Born Yesterday - George Cukor - Judy Holliday - Billie Dawn - bed - newspaper

Born Yesterday
1950, directed by George Cukor

Precisely halfway through Born Yesterday a panning shot settles on the lead couple, Billie Dawn and Paul Verrall, seated in a canoe on the Potomac River for an outdoor performance of Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony. In this scene Billie tells Paul that she’s just exchanged letters with her father after an eight-year silence, a reconciliation she attributes to her mental re-awakening since meeting Paul. The scene is therefore important because it’s the first tangible sign of her impending liberation from her long-time fiancé, multimillionaire junk dealer Harry Brock. It’s significant that the concert is the middle of five outings the two take in Washington, DC, and that all five sites are topped by domes.

In sixteen minutes, Billie and Paul visit the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Watergate Concerts, the National Gallery of Art, and the Jefferson Memorial. The first and last places have prominent domes, which are shown clearly. The domes of the second and fourth, the library and museum, are not shown, but they’re fairly well known, and the rotundas under them appear briefly, at least in a still photograph. Only if one realizes that those four sites are domed would it occur to anyone that the outdoor concert is also under a dome – the dome of the firmament. This central dome, in the middle of their tour and in the middle of the movie, is different from the others, but therein lies the point. Everyone understands that the sky belongs to all creatures living under it, and its public quality reflects on the other four domes, which are all public buildings. This point is further reflected in the movie’s main argument, that the government of a democracy belongs to all of its citizens.

Born Yesterday - George Cukor - Library of Congress - Jefferson Building
Born Yesterday - George Cukor - Judy Holliday - Billie Dawn - Capitol dome - Library of Congress terrace
Born Yesterday - George Cukor - William Holden - Judy Holliday - Paul Verrall - Billie Dawn - Jefferson Memorial - Washington Monument

The symmetry of this central sequence with its five domes may be hidden, but it reinforces a point that’s not hidden at all. In any case, the subliminal architectural pattern gets an assist from the movie’s first and last shots. Born Yesterday opens with the Capitol dome, and it closes on the art museum – again without its dome in the frame, but with the celestial dome visible overhead. The Capitol dome also appears on the wall of Brock’s hotel suite and in the view from the library terrace. The intention behind the five sites is further supported by the absence of the flat-roofed Lincoln Memorial, which would have been a more natural place than the library to introduce the Gettysburg Address.

On top of all the national landmarks covered in the tour of Washington, DC, the canoes in the river are a pre-colonial invention, and thus quintessentially American. The movie celebrates American values, and it means to reinforce a spirit of democracy that is essential to the nation’s self-image, and which the country had recently fought a bitter war to defend. Although Harry Brock is recognizably American, in the eyes of a 1950 audience his aristocratic pretentions and the palatial elegance of his suite would have linked him to a specifically European corruption that had recently led to World War II. Billie ends up calling her fiancé a fascist.

Born Yesterday - George Cukor - Broderick Crawford - Judy Holliday - Harry Brock - Billie Dawn

Apart from the sequence of domes, Born Yesterday is not an especially subtle movie, but there is one more scene with a subtle connection to the main argument. On the Library of Congress terrace, Billie tells Paul that she didn’t understand a word of his scholarly essay “The Yellowing Democratic Manifesto” even after looking up each word in a dictionary. He tries to explain it to her in his own eggheaded way, but she presses him, and he finally puts it in plain language. She replies, “Well, why didn’t you say so?” and he’s taken aback… he can give her no good reason. This should be a lesson to writers and intellectuals everywhere, but it also, like the sky over the Potomac, points to the public nature of our institutions. Billie makes Paul realize that his ideas belong to everyone, and he shouldn’t hide them behind needlessly elevated language. In the same way, the government of a democracy rightfully belongs to all its people, without any privilege for wealthy bigmouths like Harry Brock.

During their conversation on the library terrace, Billie and Paul face the Capitol dome eating ice cream bars. When Paul buys them Billie calls out, “Anything but tutti-frutti!” The Italian word is a showcase for Judy Holliday’s distinctive baby-like voice, but it’s also an allusion to a recent fascist opponent of the United States. More to the point, they end up picking chocolate, which Billie says is “the most popular”. Although today we often attach a negative connotation to popularity, it probably sounded better in 1950 when ordinariness was more consciously valued. The popularity of chocolate ice cream made it sound attractive, just as the popular choice in an election gave its result legitimacy.

