THE SOLID GOLD CADILLAC
Director: Richard Quine
Cast: Judy Holliday, Paul Douglas, Fred Clark, John Williams, Ray Collins
(Columbia, 1952) Rated: Not Rated
DVD release date: 28 October 2003
by David Sanjek
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Smarter Than the Average Blonde
The figure of the “dumb blonde” has a considerable track record in the movies. From Jean Harlow and Jayne Mansfield to Reese Witherspoon, the image seems superficially ditzy, only to reveal a formidable intellect when circumstances require. Those characters who underestimate her resources come to regret their error. The films featuring the type simultaneously kowtow to and critique our preconceptions about gender, such that physical appearance is shown to be a determining factor in life, yet not to the extent that critical savvy can be ignored.
One of the most successful, if short-lived, exemplars of this archetype was Judy Holliday (1922-1965). She began her career in Greenwich Village as a member of the cabaret act “The Revuers,” which included the screenwriters and musical comedy virtuosi Adolph and Betty Green. Holliday’s fame was achieved through the role of Billie Dawn, the girlfriend of a gangster who falls for a bespectacled teacher, in Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon’s 1948 Broadway hit, Born Yesterday. Subsequently, director George Cukor, Kanin, and Gordon gave Holliday a small but important role in their Hepburn and Tracy vehicle, Adam’s Rib (1949), in order to convince Hollywood to let her star in the adaptation of her theatrical breakthrough. She virtually stole the picture from her illustrious co-stars, and won the coveted role of Billie Dawn in the process. This lead to her receiving the Best Actress Oscar for Born Yesterday in 1950, beating out Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
Sadly, Holliday’s career did not have the longevity of her rivals, as she died from cancer in her mid-40s. Her comic skills were one of the highlights of the 1950s though, even if she made just a handful of films. As much as anything, it is Holliday’s voice that continues to captivate. She treated it like an instrument, and it ranged from a sexy warble to a full-throated screech when under duress. Holliday also had a purported 172 IQ, which led her astutely to play up her Billie Dove side when she was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Asked if she was a Communist or knew any, Holliday “played dumb” and evaded censure. Hollywood did not, however, allow her to display the full range of her talent and intelligence; most of her roles were variants of the “dumb blonde.”
The Solid Gold Cadillac falls into this category. Holliday plays Laura Partridge, an actress who received 10 shares of stock from a deceased neighbor in International Projects Limited, a corporation run by a trio of shady characters (John Williams, Fred Clark, and Ray Collins). She attends an IPL board meeting and calls attention to their misuse of corporate privilege through excessive salaries and steamrolling of small investors in voting procedures. In the process, she catches the eye of the firm’s outgoing founder, Edward L. McKeever (Paul Douglas), who is leaving for government service in military procurement.
Eager to quell her criticisms, the executive miscreants put Laura in charge of her fellow small stockholders. Taking the bogus position seriously, she communicates with the company’s clients while her employers ransack the assets. To make a bigger profit (and get Laura out of their hair), they send her to Washington to win over McKeever, and through him, a government contract. Even though she is unable to sway McKeever, the conniving board paints her as having engaged in illegal activities by engaging in insider lobbying. McKeever comes to her aid, while Laura’s canny skill at enlisting the loyalty of her fellow investors leads to a happy conclusion.
Adapted from George S. Kaufman and Howard Teichmann’s stage play, the script amounts to a tepid burlesque of corporate chicanery. The Frank Capra-like plotting, in which the seemingly under-endowed heroine bests her economic superiors, seems a bit too familiar and gains what effectiveness it possesses by Holliday’s comedic skill. She has an able foil in Douglas, who starred with her in the stage version of Born Yesterday. Stout and blustery, he also revealed the vulnerable side of his brusque characters. One of the highlights of this film is when McKeever informs Laura of his theatrical ambitions, demonstrating with a comically overwrought recitation of a monologue by Spartacus.
Cukor’s The Marrying Kind, Holliday’s follow-up to Born yesterday, granted her a broader palette. Florence Keefer (Holliday) is married to postal worker Chet (Aldo Ray), and they struggle with the typical difficulties of a moderate income. The narrative is told retrospectively, beginning in the divorce court where Florence and Chet recapitulate their lives to a sympathetic judge. Kanin and Gordon’s script weaves together the routine scraps, sacrifices, and successes of marriage, yet the plot never feels timeworn.
The characters also lack the sanctimoniousness with which Hollywood frequently pigeonholes working people. The script allows them to be both endearing and irritating, pressed by mundane necessities as well as committed to imaginative schemes that might allow them to rise above their social station. While the acrimonious tone of the discussions with the judge underscores their mutual dissatisfaction with the hand fate has dealt, Florence and Chet offer a convincing defense of the rewards of matrimony. Telling their story reinforces to them that their bonds are stronger than their petty disputes.
Holliday and Ray give splendid performances. In his later years, he was typecast as a kind of thick-necked thug, but here, he demonstrates a leading man’s charisma. Holliday here exhibits a wide range of emotions, for Florence can be alternately self-sacrificing and smug. Her occasionally compulsive attention to the family’s well being contrasts dramatically with Chet’s wild-eyed schemes for getting ahead. The film is premised on such contrasts, veering between moods, from outright slapstick to fantasy to domestic tragedy. In the midst of this commotion, as in her other work, Holliday never lets Florence’s dimness outshine her humanity.