The First Couple: Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to You

Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to You (1954)
Columbia Pictures

An empty note positioned on a film projector, simply addressed to Gladys, leaves the following instructions: 1) Pull down shades. 2) Sit down. 3) Switch on machine where tag is. 4) Watch picture. 5) Leave machine with Mrs. Riker. Operating the cues, Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) settles down alone in her apartment, garishly decorated with professional photographs of herself, to watch Pete Sheppard’s (Jack Lemmon) amateur documentary. A film, “Good-by Gladys,” starts rolling as Pete narrates: Remember this day, Gladys? That was the first time I saw you. You hadn’t met me yet, but you were about to. And when I made that close-up, I had no idea you were gonna turn out to be someone special.

A literal film inside a film might be a shortcut to neatly tie up the sincere emotional development between two characters, but there’s a feeling of continuity in the documentary Lemmon’s character has been filming and fixing off-screen for the entirety of It Should Happen to You, and the placement of the exchange near the end of the film makes sense. Gladys has spent much of the previous hour explaining to Pete her big plans, him listening and not saying much back—at least not what he really wants to say. With Gladys finally in a position where she can’t fight genuine sentiment face-to-face, the weight of Pete’s words attach themselves to film, and what she had been neglecting to see all along begins to materialize. This is a man who cares for her and how other people treat her, so while he trusts her better judgment, he knows that she might not exactly be seeing the forest for the trees. It’s a necessary calm moment, sweet and controlled and sensible, that satisfies the working relationship between Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday on-screen and off: Here is a lesson that Pete Sheppard teaches Gladys Glover, all while Holliday has been teaching Lemmon vital lessons in comedy and persona during their time together on It Should Happen to You.

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It Should Happen to You takes the concept of self-made celebrity literally, but not always seriously. Judy Holliday is Gladys Glover, a woman who, in order to clear her head, needs to take her shoes off and plant her bare feet in the ground—literally. Lemmon’s Pete Sheppard catches her in the act in the middle of Central Park, and is immediately taken with her eccentricity. Pete is an aspiring documentarian, whose guerilla-style filmmaking comes to center Gladys in all the excitement of contemporary New York life.

As they meet-cute, Gladys explains her predicament: She’s out of work and demoralized by her relative obscurity in life, a hang-up that Pete seems to have already accepted as perfectly fine, himself content to be an average person with principles. He still encourages her, though, to chase her dreams as they come to her, which they of course do, when Gladys imagines her name on a vacant billboard in Columbus Circle (because what is she to advertise exactly, if not herself?). What makes Gladys different from most people is that she makes a will out of a way and follows through on her imagination. Her name appears on that billboard, and soon after, it appears on others like it all over the city, and Gladys becomes a celebrity out of little more than hearsay.

Soap magnate Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford), who first clashes with Gladys over billboard space, takes a fast interest in her on the up and up, just as soon exposing her to the advantageous and insincere sides of fame. As her celebrity grows, Gladys’ modern “all-American” girl exploits turn Pete away, and make her into someone she hardly recognizes. It is ultimately Pete’s gifts as an auteur that help Gladys to understand that having and maintaining one’s principles is what makes our lives visible, big, and worthy. As it goes: if you don’t stand for anything, you fall for everything.

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When I first watched It Should Happen to You, I was already comfortable with Jack Lemmon and his screen persona, which is pleasant and easy to understand: He’s always carrying his baggage to his next destination, his woes, triumphs, and shortcomings all obvious to passers-by. With Judy Holliday, It Should Happen to You served as an introduction, one that I am now incredibly grateful for. It might be easy to overlook an actress who was only in a handful of films, but it’s hard to overlook one as singular in style and approach as Holliday. She pronounces Pfeiffer as P-feiffer, showing not a hint of embarrassment even after she’s corrected, stands up for herself when she feels taken advantage of, and, above all, is completely serious about getting her name up on that billboard. There is a modern air to Holliday that I’ve only grown to appreciate more over time in my relationship with classic Hollywood and its studio system; as a woman of progressive ideals in real life, Holliday brought this high mind to her films. Every conversation with Holliday is like a game of charades; she fashions herself with blithe feminine peculiarities, but there is no mistaking that her characters are mocking her own lack of intelligence. Just the opposite: a genius with a reputed IQ of 172, she is always just acting a part, and well. Her signature blonde hair is always neat and swept up tight to her head while her eyes are big, giving, and wandering. This outward appearance is challenged with a no-nonsense attitude, which is actually unimposing and sweet. It’s inspiring how she never compromised herself, playing the cards she was dealt with great dexterity, defacing and redefining the “dumb blonde” stereotype as we know it.

Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon in a scene from It Should Happen to You (1954)

For an actress as dynamic as Holliday, her on-screen love interest’s ability to interact with her personality and communicate affection without eclipsing it either makes or breaks the integrity of their pairing. With the love triangle in It Should Happen to You, a lack of this chemistry sinks her romantic prospects with Lawford’s Evan Adams III. In a scene where he brings Gladys to his apartment to seduce her under the pretense of a “work” conference, Holliday has to take off her own earring for his readier access to nibble her ear, and in a moment prior, spills her glass of champagne down his back. Lawford does not find this funny in the slightest. There’s no redeemable moment in their brief romantic exchange, no awkward laughter attempted, no connection in the balance. Gladys doesn’t even call him by his first name. Mr. Adams’ reasons for pursuing her are business related—her affection is just another thing he needs to control for profit—and this forced seduction is thankless, misguided, and hostile. He is an obvious adversary; throughout this whole exchange, we are supposed to hate him and root for Pete, but deeper than his role in the love triangle, this is what forced chemistry and aimless romance looks like.

In direct contrast, Holliday and Lemmon retain the dynamic of a real, long-married couple, with a rhythm that includes their romance and petty fights and unfinished thoughts. This is never more obvious than in a small scene where the two are together in a bar, with Lemmon on the piano and Holliday close beside him, half-engaged in conversation, half-singing along. Both actors playing up a musical gift they had in real life (Lemmon a gifted pianist and Holliday a delightful chanteuse with theater training) brings an exceptional harmony to the film that sinks into the reality of the moment: Pete and Gladys might ascend into a light quarrel at any wrong note, but they are also just as able to fall back in tune with one another. Despite this being their first time working together, Lemmon and Holliday bring their authentic selves to It Should Happen to You, which relaxes both actors into an unforced rhythm that is all at once romantic, hilarious, and real. What they achieve is of the tremendous sort, the perfectly balanced seesaw, the kind of quick workability that can’t be replicated or expounded; it’s terrific and endearing as it is.

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The fourth and final film collaboration between Judy Holliday and Garson Kanin (whose writing went uncredited on the film adaptation of his original play, Born Yesterday), It Should Happen to You is the most special of their screen collaborations, as the role of Gladys Glover was written specifically with the unique comedic register of Holliday in mind. This film also marked the fifth and final time Holliday would be working under the direction of George Cukor, another key influence in her screen persona as a self-determined woman with the times. Together, the trio made four films that have perfectly canonized mid-20th century feminine sensibility: Adam’s Rib in 1949, Born Yesterday in 1950, The Marrying Kind in 1952, and It Should Happen to You in 1954.

With Holliday at the center, these films share stories of women in unlikely but convincing circumstances, with a confidence shared between writer, director, and actor in letting a woman’s intuition have its shining moments of heroism. The most unthreatening to the censors and the most pellucid of the writing efforts, It Should Happen to You addresses concepts that in retrospect seem prescient—the desire for celebrity without any talent, turning yourself into your own “brand,” the consequences of idolship taken in vain—but does so without the expectation of becoming predictive or ridiculous. Gladys Glover does not have anything to sell except herself, so she turns her name into her brand; people understand that she has no outstanding talents, but they accept and give her a platform nonetheless. It is her celebrity status that permits exploitation, running the gamut of ads from soap to a “miracle” weight-loss drug, but when she has her “down to earth” moment, the pandemonium surrounding her seems to disappear immediately, and for good. There is a lack of self-seriousness in Kanin’s writing, which gives Holliday space to feel her own comedic personality, making its subject seem important in return. Judy Holliday could work well under anyone, but it is with Garson Kanin that her talents really shine.

Good friends in real life after first collaborating on Born Yesterday’s 1946 stage production, Kanin and Holliday had a kind of understanding of each other that went beyond flattery; they were alike in upbringing and progressive slant, which of course characterized their art, most directly in their first two films together (Adam’s Rib and the screen adaptation of Born Yesterday). Kanin knew that Holliday was not just the mouthpiece for his writing, but someone who believed in his criticisms of bigotry and who could give his work a believable edge, too. By 1953, both had been subjects of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings for their Jewish heritage and communist associations, for which Holliday had taken a much-worse beating. As both her friend and her colleague, Kanin expressed his sympathies for her in his writing, giving her It Should Happen to You as a vehicle for her fantastic agency as a self-made woman sans the potential for politically-charged backlash. Without sacrificing much of her modern edge, the film reaffirmed her status as a leading lady, leveraging her power as an opportunity to welcome a newcomer as her co-star. 

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Holliday underlines the quirks of her characters with remarkable attention and skill instead of completely disappearing into them, always maintaining the line between self and character for laughs. She punches her lines with untraceable patterns, so when she lays on some startling assertion with an undisturbed tone—“Some people when they get to that point…where they realize that they’re getting nowhere, you know, they just kill themselves”—we believe that Gladys seriously feels this way, and is far too removed from judgment to think twice about how her thoughts might be concerning, simply because they make perfect sense to her. As an actress, Holliday leads the audience into drawing quick conclusions about the (often vacuous) characters she’s playing, but complicates this understanding with line-delivery curveballs, owing to her own mature feel for her characters; she brings to otherwise facile characters a surprising depth, an agency that wins more than it threatens. From pleasantly endeared to frustrated, back to pleasantly endeared, she has complete control over how people feel about her through her characters without shortchanging her comic strikes. Anything Gladys says is almost always unfounded and ridiculous, but Holliday’s unique angle makes it so the comedy isn’t directed at Gladys’ aloofness. It surfaces because of her timing and pitch and her loyal eye to the writing and character, which make the jokes even better, more deserving of our laughter when considered within the scope of such a ludicrous situation. 

What should have been an enduring film career for Holliday was restricted by the era’s red scare. Called to appear before the Senate Internal Security Committee in 1952, Holliday championed her hearing with remarkable wit. She refused to jeopardize herself, friends, and family members by never answering a question straight, literally playing up her “dumb blonde” stereotype. Though she continued to appear in Hollywood films after, the roles were few and noticeably had more of an apolitical tone compared to her earlier work. This shift brings levity to It Should Happen to You, pulling it away from what could have been, under the development of Holliday, Cukor, and Kanin, an acerbic film about the iniquitous rites of celebrity worship. Though it instead chooses to explore the charms and harms of becoming an overnight success in the familiar, innocuous terms of a romantic comedy, Holliday still brings a bit of herself to the role, which means that Gladys Glover is hardly a ditz, but a sure woman with a brain and a plan. Kanin’s unpretentious writing and Holliday’s smart dumb blonde act, coupled with the political eyes keeping a sharp watch on both of them, make it so Gladys never appears as a villain of self-importance or agenda; she simply wants to be more visible than she is. This is largely why the film doesn’t feel as narrowly focused on the evils—the damage that can be caused when too much trust and opinion is thrust upon ordinary people who then become too big and too powerful, because Gladys is equipped to see the error of her ways by nature of her residual benevolence. It’s not that she isn’t smart enough to have seen any of her celebrity coming from a few billboard signs and inspired utterances, it’s that Gladys does not see the fruits of her labor as anything too bad, because she achieved what she wanted, after all. In the end, she is visible to one important person, and that is enough. It is then clear to see that the only man who could exist in Gladys’ universe is Pete Sheppard, who in Jack Lemmon, is her only sensible match.

