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    Holliday Holidays

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    ’Twas the day after Christmas 1950 when a late holiday present was delivered to New York moviegoers: the film version of Garson Kanin’s hit Broadway comedy Born Yesterday. Inside the box was a gift that audiences and critics took to their hearts, the blissfully skilled and adorably outspoken originator of the role of “dumb broad” Billie Dawn, Judy Holliday. She was not the first choice of Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn, purchaser of the play’s pricey screen rights who thought of Holliday as “that fat Jewish broad” and would much rather have a glamorous contract player like Rita Hayworth or Lucille Ball take on the role. He needed some heavy persuasion – and that came in the form of another movie that premiered in the Big Apple the previous Christmas. Adam’s Rib (1949), written and Kanin and wife Ruth Gordon and directed by George Cukor, starred the revered team of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as battling attorneys in a court case that involved ditzy defendant Doris Attinger, on trial for shooting her philandering husband. As part of the effort to ensure Holliday would play Billie when Born Yesterday came to the screen, Holliday was cast as Doris. According to biographer Patrick McGilligan in his informative book George Cukor: A Double Life, Holliday was nervous and flubbed lines aplenty during the filming of her scenes at Bowling Green in New York City. “Cukor discovered that during the breaks between setups, Holliday was handing out invitations to the crew to see her in Born Yesterday, which was still playing to sell-out houses on Broadway. She wanted them to know she was not totally incompetent.” In concert with Hepburn, Cukor set up the filming of a crucial interior jail scene where Doris’s attorney Hepburn conducted a deposition interview. “Although most of the dialogue was Hepburn’s,” McGilligan writes, “the more experienced film actress insisted that Cukor train his camera over her shoulder on Holliday’s visage, so that as Hepburn spoke the audience would focus on the newcomer.” Hepburn’s favor and Cukor’s attention did the trick: Holliday triumphed in her juicy supporting role, earning critical praise and audience rapport. After the movie Adam’s Rib opened and the play Born Yesterday closed at year-end 1949, Cohn shortly afterward announced that Holliday would play Billie on screen under Cukor’s direction. McGilligan adds a lovely coda regarding Holliday’s Academy Award® win on March 29, 1951: “After she collected her gold-plated statuette, Cukor knew what Holliday wanted to do most. The press was monopolizing the phones backstage; it was pouring rain outside. So Cukor draped his coat around her, and together they slipped next door to a Chinese restaurant, where the Best Actress of 1950 called her mother with the good news.” Co-starring William Holden and Broderick Crawford, the evergreen Born Yesterday is a comedic gift that keeps on giving on a sparkling Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.