How does one become famous without really having any particular talent or skill? In modern times, you can accomplish this by posting a video on Youtube, Twitter or numerous other social media outlets but it was a lot harder to attract attention in the 1950s. It Should Happen to You (1954), directed by George Cukor, addresses the common fantasy of become famous and idolized by millions at a time when the possibility of an unknown achieving overnight recognition was highly unlikely.
Of course, the idea of a nobody becoming a famous somebody is so commonplace today that George Cukor’s satire, written by Garson Kanin, looks prophetic in retrospect. The film stars Judy Holliday as Gladys Glover, an out of work model from a small town who came to the Big Apple with unrealistic career expectations. Obsessed with becoming famous, she spends the last of her money on the rental of a billboard in Columbus Circle which displays her name and nothing else in big letters. Gladys’s enigmatic stunt becomes the talk of the town and she suddenly finds herself in demand on TV talk shows and other venues.
Gladys also finds herself pursued by soap company executive Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford) who, despite his romantic overtures, has designs on her billboard for his own product promotion. None of this sits well with Glady’s boyfriend Pete (Jack Lemmon), an aspiring documentary filmmaker, who wonders what we all wonder – what does Gladys really want?
In some ways, It Should Happen to You shares a link with Cukor’s previous Judy Holliday film, The Marrying Kind (1952), which was also set in New York City, and cast the comedic actress as a naive newlywed with an idealistic view of marriage. Like that character, Gladys Glover is someone whose sense of reality and personal happiness has been distorted by the media through commercials, glamour magazines and Hollywood movies, all of which become satiric targets in It Should Happen to You and is the real point of the film. “The idea of becoming a great celebrity without being able to do anything is a very important notion,” Cukor stated in an interview with author Gavin Lambert. “Publicity can really do it, too. Today it makes Presidents. It’s really the name of the game.”
It Should Happen to You is also significant for Jack Lemmon’s film debut. At first, the actor, who had worked briefly in television, had a tendency to overact for the camera but Cukor soon convinced him that “less is more.” The actor later remarked, “I’ve learned my craft from that advice. It’s the hardest thing in the world to be simple, and the easiest thing in the world to act your brains out and make an ass of yourself.” (From George Cukor by Gene D. Phillips). A perfect example of Cukor’s approach to acting was demonstrated to Lemmon during a restaurant scene where Pete and Gladys argue. Cukor recalled, “They rehearsed it and did it very well, but I said, “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe one damn thing. Jack, what do you do when you get angry?” He said, “I get chills and cramps, I get sick to my stomach, but can’t use that.” “Oh,” I said, “do that!” So in the height of fury he suddenly clutches his stomach, and it makes all the difference.”
By the time she made It Should Happen to You Judy Holliday was already recognized as a unique comic presence in films having won the Best Actress Oscar for her hilarious portrayal of Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (1950), a role she first played to great acclaim on the Broadway stage. Though attractive, Holliday was a remarkably instinctive actress, not a glamour queen and constantly battled a weight problem. A few months prior to shooting It Should Happen to You the actress had given birth to a son, Jonathan, and was still “thirty pounds over what her camera weight should have been,” requiring her to crash diet. Although sensitive about her weight, Holliday also had a sense of humor about it too, recalling a photo shoot in which she was to appear in some glamour shots for the Columbia publicity department. “Look sexy,” the photographer said. She tried to oblige, but he kept demanding, “Sexy! Sexier!” In desperation, she asked him what he had been eating recently. He mentioned a thick, sizzling steak, an onion soup with croutons and lots of cheese, a cold pasta salad, strawberry shortcake. Judy’s mouth began to water and her eyes became liquid. “That’s the look I want!” the photographer shouted (from Judy Holliday by Gary Carey).
Gossip columnists reported that during the filming of It Should Happen to You, Holliday dated her co-star Peter Lawford. The actress was having marital problems at the time and did reportedly enjoy a romantic fling with Lawford (it only lasted until the production wrapped) which may be why their scenes together have a genuine spark.
Their best scene is probably the attempted seduction on the couch where he starts nuzzling her. Cukor, however, had a problem with the mechanics of the scene, particularly Lawford’s removal of one of Holliday’s earrings. “It so happened we had a property man on the picture who’d worked with The Three Stooges,” Cukor said (in Gavin Lambert: On Cukor). “He said, “I have an idea, may I help on this?” I said, “Please do,” and he suggested, “Let her take the earring off herself, so he can nuzzle her ear.” So we did, and it made a terribly funny moment. Later in the scene she had to pour champagne down Peter Lawford’s neck. We only have four shirts for Peter Lawford, so we could only shoot four takes, and it was tricky for the camera. On the last take I said, “Judy if you laugh, I’ll just kill you, I’ll kill you dead.” Well, she didn’t laugh, but she giggled, and it was absolutely great. I asked if she’d done it deliberately, in spite of what I’d said, and she didn’t really know. Sometimes you get these very human things on the set.”
In the 1954 Oscar race, It Should Happen to You was virtually ignored though it did receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Black and White Costume Design by Jean Louis (he lost to Edith Head for Sabrina). Regardless, most critical reviews were overwhelmingly positive with the majority of praise focused on Holliday’s performance. Time magazine stated “Judy plays, for the fourth time in a row, essentially the same poor man’s Pygmalion, that won her an Oscar two years ago…Practice has made her almost perfect in the part. She seems an incarnation of the big-city blonde who is so dumb that she doesn’t even know she’s beautiful.”
Other trivia of interest: Garson Kanin’s screenplay for It Should Happen to You was originally titled A Name for Herself but in the early stages it was actually being developed as a script for Danny Kaye.
The guests who appear on the TV panel show in the movie were real-life celebrities – Constance Bennett, Ilka Chase, Melville Cooper and Wendy Barrie.
The song “Let’s Fall in Love” which Holliday and Lemmon sing as a duet was written almost 20 years earlier by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. Holliday and Lemmon would be reteamed in their next film, Phffft (1954), a comedy directed by Mark Robson from a screenplay by George Axelrod.
Look for a brief cameo by up-and-coming actor John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street) in the Central Park sequence. Other familiar faces in the supporting cast of It Should Happen to You include character actors Vaughn Taylor (Psycho), Whit Bissell (I Was a Teenage Frankenstein) and Connie Gilchrist (Machine Gun Kelly). The crisp black and white cinematography is by Charles Lang and Friedrich Hollaender composed the music score.
It Should Happen to You has been released on VHS and DVD over the years and has also appeared in box sets like the Jack Lemmon Showcase Collection. The film is certainly overdue for a remastering on Blu-Ray and perhaps Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will address that issue one of these days.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
Other links of Interest: