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.