“Born Yesterday” years out of date

TCM, the Turner Classic Movie channel, offers a steady stream of yesterday’s movies. Sometimes it offers a classic that provides more than nostalgia, with a window into the past that contrasts sharply with the present. "Born Yesterday (1950)," a popular comedy about both the virtues and the dangers of a little learning, ran this week, and made me lament the passing of the sort of education that can no longer be taken from granted. All I knew as a seven-year-old, besides the fact that bright theatre marquees displayed the movie’s title and stars in vivid letters, was that a beautiful but dumb woman, Emma "Billie" Dawn (played by Judy Holliday) was getting a lot of laughs for the ignorant, if not stupid things she consistently said. I heard something about the story being somewhat more complicated than that, but that’s about as far as my comprehension went. Now I know–and know of–many people who have been formally educated far beyond what Billie learned but possess far less understanding than she acquired.

Emma is the seven-year girl friend of Harry Brock (played by Broderick Crawford), a millionaire tycoon who thinks and acts more like a hoodlum than a businessman. (Unfortunately, this is the perennial Hollywood caricature of people in other businesses, or is it a self portrait?) He wants to get some results for his congressional bribes, so he must make the Washington D.C. scene. Unfortunately, he is burdened by a woman lacking in the social graces and incredibly ignorant, or so he thinks. In due course, he comes into contact with a polished journalist named Paul Verrall (played by William Holden) who, it occurs to Brock, can educate his "dumb broad" and not embarrass him around all the important people he must meet and/or win over. His scheme is to get a bill passed that, in ways that are not particularly clear, give him the edge over his domestic and foreign competitors in the junk business.

In any case, Brock thinks he is pretty smart to hit upon this idea, but events, to put it mildly, take a different turn. Billie, who goes blank when her tutor makes a reference to the Supreme Court, soon gets a pretty thorough tour of the nation’s capital and picks up a dizzying vocabulary along with a lot of pertinent information. Her life is transformed, not only by the accumulation of books, most notably a huge dictionary, but by her attraction to the polished, polite and attentive Paul, with whom she quickly falls in love. But as inevitable and even just as their pairing is, it is overshadowed by the education she receives in the nation’s founding (with a qualification to be explained below).

Billie visits the capitol building and becomes acquainted with the immortals commemorated there. She also goes to art museums, attends concerts and browses through multiple historic sites, but the most impressive turns out to be the Jefferson Memorial. There she finds written the third President’s powerful words: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Billie’s first gaze is mostly blank, but after she comes to know, through her education, that the man she’s been living with (and living comfortably) for so long is not merely annoying or difficult to deal with or understand, but is in fact a tyrant, Jefferson’s words take on considerably more meaning.

Of course, that is a lesson for us all, for tyrants are not merely ghastly men who rule countries outside our borders, but rise up among us, but restrained, for the most part, by laws, institutions and public opinion, and especially by the United States Constitution. Harry reasons with or otherwise deals politely with other people so long as they tell him or give him what he wants but flies into a rage at the slightest sign of disagreement or difficulty. Because Billie has (supposedly) read the works of Thomas Paine (but not of Abraham Lincoln), she has a pretty good idea of what a tyrant is, and her man fills the bill.

After years of complaisantly signing documents as if she were his wife, Billie decides she wants to read what they say. Harry’s shrewd advisor, Jim Devery (played by Howard St. John), pleads with Billie to sign but is unable to prevent the explosion that occurs when his boss finds out that the complaisance might be over. True to form, Harry beats Billie until she signs, although it is no surprise that she forms the intention then and there to leave him and never to sign onto any more of his opaque dealings.

When Billie finally resolves to bail out altogether, Harry can’t make up his mind whether he likes the idea or not, although it seems clear enough that he loves her, albeit in his own way, and would rather she stayed. But she is too educated for him now, for we learn as the movie progresses that Harry’s smarts are more often not pure bluster, which fools only those who are as ignorant as he is. The wise Paul hits upon a plan to thwart Harry once and for all.

"Born Yesterday," based on a Broadway play of the same name which opened in 1945, oversimplifies education, to be sure, in its own version of the Pygmalion story. (Compare "Never on Sunday" and "My Fair Lady.") But at least it is wholesome in holding out the prospect that an educated person can appreciate the virtues of our democratic form of government and the men who designed and implemented it. Yet not long after this, our university professors began to teach the opposite lesson, namely, that democracy is a sham and a delusion that enables the Harry Brocks of this world to rule in their own interest at the expense of a multitude of oppressed classes that run from the poor, to racial minorities, to women, to children, to homosexuals and lesbians, foreigners, and all of the "other" ad infinitum.

Education is no longer a source of hope and renewal but of cynicism and despair. Imagine if "Born Yesterday" had been produced with the assumptions of the professorial elite in our time. Billie would have learned that the problem is not Harry Brock so much as the United States of America. Rather than celebrating our form of government, the "educated" person concludes that it is rotten to the core and ought to be "transformed" into something entirely different.

There is a link, only somewhat tenuous, between Hollywood’s political thinking of 1945 and 2009. The enemy is fascism, then and now. There is no "enemy to the Left." Harry is labeled a fascist, not a communist, at least partly justified since the United States and its allies recently prevailed over the fascist dictators in Germany, Italy and Japan with the aid of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (never mind its complicity in starting the war). The evil of Josef Stalin and his totalitarian regime was not apparent to many, even if it should have been. In the glow of victory, this is an excusable error.

Too, liberals had convinced themselves, by virtue of their devotion to democracy, that they were the progeny of the founding fathers, also democrats. A clue to the film’s partisanship is in the very reliance on Thomas Jefferson who, unlike Lincoln, is remembered at the Democratic Party’s annual dinners. The Republicans completed the Lincoln Memorial in the 1920s and the Democrats countered with the Jefferson Memorial in the 1930s. Surely both will do for educating about tyrants, but the film’s choice of Jefferson puts it firmly in the Democratic camp.

Our problem today is that it is not so clear that liberals are as firmly in the democratic camp as they were at the close of the Second World War. Between leftist professors teaching students to scorn their country, their civilization and their religion, and Democrat politicians scoffing at any distinction between democratic and undemocratic regimes abroad, public opinion is being dumbed down at least as much as Billie was, if not more so. For if Billie did not appreciate her country’s virtues, at least she did not despise them. On the other hand, those "educated" people who openly malign the freest country on earth might just as well have been born yesterday.