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It Should Happen to You

by Peter Bogdanovich
June 22, 2011 10:41 AM
6 Comments
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With the meaning of celebrity becoming ever more ambiguous, and Andy Warhol’s notorious prediction coming true that eventually everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes, the touching and delightful 1954 George Cukor-Garson Kanin-Judy Holliday-Jack Lemmon satirical New York comedy about fame, It Should Happen to You (available on DVD), seems now not only still most relevant but also downright prescient. Kanin, who wrote the original screenplay, initially called the picture (far more appropriately) A Name for Herself, but the studio thought it could do better and didn’t. (Columbia was the studio, which had become a major because of It Happened One Night, so maybe they figured there was magic in the words “it” and “happen”; they would later make It Happened to Jane.) Jack Lemmon, whose beguiling debut in pictures this was, always blamed the movie’s lackluster box office on its meaninglessly general title.

The plot is that a slightly askew young woman known as Gladys Glover—-beautifully incarnated by the wondrous Judy Holliday—-wants to make “a name for herself” so she buys a huge billboard at the old (pre-Coliseum, pre-Time Warner) Columbus Circle and has her name printed on it in gigantic letters: “Gladys Glover,” and that’s all. This loony idea, which her would-be boyfriend—-a young, idealistic documentary filmmaker played with heartwarming innocence by Lemmon—-thinks is awful, WORKS! People want to find out who Gladys Glover is, and pretty soon she’s famous as “the woman who put her name on a sign at Columbus Circle.” Among the hazards of notoriety that come her way is an ace lothario businessman, perfectly cast with Peter Lawford in probably his best performance. Eventually, Gladys comes to understand that fame by itself without real achievement (and sometimes even with it) is hollow, meaningless: a message for the 21st century!

Although Judy Holliday, the most original screen comedienne since Carole Lombard, was to make only four other films before her tragic death from cancer in 1965 at age 43, It Should Happen to You was the last thoroughly satisfying one. Her swan’s song, the Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Jule Styne musical Bells Are Ringing (1960), directed by Vincente Minnelli, was likeable and remains fun, but she and the show were far better when I saw them on Broadway, there being a strain to parts of the movie, which there never is with It Should Happen to You. Nor, indeed, with any of the other three comedy classics she did with director George Cukor, each written by Garson Kanin—-two co-written with his brilliant wife, Ruth Gordon: Adam’s Rib (1949), in which Judy almost stole the picture from Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy; Born Yesterday (1950), the movie version of her break-out stage success as Billie Dawn which won her the Oscar for best actress over Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.; and the little-known gem The Marrying Kind (1952), an often dramatic, deeply human look at a working-class marriage, introducing Aldo Ray in a superbly artless performance. The chemistry between him and Holliday is as affecting as the sparkle between her and Lemmon in It Should Happen to You, in which the complex charm emanating from them throughout—-and especially in their lovely improvisational scene singing at a piano—-is rare and memorable.

But then Cukor’s dazzling success with newcomers (like Holliday, Lemmon, Katharine Hepburn, Angela Lansbury, etc.) is as continually impressive as his control over stars (like Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, John Barrymore, Ronald Colman, Jean Harlow, etc.), and has resulted in an amazing number of films that hold up to the old test of time far better than many more “cinematically” flamboyant jobs. Though often damned with appellations like “woman’s director” or “studio man,” Cukor had remarkable versatility: There is little more evocative work on real Manhattan locations than that found in the Cukor-Holliday comedies—-especially those lovely Central Park sequences in It Should Happen to You which now bring a sharp clutch of nostalgia for much simpler days from the middle of the 20th century.

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6 Comments

  • Casey Maddren | June 27, 2011 9:59 AMReply

    I'd also like to put in a good word for Full of Life. I'm really not familar with Quine's other films, but this one is a lovely, understated piece of work. He does an excellent job with Fante's screenplay, and also handles the actors very well.

