"NO DUMB BLONDE"
by Glenn McMahon
What follows is a detailed biographical essay that I have written about Judy Holliday. It encompasses major events in her life and career, but it is by no means a complete portrait of this complex woman. For that, I recommend that you try to find copies of the two biographies that have been written about her. Check out the "Books" link on the navigation bar below for more information. Clicking on a name that is highlighted in red will take you to a picture of that person or subject.
Despite the fact that her life and career were cut tragically short, Judy Holliday still managed to leave her mark on several areas within the entertainment industry. She would rise to fame in the late 1940's and early 50's, playing a succession of "intellectually challenged" women. In reality though, her I.Q. was tested to be a remarkable 172, well within the range that is considered to be genius level. The dumb blonde character was already a Hollywood cliché by the time Judy happened upon it. But, it was Judy who transformed them from arm pieces to centerpieces. She took these 2-dimensional stock characters and through her poise, charm and attention to detail, she added a third dimension to them...a more human dimension. With just a look or the slightest inflection in her voice, she could evoke a sense of pathos that only the truly great comedians, like Charlie Chaplin could. Perhaps she was too good at playing dumb blondes, because Hollywood's power elite were very reluctant to let her show just how good an actress she really was. The victim of type-casting, blacklisting and ultimately cancer, Judy Holliday's legacy of work only hints at what she could have achieved in time. Her potential was limitless...unfortunately, her opportunities were not.
The Curtain Rises
According to her birth certificate, Judy Holliday was born Judith Tuvim in New York City, New York on June 21, 1921. Her parents, Abe and Helen, separated when she was just six years old. Following the separation, Helen suffered fits of depression
and ultimately a breakdown. Unsettling childhood events like these, coupled with a great deal self-consciousness and self-doubt would be the catalysts for Judy's future weight problems and her own bouts with depression. As Judy matured, she began to set her sights on a career in the theatre, not so much acting, but writing and directing. In January of 1938, Judy took her first entertainment-related job. She accepted the position of assistant switchboard operator at the fashionable repertory theatre being headed up by showbiz wunderkind Orson Welles. Though her job at The Mercury Theatre was not very fulfilling, it did pay a much needed $15 a week and led to an important friendship with Welles' business partner, John Houseman. It was around this same time, that Judy joined a cabaret act with Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Alvin Hammer and John Frank. The group would come to be known as The Revuers.
Fun With The Revuers
The Revuers got their start playing in a Greenwich Village nightclub called The Village Vanguard. Their material was mostly original, a collaborative effort amongst all five members. Over the course of a few months, they built up a small, loyal following and graduated to playing some of the more popular New York supper clubs. This led to even more high-profile appearances including a regular half-hour radio program on NBC called Fun With The Revuers which ran for 9 months. They also enjoyed an extended engagement at Radio City Music Hall. Things began to go south for them, when the group signed on as part of an ill-fated musical revue called My Dear Public. It played a few tryout performances "out of town", but closed before reaching Broadway. Soon after this, John Frank's excessive drinking became a problem for the group. An agreement was reached whereby Frank agreed to leave The Revuers, but he would retain a financial interest the group. The four remaining members of the group felt they had taken the nightclub act as far as they could. If they were going to stay together, they needed to try their hand at something new...motion pictures. In late 1943, they had made an oral agreement to appear in a film version of the radio series Duffy's Tavern, so The Revuers packed their bags and headed for Hollywood.
All That Glitters Is Not Gold
Upon arriving in California, the group was greeted with a harsh reality of the movie business. The film that they had been promised work in had since been cancelled. To make ends meet they were forced to take nightclub bookings, hoping the exposure would lead to discovery and subsequent movie stardom. Ever since Judy began performing with The Revuers, she was singled out from the group and courted by agents. The problem was, that they were only interested in her and not the rest of the group. Because Judy was so intensely loyal to the other members of the group (as she was toward all her friends), she declined all of the offers that came her way. When The Revuers reached Hollywood, they found the movie business to be no different. True to form, Twentieth Century-Fox made Judy several offers, but since they were not interested in Comden, Green or Hammer, she refused. Eventually though, a deal was struck whereby the group as a whole would be cast in one picture, but only Judy would be signed the studio's standard 7-year contract. In essence, the contract was only guaranteed for 1 year, but had six more 1-year options that could be invoked by the studio. As for the rest of The Revuers, they would be at the mercy of the studio because they were not guaranteed any work beyond the first film. If the studio executives liked what they saw, there was a chance Comden, Green and Hammer could get long-term deals as well. The Revuers were immediately cast in the film Greenwich Village, which starred Vivian Blaine, Don Ameche and Carmen Miranda. They were given two scenes in which they could perform skits from their nightclub act, as well as some background work as extras. They were crestfallen when they found out that their "big" scenes had been cut out of the film and all that really remained was their work as extras. Fox still had Judy under contract, but chose not to sign Comden, Green and Hammer. Thus, the group was split up and The Revuers came to an unceremonious end. Judy's next part would be only a slight improvement over her last. Fox put her to work with a very small role as a defense plant welder in Something For The Boys. The role was not exactly taxing though. It only required her to say one line of dialogue. Judy's third Fox film cast her in a supporting role in Winged Victory. This film would be significant for two reasons. First, it offered Judy her first real chance to act on screen, as opposed to just filling space on it. Secondly, the director of the film was George Cukor, with whom she developed a very beneficial working relationship. In December of 1944, Fox informed Judy that they would not be renewing her contract. Dejected that her movie career had failed, but delighted to be going back home to New York, Judy wasted little time packing her bags.
In the ensuing months since the demise of The Revuers, Adolph Green and Betty Comden had reunited and were in the process of writing what would become the first of many theatrical hits, a musical called On The Town. It was through them, that Judy met acclaimed theatre director Herman Shumlin, who cast her in his 1945 play called Kiss Them For Me. Judy played the part of "Alice," a dumb blonde who provides "comfort" to Navy pilots on shore leave. Critics and audiences alike instantly fell in love with her. For her efforts, Judy was awarded the Clarence Derwent Award for giving the best non-featured performance of that season. Aside from her stand out performance, the play received only mixed reviews and closed after 14 weeks. Nevertheless, Judy Holliday had tasted success and many people had taken notice of her burgeoning talent.
A Star Is Born
In 1946, the gossip pages were filled with rumors about a troubled play called Born Yesterday. The trouble seemed to stem from its tempermental star, Jean Arthur. Unhappy with script and her role, she requested to be replaced. The show's producer, Max Gordon, was able to get her to rescind the request, but she would drop out just days later suffering from nervous exhaustion. With Arthur's abrupt departure the show seemed destined to close. The play's author and director, Garson Kanin, offered the lead role to six actresses, but all refused. Acting on a recommendation from the show's wardrobe designer, Kanin traveled to New York and met with Judy Holliday. Kanin sold a hesitant Max Gordon on the idea and Judy was rushed in as a last minute replacement. The play was scheduled to begin a tryout run in Philadelphia in just four days. She worked around the clock to the point of total mental and physical exhaustion to learn the part of "Billie Dawn" from top to bottom. Billie is an ex-chorus girl and kept woman of brash junkyard tycoon, Harry Brock (played by Paul Douglas). Brock brings Billie along on a business trip to Washington, where he hopes to bribe a congressman into helping him with an international swindle. When Billie's lack of education jeopardizes his deal, he hires reporter "Paul Verrall" (played by
Gary Merrill), to be her personal tutor. What ensues is a Pygmalion-like transformation from dumb blonde to cultured woman. By the time the curtain came down in Philadelphia, Judy had everyone convinced that this relative
newcomer, appearing in her first major role, had "star" written all over her. Born Yesterday had its long awaited Broadway premiere at the Lyceum Theatre on February 4, 1946. It would be the breakthrough role that she had been waiting for. Darling of the critics, adored by the theatre-going public, Judy would ride the wave of the show's success for nearly four years. Busy as she was with the show, Judy did manage to find the time to marry a clarinetist from the New York Symphony Orchestra, David Oppenheim. The ceremony took place in the home of Judy's mother, Helen, on January 4, 1948. With her career soaring and her personal life beginning an exciting new chapter, Judy was on top of the world. Without a doubt this period would go down as one of the happiest of her life. The play's long run of success drew attention from the major Hollywood studios and a protracted bidding war over movie rights to the play ensued. Columbia Pictures emerged from the bidding wars victorious, shelling out a record-breaking 1 million dollars to acquire the coveted property. They now had a proven hit they could attach their logo to. When it came time to cast the film version, Judy seemed to be the obvious (if not the only) choice to play Billie Dawn. However, gossip reports linked the names of several prominent film actresses to the role. 35 actresses were either seriously considered or screen-tested. Known to be among the would-be Billies are: Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, Marie Wilson, Jean Hagen, Jan Sterling, Cara Williams, Marie MacDonald, Gloria Grahame, Barbara Hale, Celeste Holm, Evelyn Keyes, Alice Faye, Barbara Stanwyck and June Havoc. Astonishingly, Judy's name was omitted from the list of contenders. Columbia boss, Harry Cohn, was not interested in seeing Judy reprise her role. He claimed that she was "alright" for the stage, but that she lacked the screen presence and sex appeal he felt was needed for the film.
An Elaborate Screen Test
It seemed that Harry Cohn was just about the only person in Hollywood who couldn't picture Judy in the role, but a plan was in the works to change that. Director George Cukor had already been signed to direct Born Yesterday, but first he was scheduled to direct Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the MGM film Adam's Rib. With the help of the two stars and writers Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, they built up a supporting part in the film just for Judy. This role was to serve as an elaborate screen test, a test that MGM rival Cohn could not ignore. With a little coaxing from the star couple, Judy accepted the supporting role of "Doris Attinger" in the film. Doris is a New York housewife who is put on trial for shooting her philandering husband (played by Tom Ewell). As the film's production continued, the press was being spoon-fed reports about Judy's incredible performance and her ability to hold her own with big screen heavyweights like Hepburn and Tracy. Before Adam's Rib was even completed, Harry Cohn acquiesced and announced that Judy Holliday would play Billie Dawn in the film version of Born Yesterday.
It's Yesterday, Once More
As it turned out, Judy would be the only cast member from the stage version to reprise her role. For "Harry Brock", Cohn chose Broderick Crawford, who had won an Oscar the previous year for All The King's Men. William Holden drew the romantic lead assignment, playing reporter "Paul Verrall." The film was rushed out into release just in time to qualify for the 1950 Academy Awards. Judy was nominated for Best Actress, but figured to be a dark horse at best because her fellow nominees included Bette Davis for All About Eve and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard. Judy, Gloria Swanson, José Ferrer and Celeste Holm were unable to be in California for the awards ceremony, so a live radio hookup was set up between New York and California. Judy wept tears of joy as her name was announced as the Best Actress of 1950. It was a stunning upset that left Judy euphoric and Miss Swanson crushed. Just as the stage version of Born Yesterday had elevated her career to a new level, the film version now catapulted her into the limelight. Judy Holliday was now the talk of the movie industry, a star that had just begun to shine. But the warmth of the spotlights that were shining down upon Hollywood's latest "overnight sensation" would soon turn into a heated glare of accusation and contempt.
A Red Menace?
