When we meet Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) in the original, 1950 version of Born Yesterday (Columbia TriStar, unrated, $19.95), we don’t hear her speak for quite some time. She checks into a swank Washington hotel trailing her tycoon boyfriend, Harry (Broderick Crawford), fiddling with her mink as if it were a big, annoying piece of lint. There’s something delightfully delicate about her movements, her being physically ”grand.” Then, when Harry calls out to her, we are suddenly assaulted by the voice: ”WHAAAAT?” she screams—and it’s enough to peel the paint off her toenails.
The elaborate opening joke of this first movie version of Garson Kanin’s hit Broadway play serves to introduce something intriguing about Billie’s personality: What we see is not necessarily what we get. And this becomes key later when junk man Harry hires a reporter (William Holden) to give his broad some breeding and ”couth.” Behind the Kewpie-doll exterior of the tycoon’s tootsie is a mind eager—and spectacularly able—to improve. ”I’d like to learn to talk good,” she says to the reporter and proceeds to charm the specs off him. Okay, now consider the opening of the latest version of Born Yesterday (1993, Hollywood, PG, $95.95), with Melanie Griffith as Billie, John Goodman as Harry, and Don Johnson as Paul the reporter. Goodman climbs down from a plane and shouts out to Billie, and there’s that ”WHAAAAT?” Besides Griffith’s having nowhere near the comically abrasive power of Holliday’s lungs, there’s no lead-up to the exclamation. There is, well, just no joke.
A hell of a lot more is missing from the remake of Born Yesterday, not the least of which is the kind of classic performance Holliday gave, which won her an Oscar over stiff competition from the likes of Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Griffith’s line deliveries are uninflected and flat, whereas Holliday’s were alternately droll, deadpan, and touching.
Before comparisons proceed odiously further, the question has to be asked why the movie was remade in the first place. They got it right—beautifully, memorably right—the first time out. Indeed, the arrogance of the current version is equaled only by its stupidity. For instance, the klutz-ball director, Luis Mandoki, and his partner-in-crime screenwriter, Douglas McGrath, have ”opened up” the action to parties, a bar, a lunch, and so on, while the action in the original (except for Paul showing Billie around Washington) was confined to hotel suites. It made the viewer concentrate on what was being said—important in a movie about the value and the appeal of words.
The relationship between Billie and Harry has been sentimentalized as well. Harry himself is now much more of a conniver. In the 1950 version, Harry was crooked, but he wasn’t quite aware of it, which made his brand of incipient fascism even more scary. Crawford brought a kind of blowhard bravado to Harry that made him almost likable, but everything in Goodman’s character spells out Bad Man: He has several embarrassing speeches about how money is the be-all and end-all. Clearly, this Born Yesterday has been made for a more cynical age.
So, pass up this new release and head for the ”Classics” shelf. There is nothing in the 1950 Born Yesterday, apart from the clothes, that wears poorly. After all, romance with words—the sheer love of them—never goes out of style. 1993 version: D