  • Chris Barry | June 25, 2011 2:46 AMReply

    Watching BORN YESTERDAY resulted in my having a serious crush on Judy Holliday...

  • Batur Güney | June 23, 2011 7:21 AMReply

    I watched this wonderful film years ago and just reading the name "Gladys Glover" instantly brought a smile on my face right now. What a lovely movie it was; they surely do not make 'em like this anymore. So sad that Judy Holiday's career was cut so short. Jack Lemmon during his Columbia days is an absolute favourite of mine. Actually all the films he made together with Richard Quine shine! A particular favourite for me is Bell, Book and Candle. I agree that Quine's career definitely needs a thorough reevaluation. He had such a light comedic touch missing in most of today's comedic fare.

  • cb | June 23, 2011 7:01 AMReply

    Garson Kanin was a real musician, and he and Cukor
    beautifully used Jack Lemmon's (and Judy H's) musical talents in "It should Happen to You" . The piano scene is one of the sexiest love scenes in American moviedom--along with a scene from a film GK wrote the story for, but never got the credit--the stoop scene from "The More the Merrier". Sigh.

  • Blake Lucas | June 23, 2011 2:02 AMReply

    I never knew it did poorly at the box office, assumed otherwise despite the lacklustre title, simply because Jack Lemmon's career deservedly took off and he was a star right away. This is one of my favorite Cukor movies and I too especially love the piano playing/singing scene of "Let's Fall in Love." Cukor is indeed supple and fluent in his mise en scene--by this point in his career one never thinks of him as theatrical and perhaps it wasn't ever fair to create that cliche about him, nor is he a "woman's director" when the roles and performances of men in his movies are every bit as good as those women.

    A good example of how much Cukor thinks in terms of cinema--staging, editing, shot duration, sound as well as the script and the actors--occurs during the dramatic turn in THE MARRYING KIND which effectively changes the film from comedy to drama (in the end it is both and that is its richness). I guess I want to say I wrote about this in an entry for DEFINING MOMENTS IN MOVIES because I studied it and analyzed it closely and it's quite brilliantly thought out by Cukor and is quite evident how his mastery so beautifully brought the inspiration of the Gordon/Kanin script to greatness. A director's successful negotiation of changes of tone in a movie is for me perhaps the most impressive quality they can have--it marks people like Ford and Renoir after all. It takes something special.

    This is my favorite period of Cukor's career overall--it's so abundant with great films. But honestly, the one I don't like much is BORN YESTERDAY--for me it doesn't have the same cinematic flow and I would have liked the original actor from the stage Paul Douglas in Broderick Crawford's role because I believe it would have made it more complex.

    Overall, though I always love Judy Holliday and will acknowledge that I like both Richard Quine movies better than you do. THE SOLID GOLD CADILLAC is charming, and FULL OF LIFE, which I didn't warm up to initially, is a film that has grown on me over the years. Quine has a warm, natural touch most of the time, and in several genres, and I believe he is now underrated.

    I won't argue BELLS ARE RINGING here--and will admit readily I never saw it on the stage--except to say that seeing it just as itself, that movie is magical and precious to me and has been for over 50 years.

  • Doug Krentzlin | June 23, 2011 2:01 AMReply

    Once again, gotta disagree with you, Peter. When I was growing up, me and my friends were big Judy Holliday fans and we always felt that THE SOLID GOLD CADILLAC was her most consistently entertaining film and that THE MARRYING KIND was a serious dog. (Once, when me and my friend Steve were watching THE MARRYING KIND in my basement, my mother called downstairs, "What are you watching?" I said, "Judy Holliday's worst movie!" My mother responded, "Oh, THE MARRYING KIND.") Now, I know you probably don't even consider THE SOLID GOLD CADILLAC to be a GOOD film because the director, Richard Quine, wasn't an "auteur," but most of us movie buffs gave up on the auteur theory decades ago.

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