the world is the story of the struggle between the selfish and unselfish. All that’s bad around us is bred by selfishness. Sometimes selfishness can even get to be a cause, an organized force, even a government. And then it’s called fascism,” implying that Brock has manipulated democratic principles into his own philosophy of personal gain, running directly adjacent to a fascist ideology. That the character of Harry Brock is aligned with the American government, this further qualification of his fascist principles draws a comparison between the goals of free-market capitalism and its corruption of operation — as Verrall notes, “For all I know there’s an undiscovered murder committed everyday. And what does that prove? All this undercover pressure, this bribery, this government between friends”— discriminately assigning power to only a few individuals. Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday’s writer, was, like Holliday, listed in Red Channels and called by the HUAC to testify; the targeting of film’s creative team, specifically Holliday and Kanin, by the HUAC, is an insight into a legislative committee’s goals to censor subversive thought, often voiced by minority groups (in this case, Jewish immigrants) who openly expressed their concerns with the corruptions of American industry. How Born Yesterday treats a state of “yellowing democracy” as something that can be changed if we recognize where ignorance comes from, and how to usher people out of it, is remarkably sincere, maybe too authentic a message to be completely driven home in its time. Though Kanin and Holliday believed in a world that could be bettered by liberating people from ignorance, achieved somewhere between the American stage and Hollywood, their attempt with Born Yesterday was remarkably short-changed. It was the last explicitly political film Holliday would make, and it was one of the last times we would see something so earnest in its deliveries of progressive rhetoric from a creative team working in studio-era Hollywood.

Everybody can love Billie Dawn. She’s unapologetically herself, her working class roots and her Jean Louis ensembles, who is full of bright spiels and plays the most entertaining hand in Gin Rummy possibly ever. She’s the hero of a story that is not as much radical as it is a reframing of American mythos to essentialize the journey from ignorance to education. Dawn is fortunate to receive an education, but it’s one that’s unconventional, it’s one that comes later in her life, one that’s assumed as something she didn’t have access to growing up. Kanin and Holliday tell us that this is how we can break the cycle of corruption, ignorance, discrimination; that it’s never too late to learn, but that Billie Dawn was one of the lucky ones. Not all children or adults like Dawn can receive something as important as an education for an umbrella of reasons that have nothing to do with agency or motivation. Born Yesterday isn’t so revolutionary in its approach to criticism of government corruption, but it is likely the most important studio film from the 1950s that challenges the common narrative of ignorance, that it comes from a single place of miseducation and laziness, with a situation that’s not so unlike those of ordinary people, both in mid-century America and today: A woman is manipulated by a man (who manipulates the government to earn his living) into believing that she doesn’t need an education in order to get by, so long as she’s with him (literally—one of the first things we hear from Dawn is that she’s stupid and she likes it). Manipulation is chief here, putting forth the idea that ignorance should be treated as an issue on a spectrum, that some people don’t choose to be ignorant (but then, some people, the Harry Brocks of the world, do), they are penniless/pressured/stripped of all other resources and ushered into a small and scary world where nothing is their choice. Education, when it is made accessible, should not be feared, it should be welcomed: It’s something that can make you a better person. When Billie Dawn realizes this, her intelligence (that of which is obvious to us as she plays and wins the smartest game of Gin Rummy ever put to film) blossoms, and we can understand just how much this would not have been possible if not for Dawn’s ability to see herself as a whole person who is deserving of something as vital as an education.

Born Yesterday’s explicitly critical view of American capitalism and industry gave rise to anti-communist and anti-Semitic rhetoric against writer Garson Kanin and the film’s star, Judy Holliday during the zenith of the HUAC’s political influence. Denunciation of the film’s themes — the importance of education, female agency, and the condemnation of capitalistic power structures — by a legislative committee signifies how powerful a political weapon filmmaking is, and further, how Jews and communist-leaning American citizens were struck down with censure in the mid-twentieth century. During her closed hearing conducted by the McCarran committee, Judy Holliday was famously coached by her public relations agent, Robert L. Green, to play up her Billie Dawn character. What resulted was perhaps the most convincing acting performance of her career: Holliday remained steadfast to her political advocacy, communist-front associations, union membership, and sentiments against religious persecution without admitting names which would have jeopardized herself, her family and her peers. When asked by Richard Arens, counsel of the committee and former aid to Senator McCarthy, “What is it that you abhor about Communism?” Holliday dutifully responded, “I hate the idea that you are dictated to in what should be the freedom of your own life; that you are told how to think and what to think and that you are policed in your thoughts. I hate the idea that they try to make everybody like everybody else and that the state comes first and that the individual doesn’t matter for anything” (Barranger 17). Judy Holliday, who put up the good fight, who never sacrificed herself or other people for the statutes that she chose to challenge, made of one character a vision of integrity to endure forever in the intersection of politics and film history: An act of selflessness against aggression to be eternally admired. To recognize Judy Holliday as a truly brilliant actress, extending this role into spaces of her personal life that one might never be expected to, is to recognize all of what made Judy Holliday, or the real Judith Tuvim, great.

References:

American Business Consultants, and Counterattack (Organization). Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. American Business Consultants, 1950, pp. 78, 90.

Barranger, Milly S. “Broadway’s Women on Trial: The McCarthy Years,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre, vol. 15, no. 3, 2003, pp. 1-37.

Helford, Elyce Rae. What Price Hollywood?: Gender and Sex in the Films of George Cukor. University Press of Kentucky, 2020, pp. 157-183.

“Testimony of Judy Holliday (26 March 1952),” Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate, Eighty-Second Congress, Second Session on Subversive Infiltration of Radio, Television, and the Entertainment Industry, United States Government Printing Office, 1952, pp. 141-186.

One reply on “Being Billie Dawn”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s