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It Should Happen to You

It Should Happen To You

1954. Columbia. Directed by George Cukor; written by Garson Kanin. With Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, Peter Lawford

This is not the Nicolas Cage disappointment of a couple of years ago (the difference between that movie's blandly optimistic title, It Could Happen to You, and the Yiddish-inflected half-curse of It Should Happen to You tells it all), but a far superior and amazingly contemporary Cukor-Kanin-Holliday collaboration from the early 50s. Since the story concerns a publicity-mad young woman and a documentary filmmaker, I can recommend this charming movie to our List.

Judy Holliday plays Gladys Glover, a New York City nobody with a burning desire to be somebody. She rents a billboard at Columbus Circle, has her name painted on it, and quickly becomes a media sensation. The joke is that her celebrity is absolutely baseless; she has never done anything to merit anyone's attention, and yet she progresses to autograph sessions, TV appearances and advertising endorsements. Pete Sheppard, the young man who loves her for herself, despairs of ever getting her back. He met Gladys while shooting a documentary about Central Park, and he's around with his hand-wound little camera at a number of crucial moments. Eventually he edits this footage into a 16mm love letter called "Good-by Gladys," and disappears.

It Should Happen To You contrasts the frantic fame machine with Pete's observant, low-key filmmaking. Each perceives and promotes a different Gladys, and she ultimately has to choose. The movie wholeheartedly endorses Pete's take on Gladys while it pokes sharp fun at the artifice behind TV panel shows and advertising photo shoots. Pete's heartfelt home movie, "Good-By, Gladys," comes as an antidote to the Madison Avenue hype and manipulation. But it's tellng that Gladys chooses her "real-person" persona only after Pete has packaged it up and put in on-screen for her to see.

Plot is only one way that It Should Happen To You takes Pete's side. While this is a major Hollywood production with its share of falsification and ballyhoo, it goes for a non-glossy look. Many scenes were shot on location in New York, with available light and ambient noise. There really is a documentary look to the Central Park and Columbus Circle scenes, and to the street in front of Gladys and Pete's boarding house. George Cukor also worked hard at eliciting spontaneous-looking performances, so that people seem really to be talking to each other, interrupting, humming, losing and regaining their train of thought.

There was something of a resurgence of New York moviemaking in the 50s, with more adult themes and a looser, on-location style. Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon, both perceived as New York actors (it was Lemmon's first movie) are contrasted with that consummate Hollywood smoothie, Peter Lawford as a soap company ad manager. In a sense, It Should Happen to You reflects a rivalry between New York and Hollywood sensibilities---here defined as grown-up filmmaking versus studio-system phoniness. There's nothing all that "real" about It Should Happen to You or even "Good-by Gladys," but you can see how refreshing the new style must have seemed.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein