Great Adaptations: Columbia in the 1950s

Great Adaptations: Columbia in the 1950s

Of all the major Hollywood studios, Columbia may be the hardest to pigeonhole. Paramount evokes continental sophistication and Warner Bros. is synonymous with tough, ripped-from-the-headlines urban drama, but Columbia resists easy labels. In part, this is because the studio relied less on contract stars and directors and more on borrowed talent and short-term deals. The few stars truly fostered by Columbia had an outsize but temporary influence: in the 1930s, Jean Arthur helped make the studio a leader in screwball comedy; in the forties, musicals and film noir flourished thanks to Rita Hayworth. At the start of the fifties, as the studio entered its most glorious period, another dazzling comedienne arrived: Judy Holliday made six films at Columbia, starting with Born Yesterday (1950), in which she repeated her stage triumph as Billie Dawn.

Born Yesterday is a political satire and a romantic comedy, but above all, it is a makeover movie with a twist, following a woman who surprises everyone not with a new look but with an awakened mind. Billie is the pampered but bullied mistress (officially “fee-AN-cy”) of a crass millionaire junk dealer; when he comes to Washington, D.C., to buy a tame congressman, he makes the mistake of enlisting a journalist to take the unschooled Billie in hand. Rather than polishing her etiquette, he introduces her to ideas that crack her protective shell of ignorance and reveal a lively brain spoiling for a fight against corruption and exploitation.

Opening on Broadway in 1946, Born Yesterday became a monster hit, eventually running for 1,642 performances and prompting a bidding war for the rights among Hollywood studios. The winner was Columbia Pictures, whose president, Harry Cohn, paid a whopping $750,000 for the play. There was some kind of poetic justice in this, since playwright Garson Kanin admitted that the character of Harry Brock, the blustering tycoon with fascist overtones, was partly based on Cohn, whose reputation as a vulgarian and a tyrant exceeded even that of his fellow Hollywood moguls. Far from being bothered by the likeness, the shrewd Cohn may have been flattered, and he first sought to cast a major star, preferably Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney, in the role. Broderick Crawford got the part after winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for All the King’s Men (1949), which also earned Columbia its first Best Picture award since Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You (1938). Both films were based on Pulitzer Prize winners (Robert Penn Warren’s novel and Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s hit Broadway play, respectively), and they set the studio on a fruitful hunt for more literary gold.

Top of page: Born Yesterday; above: A Raisin in the Sun
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