Once Judy Holliday became a household name, she also became the prey of a paranoid vanguard of political "patriots" conducting witch hunts for Communists. The allegations that Judy was a Communist, or perhaps pro-Communist in her views, were not new. In fact, they began surfacing as early as 1947, while still performing Born Yesterday on Broadway. Her name and a list of alleged wrong-doings appeared in an anti-Communist booklet entitled Red Channels. It purported itself to be a list of 151 people working in radio and television, whose political history suggested that they might be sympathetic to communism. At the time, this booklet seemed rather innocuous and was dismissed by most as just fringe-element sensationalism. But, as the anti-communism movement began to snowball, the innocuous quickly mushroomed into the ominous. By the early 1950's, Red Channels had become accepted as the prime resource guide to consult when it came time hire members of the entertainment industry. Every movie studio, radio network, television network and advertising agency were supplied with copies. If your name appeared in Red Channels or similar publications, you would likely be denied employment. This was the infamous practice of blacklisting. There were two separate blacklists operating at this time. The Hollywood blacklist was imposed by the heads of the movie studios as a form of self-regulation. Fearful of the Government's power to curtail or cripple the money-making empire that the movie moguls had built, they turned on their own, firing and banning any known or suspected Communists. The radio & television blacklist was imposed by the broadcast networks and, to a greater extent, the advertising agencies whose clients sponsored the programs. The agencies feared that there would be a consumer backlash against their clients if people who were under suspicion of being Communists appeared on one of their client's programs. The ad agencies in turn pressured network executives to not hire anyone listed in Red Channels by threatening to pull their sponsorship of the show. The two blacklists did not necessarily contain the same names. In some instances, people blacklisted in Hollywood found work on television and vice versa. It depended on the individual, the level of suspicion and the executives in charge. The Red Channels entry for Judy stated that she had lent her name or given money to questionable organizations. The report alleged that these organizations were actually fronts for Communist activity. Based on this report, the FBI began investigating Judy and she was eventually subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, headed up by Utah Senator Arthur Watkins. In Washington, D.C. on March 26, 1952, a nervous Judy Holliday appeared before the committee knowing full well that the fate which had already befallen some of her peers could happen to her with one wrong answer. During the course of the closed-door session, she stated that "yes," she had indeed made charitable donations or allowed the use of her name for some of these organizations, but that she did not know at the time that they were allegedly Communist-backed fronts. Futhermore, Judy revealed that her name had frequently been used without her knowledge or consent. She emphatically denied that she was now, or had ever been, a Communist. She did however grant the fact that she was "guilty" of not checking into these organizations thoroughly before lending her name or financial support to what seemed to be a worthy cause. The Chairman was not above threatening her with inferences that the committee had the power to ruin her career. They pressured her repeatedly to name names, but their demands failed reap a single name. Satisfied with the explanations of her activities (and having no real evidence), Judy was dismissed. Six months later, when her testimony was released to the public, it became apparent that Judy used her dumb blonde image to her advantage, skirting a couple of questions where she could have implicated others and subtly mocking the outlandish proceedings in a Billie Dawn-like manner.
[NOTE: The following questions have been paraphrased for clarity. The answers are direct quotes. You can read the complete transcript of her testimony here.]
Question: Are you sure Betty Comden and Adolph Green do not have Communist records?
Answer: "I am as sure of that as I can be of anybody who isn't me."
Question: What about the Communist-front records Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein?
Answer: "I am sure that they got into it the same way I did, because I am sure none of them are Communists. I mean if you are a Communist, why go to a Communist-front? Why not be a Communist? Whatever you are, be it."
Question: Did any of your friends ask you to have that photo taken with the strikers?
Answer: "They must have because I wouldn't wander off over to strikers and ask to have my picture taken."
Her "performance" at the hearing only served to raise the ire of her detractors even more. Even though she was essentially cleared of all wrong-doing, the stigma of the scandal kept her name on the television blacklist. Judy worked very little in the 2 years following her Oscar-winning performance. Thanks to Harry Cohn's faith in her as a person and as a profit-making entity, she still had her contract with Columbia Pictures, but the doors of the television networks were closed to her. At one time, NBC was extremely interested in offering Judy her own weekly television series, but when the Red Channels report surfaced, they withdrew the offer. The opportunity to do a show like that could have cemented her popularity with public, much in the same way that Lucille Ball is so fondly remembered today. Unfortunately, we will never know. She also lost numerous radio appearances. Any chance to cash in on her Oscar victory with product endorsements were also dashed. Certainly other entertainment figures, like the Hollywood Ten, suffered much more extreme consequences of the blacklist than Judy did, but it nevertheless made a significant and damaging impact on the trajectory of what looked like a tremendously promising career. Judy did have one theatre project during this period. In 1951, the New York City Center's repertory company gave Judy her choice of projects, if she would agree to perform for 2 weeks. She chose Dream Girl, a play written by Elmer Rice and directed by Morton Da Costa. It was only a moderate critical success, but an important creative choice for Judy. It afforded her the chance to break out of the now all too confining Billie Dawn character and step into the skin of a character totally unlike anyone she had ever portrayed before. The one cloud that lingered over her, were the persistent contingent of picketers who seemed to follow her around from place to place, like a unfriendly shadow. But the blacklist, the picketers and even death threats could not deter Judy from her desire to move forward with both her life and career.
Click here to read part 2 of "No Dumb Blonde"
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