Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Born Yesterday

I hate the question, "What is your favorite movie?" I like so many different types of films that it's hard for me to answer. When asked for my favorite anything--food, band, etc.--my mind goes blank. I have an answer ready, just in case. For many years now, the answer to the favorite movie question has been, Born Yesterday.

Let me back up a little. I may be a movie snob--but I'm a quality snob, not a genre snob. If it's good sci-fi, action, animation, I'll see it. But there is an era of film that is closest to my heart: Hollywood movies from the 1930's-1950's. Not that, say, I would deny that the Godfather films (except for III) are some of the best ever made. I also have a strong affinity for the French New Wave. But I like my black and white and my screwball comedies. I can't stand sentimental melodrama, so no Joan Crawford. Give me Hitchcock, (The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), give me Cukor, Wilder (The Apartment is another favorite, but from the 60's), Preston Sturges (he invented a kiss-proof lipstick, among other things), give me Midnight, Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka, The Lady Eve, The Best Years of Our Lives, Laura, The Maltese Falcon...and I'm a very happy person.

I got hooked when my parents took me to the grand re-opening of the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville (looks like it's had a couple more re-openings since). I had just turned nine years old. They showed a double bill of The Philadelphia Story and Adam's Rib. I didn't understand most of what was going on in Adam's Rib, but I fell in love with The Philadelphia Story. Love at first sight and forever. I'm so attached to the film that I can't watch the musical version, High Society, even though the score is written by Cole Porter, one of my favorite song writers (reviews agree that it's a bad movie). I've tried to watch it, but I can't get past the first scene. Bing Crosby as C.K. Dexter Haven? No. No, no, a thousand times no! (Bing Crosby is fine in the road films, but he is a poor substitute for Cary Grant. Frank Sinatra in the Jimmy Stewart role is almost as absurd.)

My mom gave me a video of The Philadelphia Story a few years ago and I watch it on my birthday or when I'm feeling low. It's like comfort food.

I'm not sure when Born Yesterday squeaked past The Philadelphia Story to become my favorite movie. I don't remember the first time I saw it. I own a copy (video) and watch it maybe once a year. Ironically (or predictively?), the film is set in DC.

Last week, as part of the ushering gig at Arena Stage, I saw the theatrical version of Born Yesterday for the first time. Years ago, I read the play. It was a bit racier than the film, but most of the dialog was unchanged. I hoped seeing the play it wouldn't ruin the movie for me. It didn't. It was good.

The woman who played Billie Dawn was good--this was Judy Holliday in the film. Judy originated the part on Broadway and she is the main attraction of the film, though the excellent supporting work doesn't hurt. She is precious and I've seen all her films--all recommended. The bellowing boyfriend, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford in the film), was not so good, but as Pele pointed out, he may have lost his voice. (I read the review in the Post and the reviewer wondered how his voice would hold out. I guess it didn't.) Broderick Crawford (in the film) was pretty amazing and brought a real menace to the role. He is the dark side of a rather chipper and hopeful comedy. He was not so scary in the play and sashayed around the stage. It was odd. The actor playing Paul Verral was a bit more wide-eyed and unsure of himself than William Holden (who was in the film). Maybe that was a better way to play it. William Holden, well, he was irresistible. Maybe he was too collected, but he could do no wrong early in his career and he's just about perfect in Born Yesterday.

I also noted how the film let the story breathe in a way the stage production couldn't. In the film, the set was more expansive and there was quite a bit of location shooting. In the play, they mention seeing the National Gallery. In the film, they actually go. The movie is fun just for the sightseeing aspect--and there's a very moving scene at the Jefferson that is not part of the play at all.

Some may find the themes of Born Yesterday a bit heavy handed, but maybe that's why I like it. The perspective is similar to my own. I see all the bad things, the evil things, the terrible things in the world, but I still believe that things are going to work out. I hope. I care. I believe that people are fundamentally good. Sure, there are some bad apples, some Harry Brocks, but most people mean well. Most bad things are done by chance or bad timing or selfishness. Not full out maliciousness.

The story is corny and simple. It's a classic transformation story. Except it's one where the babe puts on her glasses and becomes a librarian (sort of). (Perhaps that explains my affection for Party Girl as well.)

That's the thing. Despite the numbers (women with higher IQs are less likely to get married) and the advice (men want to be in charge so act a little incompetent), some boys do like it when a girl has a brain. I have a little story about that...

When I was in grad school, I briefly dated a fellow in Seattle who worked for Microsoft. My friend, Shawn, suggested that the fellow liked that I was getting a Ph.D. and that he would brag about me to his friends. I was surprised. I assumed that having a Ph.D. was not an asset--that it was something to downplay. I never bring it up, I don't call myself doctor, but I don't lie about it. I asked the Microsoft guy, "So, um, how do you feel about me getting my Ph.D.?"
"Um, well, I mean, if you were to mention me to your friends, would you tell them?"
"Oh, yes, of course."
"So it's a good thing?"
"Of course! It's a great thing."
"Wait a sec. Are you saying that...that you like me for my brains?"
"I don't think I should answer that."
I laughed very hard.

Don't you love how I can make any story about boys?

Grateful for: Old movies. 'Natch.

P.S. If you're my boyfriend, don't say anything bad about Born Yesterday or The Philadelphia Story. I won't break up with you, but I'll never feel quite the same way about you again.

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