Wealthy, crooked junk dealer Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) arrives in Washington, D.C. with his brassy mistress, former Brooklyn showgirl Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday), and checks into a lavish hotel suite. Although he himself is crude and pushy, Billie's unrefined behavior embarrasses Harry during a meeting with Congressman Norval Hedges (Larry Oliver) and his wife (Barbara Brown), and although he does love her, he considers breaking off their relationship until his lawyer, the alcoholic Jim Devery (Howard St. John), reminds him that for tax purposes, he put his business holdings in Billie's name.

Jim suggests that Harry hire someone to smooth Billie's rough edges and then marry her, because a wife cannot testify against her husband. Harry offers the job to reporter Paul Verrall (William Holden), who earlier attempted to interview him. Paul readily accepts, both because he is attracted to Billie and because he hopes to discover something about Harry's operations.

Later, Paul delivers some books to Billie, instructing her to circle everything that she does not understand and look up the words in the dictionary. The following day, Paul takes Billie on a tour of the capital. Billie is excited by her lessons in U.S. history, and her simple, honest enthusiasm impresses Paul. Paul's advice helps Billie to reconcile with her father, who does not approve of her relationship with Harry.

Paul's disdain for Harry causes Billie to raise questions about Harry's business dealings. One day, after eavesdropping on Harry's conversation with Jim and Hedges, Billie, who with Paul's encouragement has started to express herself, asks Hedges why he puts up with Harry's bullying and points out that Harry was never elected to a position of power. Then, when Jim asks Billie to sign some papers, she refuses to do so without first reading them. This so angers Harry that he hits her, and a hysterical Billie leaves the apartment. She contacts Paul, and the following day, believing Harry to be out, the two of them search Harry's room for the papers. Harry is home waiting, however, and while Billie distracts him, Paul takes the papers.

Later, Harry proposes to Billie, who turns him down, explaining that she is leaving him in search of a different life. When Billie reveals that Paul has taken Harry's papers and plans to expose his nefarious dealings, Harry offers Paul money to return them. Paul is uninterested, however, and Billie offers to sign back one company a year to Harry as long as he behaves himself.

Oscar
5 Nominations
1 Award
Best Actress

Golden Globes
4 Nominations
1 Award
Best Actress
Watching “Born Yesterday” is a crash course in itself--an object lesson in how low American screen comedy has fallen from these delirious heights. The movie's funny even when there's a pause in the golden dialogue, such as when Holliday tests Crawford's patience in a sublimely comedic round of gin rummy. There's not a single scene in which Holliday isn't simply perfect, the cogs turning smoothly behind her dim expressions and coarsely high-pitched squeal. Suave as ever, Holden is her match made in heaven, and Crawford is a brute who's too stupid to be genuinely malevolent.

Garson Kanin wrote the play (and co-wrote the screenplay with Ruth Gordon) for Jean Arthur, who dropped out right before opening night. Judy Holliday learned the role in 3 days, and played it on Broadway for 4 years, opposite Paul Douglas. In the play, Harry, the millionaire junk dealer, was a more sympathetic character, and the young reporter was a bit of a stuffed shirt. Broderick Crawford specialized in boorish characters, and was cast in the film because he had won an Oscar the year before for “All the King's Men”. He is not much of a romantic rival for William Holden's Paul Verrall.

Holden had been groomed for stardom much earlier, in 1939, after playing the title role in “Golden Boy”. He'd spent over a decade playing bland leading men, and after his WWII service, he restarted his career. Holden's cynical outlook and slightly used pretty boy looks are shown to great advantage in this film, and even more memorably in “Sunset Boulevard” in the year 1950.

Holliday also had a false start in films. As a member of the comedy group, The Revuers, with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, she was hired to appear in a Carmen Miranda movie called “Greenwich Village”. The Revuers act was cut out of the film, but they can still be glimpsed as extras. One of their nightclub routines was a satire of the early days of talking pictures, which Comden and Green expanded into the brilliant musical “Singing in the Rain”. In the film, Jean Hagen closely modeled her performance of the screeching diva Lina Lamont on Holliday's performance in the nightclub skit.

Harry Cohn of Columbia paid $1 million for the play Born Yesterday intending to star his hottest property, Rita Hayworth, but was forced to shelve the project after her marriage to Aly Kahn. Cohn, a famously vulgar and abusive film mogul, did not want "that fat Jewish broad" in the part. Director George Cukor shrewdly showcased Holliday in a pivotal part in the Katharine Hepburn--Spencer Tracy film “Adam’s Rib” and he relented. Holliday was glamorized in classic Hollywood style, with 13 elaborate outfits by designer Jean Louis.

In 1952, she was called before the House on Un-American Activities Committee right after making this film. She mystified the questioners who accused her of Communist activities by answering in the voice and illogical logic of her “Born Yesterday” character, Billie Dawn. She wasn't officially blacklisted by the HUAC, but her refusal to cooperate cost her at least part of her career.

Holliday once said, "I love to cook and I love to eat what I've cooked. But when I was doing “Born Yesterday” for Columbia, I had to diet for months. I had to show up at the studio 2 hours before they started shooting. From 7-8, they worked on my hair. From 8-9, they worked on my face. And, they bleached me every other day."

Judy Holliday died of breast cancer in 1965 at the age of 43. Sadly, she only made 6 other films.