The sad loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman has me thinking about other actors who have died too soon. From Wallace Reid and Rudolph Valentino through Carole Lombard and Marilyn Monroe. John Cazale and Heath Ledger. There is a litany. And somewhere on that list is Judy Holliday, who died in 1965, at the age of 43, a victim of breast cancer.
Her best known film, Born Yesterday (1950), was entered into the National Film Registry in 2012, and I got a lot of complaints when I mentioned that I did not agree with the selection. It’s not that I think the film, directed by George Cukor, scripted by Garson Kanin, is bad. I just think it’s somewhat overrated. It was based on Kanin’s stage play and, to my ears, it never loses that staginess. And though Holliday is pretty damn awesome (in her Oscar-winning definition of the dumb blonde), I find Broderick Crawford to be a bit broad, and William Holden to be … well, truth be told, I never quite got William Holden.
If you are looking for an alternative, consider a movie that came four years later. The three principals – Kanin, Cukor, and Holliday – teamed up again for the highly underrated It Should Happen to You (1954). This one did not begin life as a stage play. Kanin’s idea was conceived of for the screen, and it suffers from none of Born Yesterday’s staginess. This frees up Cukor quite a bit, and I think I may even prefer Holliday’s billboard-obsessed Gladys Glover to her Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday. What’s more, it offers a very young Jack Lemmon in his first lead film role, and Lemmon, showing only the slightest hints of the neuroses that would come to define his screen persona, is very engaging.
But maybe best of all, It Should Happen to You is among the most prescient comedies of the 1950s – an era not known for its sense of humor. Gladys is a small-town girl who has come to NY in order to “make a name for herself.” Thus far, she has failed. On the verge of giving up and moving home, she makes an odd decision. She takes all the money she has saved up and plasters her name across a double-wide billboard overlooking Columbus Circle. I won’t give away what follows, but you can probably imagine how this one act of shameless self-promotion leads Gladys to the attention she has been craving.
Every time I see a self-promoted tweet on my Twitter feed, I think of Gladys Glover. When I hear a joke about speculatively snapping up domain names, I can see Gladys. And each time a Kardashian appears in the news, it’s Gladys I’m thinking of. Kanin didn’t invent the comic idea of being famous for simply being famous. Ben Hecht, William Wellman, and Carole Lombard had combined to create the glorious Nothing Scared (1937) about Hazel Flagg, a small town girl who becomes the toast of NY simply because she is (fictitiously) dying. And you could easily go back further. But Gladys Glover may be the purest distillation of the concept.
I would not argue that It Should Happen to You is flawless. As much as I like the two leads, I find Michael O’Shea to be a bit broad, and Peter Lawford to be … well, truth be told, I never quite got Peter Lawford. But if you’re looking for an older comedy that is still relevant today, and if you mourn the fact the Judy Holliday’s film career was cut way too short, then It Should Happen to You will be well worth your time.