Born Yesterday (1950) is a film that can watch again and again. The basic plot is straightforward. Scrap metal dealer Harry Brock moves to Washington DC to set up a scrap metal cartel with the help of a crooked Congressman. His efforts are hampered by his girlfriend “Billie” (played by Judy Holliday) who proves an embarrassment to him as his attempts to ingratiate himself with polite society. Whilst trying to “make her less dumb” he employs an investigative journalist called Paul Varrall (William Holden) to teach her. Varrall sets about his task with gusto and pretty soon Billie’s eyes are opened to her situation and what her boyfriend is really trying to do.
The film is interesting from a linguistic point of view, as Billie sits down with complicated books and a dictionary:
[JH] …You know it’s interesting how many interesting things a person can learn – if they read.
[WH] I don’t suppose you got a chance to read my piece?
[JH] What are you talking…? Of course I read it – twice!
[WH] What’d you think?
[JH] I think it’s the best thing I ever read – I didn’t understand one word.
[WH] What didn’t you understand?
[JH] None of it.
[WH] Here, show me what.… Now what didn’t you understand.
[JH] Well, like the name of it? “The Yellowing Democratic Manifesto.”
[JH] To who – whom – who – well anyway, not to me!
[WH] Well look, you know what yellowing means?
[JH] Not this time.
[WH] Well, when a piece of paper gets old, what happens to it.
[JH] It’s thrown away?
[WH] No – it turns yellow!
[JH] It does!
[WH] Of course.
[JH] Well, what’d you know!
[WH] Now democratic – you know what that means don’t you?
[JH] Not Republican.
[WH] Well, not exactly. It just means pertaining to our form of government which is a democracy.
[JH] What’s pertaining?
[WH] …has to do with.
[JH] Pertaining – nice word!
[WH] Alright – ”Manifesto.”
[JH] I don’t know.
[WH] Why didn’t you look it up?
[JH] I did look it up – I still don’t know!
[WH] Well look, when I say “manifesto” I mean a set of rules and principles and ideals and hopes on which the United States is based; the ideas of those men who wrote that Constitution up there.
[JH ]And you think it’s turning yellow?
[WH] Yes, I think a lot of the original inspiration has been neglected and forgotten.
[JH] And that’s bad?
[WH] And that’s bad.
[JH] [Continuing to read.] “Even a cursory?”
[JH] “…examination of contemporary… society in terms of the Greek… philosophy which defines the whole as a representation of its parts send one immediately to a consideration of the individual as a citizen and a citizen as an individual.”
[JH] I looked up every word!
[WH] Listen. Thousands of years ago a Greek philosopher said that the world could only be as good as the people who lived in it.
[JH] Makes sense.
[WH] So I said, you take one look at America today and right away you figure that you’d better take a look at the people who live in it, one by one, sorta.
[JH] That’s this?
[JH] Well why didn’t you say so?
This is exactly what many people do when they read the Bible, especially when learning to translate the Greek New Testament. One of the mistakes Judy Holliday’s character made was to think that the meaning of a sentence is equal to the sum of the words in it, such as:
“The” + “Yellowing” + “Democratic” + “Manifesto” = the meaning of the sentence.
In fact this didn’t give the meaning of the sentence, as she stated later on in the excerpt, because the meaning of a sentence is not the sum of the meanings of the words in it. It could almost be said that considered apart from their context words have no meaning; they receive a meaning only when a sentence, paragraph, chapter or even the entire book or letter is considered as a whole. [Read more on linguistics].
Sadly, the high ideals of the original movie were lost in the remake (1993). Gone are the museums, libraries and the moral philosophy, replaced by a set of smart comments designed to give the illusion of erudition with no effort.
One of my favourite lines from the original film (and there ar many) is when Paul Varrell says, “I want everyone to be smart, the world is too dangerous a place to be filled with stupid people.” Amen to that!