This past Saturday I ventured up to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta for the “Modern Masters of Film” screening of It Should Happen to You (George Cukor, 1954). Boyfriend in tow, I was surprised by the crowd (assuming that not everyone loves 1950s cinema as much as I do). Although I found Judy Holliday to be shrill and mostly annoying, the overall story concept was inventive. Holliday plays Gladys Glover, a young girl trying to make it big in New York City with no talent to speak of, but she dreams of seeing her name in lights. She laments to Peter, an aspiring film-maker played by young and dapper Jack Lemmon, that she yearns to be “above the crowd.” The rest of the film follows her spiral into fame after she pays to have her name displayed on a giant billboard on Columbus Circle. Gladys must navigate boardroom tycoons and advertising businessmen who want her billboard space and are willing to do anything to get it. Although It Should reads as light romantic comedy, feminist themes of domesticity and women’s position in the home and workforce bubble up to the surface. Gladys’ ambiguous position in the male-centered business world as well as her struggle between domestic normalcy versus financial independence and fame illustrate the post war sentiment and the feelings of women in 1950s America.
George Cukor’s work is instrumental in the foundations of Classical Hollywood Cinema. His films from Camille (1936) to Gaslight (1944) feature great stars such as Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman. Starting in 1944 and well into the 1950s, he directed Judy Holliday in what we would today call romantic comedies. It Should Happen to You is shot on location in New York City and jumps between animate shots in Central Park with sunlit paths and rustling leaves to Gladys’ chintzy cramped apartment. Cukor has a unique shooting style with his heavy use of close ups and pans. We are introduced to Gladys literally feet first. Cukor’s camera pans up from her feet to her face as she meets love interest Peter. Cukor returns to Gladys’ feet later in the film when she watches Peter’s documentary. The rest of the film is shot in classical Hollywood style, but the return to Gladys’ feet is an oddity worth mentioning.
It Should follows Peter and Gladys’ relationship as she becomes increasingly famous. Peter disapproves of Gladys wasting her money on the billboards, but her mind is made up; she purchases the billboard space and secures her celeb status through TV appearances and an ad campaign. She proves her business savvy and ability to create her own future. However, by the end of the film, Gladys decides Peter was right and chooses him over a career that could lead to more fame and fortune. She pivots from independent career woman back to a normative position in the home alongside the male. Like many films of the 1950s post war era, the female character exudes an independence, be it wealth or personality, but in the end it is subjugated by the man as she takes up the traditional position as wife/lover.
Although we get our classical Hollywood ending – Gladys and Peter happy and in love, I can’t help but feel unsettled and disappointed by her choice. It makes me wonder, would a woman in the audience in 1954 feel the same?
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