Garson Kanin

Feature | Born on Broadway

By Sarah Corridon

Garson Kanin’s comic masterpiece Born Yesterday endured one of the most celebrated runs on Broadway to date. It was an instant critical and commercial success with The Billboard newspaper reporting at the time: ‘_Born Yesterday_ looks to tenant the Lyceum as long as it wants to stay there.’

And ‘stay there’ it did. Opening in early 1946, the show ran for 1,642 performances, before the curtain closed for the final time four years later.

Kanin’s magnum opus has since received two major Broadway revivals and two film adaptations. Judy Holliday first played the loveable and determined character of Billie Dawn; a role which catapulted her from stage to silver screen soon after the original production closed. Holliday’s portrayal of Billie cemented her reputation as one of America’s favourite character actors and established her as a household name. Like the character she morphs into being, Kanin remembers Holliday as embodying a ‘tremendously rare combination of intellect and instinct … a girl of principle, and of deep social feeling.’

When George Cukor’s film version was released in 1950, also starring Holliday, most reviews applauded Kanin’s original vision, which critiqued the foundations of commonplace politics at Capitol Hill. Its social commentary and detailed intonations won the film six Academy Award nominations including an Oscar for Judy Holliday as best actress; a welcome reward after three years of portraying the character on stage.

The New York Times described the screen appearance as: ‘A priceless performance … [a] beautifully integrated compound of character study and farce.’

Born Yesterday was, for the most part, accepted as a comedy with a good dose of glamour to echo the era. However, Kanin’s portrayal of corruption in Congress was also considered brazen and scathing. His social critiques of the time landed both himself and lead star Holliday in hot water during Senator McCarthy’s Red Scare investigations.

The impetus for Kanin’s criticism of Washington DC was never made crystal clear, however his participation in WWII had an unquestionable impact. In 1941, Kanin’s directing career was gaining momentum at legendary Hollywood Studio RKO, until he was suddenly enlisted into the Army Signal Corps. He was then transferred to Washington DC and then to London, where he participated in the production of propaganda war films. It was during the bombing blitz over London in 1941, in a hotel room with his first wife (Broadway star Ruth Gordon) that Kanin penned his first draft of Born Yesterday.

Kanin went on to create many other great works, including three more Broadway plays – The Smile of the World, The Rat Race, and The Live Wire. In the decades that followed he wrote dozens of popular short stories and screenplays (some of which he co-wrote with his wife such as A Double Life), and six novels. However, his love for the theatre remained and he returned repeatedly to direct and produce plays he was passionate about. In 1964, Kanin would direct up-and-coming actor Barbra Streisand in her breakout role as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.

In 1985, Kanin wrote and directed his last play, Peccadillo, and was inducted into America’s Theatre Hall of Fame.

Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday plays at Southbank Theatre from 14 January.

Photo by Bernard Gotfry/Getty Images

Published on 11 January 2017

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