Born Yesterday - George Cukor - William Holden - Judy Holliday - Paul Verrall - Billie Dawn - Library of Congress terrace - chocolate ice cream

Born Yesterday has surely dated in some ways over the decades, not least because today’s audiences are uncomfortable with the premise of a man playing the agent of a woman’s intellectual awakening. Billie starts out as an open stereotype: “I’m stupid, and I like it,” but in fact she proves smarter and more capable than either of her two male foils, Paul Verrall and Harry Brock. Her latent strengths, though, are no deus ex machina. Thanks to Judy Holliday’s acting, we can sense them long before they emerge.

Judy Holliday won the Academy Award for Best Actress for playing Billie Dawn in what must be the award’s most competitive year. She beat Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, and Eleanor Parker in Caged. Few performances can top Davis at her best, but it’s fair to say that the Academy didn’t disgrace itself that year. It helps that Holliday had refined the role over many performances on Broadway, but what stands out is the inspiration in her voice and gestures. She makes a difficult role believable, and it’s hard to imagine the movie working without her. Broderick Crawford is excellent too as Brock, but there are other actors who might have done as well. Holliday is virtually irreplaceable.

Ironically, the finest demonstration of Holliday’s talent is in a seven-minute game of gin rummy with Harry Brock where nothing much happens. The scene barely advances the plot, simply giving Paul time to run out and come back with reading material for Billie. Nevertheless when she plays cards and banters with Harry, her coiled intensity allows us to believe anything might be possible of her character. Harry watches her almost dumbfounded through much of the game, and he probably mirrors the expression in much of the audience.

Born Yesterday - George Cukor - Broderick Crawford - Judy Holliday - Harry Brock - Billie Dawn - gin rummy - card game

Billie Dawn is no less than a personification of the American public, who must activate their dormant intellectual capacity in order to safeguard their hard-won freedoms. The movie strives to overcome a streak of anti-intellectualism that has always been present in the United States, but it does so with the greatest respect toward its target audience. The story expresses a faith that people like Billie, who might enjoy the ease of their ignorance, have it in themselves to outshine the people who take advantage of them, and to prevail in the end. Born Yesterday does not define intellectualism in the usual way, as a kind of elitism, but rather as a force against elitism. It makes a mockery of Paul’s cerebral writings, and it refuses to equate intellectual development with snobbery. When Paul catches Billie listening to popular dance music, he dismisses her self-conscious excuses as unnecessary: “There’s room for all sorts of things in you. The idea of learning is to be bigger, not smaller.”

The title Born Yesterday is not only a reference to Billie. Her ignorance makes her figuratively like a newborn baby, but the nation she stands for was also thought of as relatively new among the family of nations. Five years after World War II however the United States found itself in a dominant economic and political position, much like Billie, in whose name Harry had placed most of his assets. It was therefore high time for the country to take its well earned place among grown up nations, but doing so carried a responsibility. For the sake of a better postwar world, it had to adhere to its democratic and egalitarian ideals.

Born Yesterday - George Cukor - Larry Oliver - Broderick Crawford - Judy Holliday - Congressman Hedges - Harry Brock - Billie Dawn

If the movie feels dated today for its stereotypes, for Paul’s mansplaining, or even for its innocence, there’s also a sense in which it’s more relevant today than ever. In 1950 there was an air of scandal attached to the bribing of a congressman, but today such things happen openly. The New Deal ethos of good government that prevailed during and after the war has since given way to a cynical idea that government is necessarily tyrannical, a notion that ironically leads to greater tyranny as private interests usurp the more evenly distributed power of a democratic government. Even the corrupt Congressman Hedges tells the gathering in Harry’s suite that “this country will soon have to decide if the people are going to run the government or the government is going to run the people.” When a country becomes cynical about its government, people like Harry Brock are the chief beneficiaries. In order to have “government of the people, by the people, for the people” it’s imperative that the people believe in that possibility.


Saboteur – Celebration of American culture with visits to famous landmarks; contrast between American ideals and corrupted European culture

The Big Sleep – Argument for the importance of thinking as a bulwark against corruption

A Letter to Three Wives – Portrait of the postwar United States and its class divisions

Strangers on a Train – Symbolic use of the U.S. Capitol, Jefferson Memorial, and National Gallery of Art