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By 1953, Holliday’s career was not necessarily at the polar end of Lemmon’s, but in a career as short and riddled with such dramatic highs and lows as hers, It Should Happen to You serves as a benchmark of established success. For Lemmon, though, it’s an entry point, his feature film debut. Giving the slight but noticeable upperhand to Holliday, he compliments the professionalism and prestige of her screen persona while testing the strengths of his own. Lemmon, an actor whose more dramatic turns are a great callback to masters of expression, whose body toils with anxiety but remains tall and protects the image of the average American man, blends such perfected visions of traditional discernment with the emotional hang-ups of his modern bedlam. In his more sensitive roles (The Apartment, Save the Tiger) Lemmon places his problems in a common center, where he presents himself with his issues and asks you to take them or leave them. He upends the average American man in his relative place of obvious insecurity, where we expect a subdued seriousness of both him and of ourselves if we were in his situation, we receive a blistering reflection of his feelings. A heart-on-his sleeve type; it’s genuine, and we remember it as such.

His comic register, too, is a callback, but not of such the obvious type. Coming from television, Lemmon’s first film performance works exceptionally off of Holliday, considering her character’s returns before considering his own. He plays Pete—who has every opportunity in the world to slap Gladys back to her senses—as mostly patient and available, who even in his few moments of upset is never especially nasty. He knows very early on that he wants to love Gladys at any cost, even if that means listening to her wild spiels, letting her make her own mistakes, and separating himself from the situation when he feels he is no longer what she wants. Pete Sheppard, on paper, is a textbook good guy, but it is Jack Lemmon’s performance that makes him good for Gladys on screen. He acts completely out of flattery to Holliday; he matches her punchy lines with integrity, though he has not fully mastered snappy intonations, and he only leans into her idiosyncrasies when she is aware of them too. He begins to master a give and take in It Should Happen to You that would later distinguish him as a generous actor, sometimes the punching bag, always with the confidence to set up the jokes he knows somebody else can play off perfectly, maybe in a way he couldn’t. 

This courteous gesture is important, not only in It Should Happen to You as it is written, but for Lemmon’s enduring screen persona. His presence as an honorable leading man, especially when paired with a compelling woman, is a lasting part of what makes him a perfect funnyman for American audiences of the mid-to-late 20th century; it is here that we first see him assert this unselfish attitude.  

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The pair made one other film together, 1954’s Phffft (one of the best movies with a name that you struggle to say out loud), which mines the fast compatibility of the pair in a second vehicle. As Lemmon’s first and second costar in his film career, Holliday primed him for his experience as a minor bit player throughout the rest of the decade and into his leading man status into the 1960s, ‘70s, and beyond as an actor of endearing achievement who, first and foremost, plays the writing straight. Holliday is all charades, and Lemmon is none, but he learned to borrow the escalating tactics of Holliday’s comic register and build them into his characters as a floatation device. It’s often his frantic whims that make him the most amicable, perhaps owing his greatest acting charms to the great, short-lived legacy of Judy Holliday. Together, Lemmon and Holliday are constantly chasing, not exactly each other at all times, but a worldly purpose that one helps the other to find. Judy Holliday helped Jack Lemmon mature into his personality, showing him that it is best to affirm his comedy with the character’s sensibilities, so he is personable and principled in an impenetrable way every time. Jack Lemmon provided Judy Holliday the rare chance to be seen, as he had not yet matched her charms yet, and simply doesn’t try to in It Should Happen to You. These are alike forces, these are two actors who are natural and funny on their own, who seem all the more a modern couple, corrected and affirmed by what the other brings to the relationship when they are together.

In an interview with Morrie Gelman in 1998, Jack Lemmon talks intimately about the making of his first feature film and his experience working with Judy Holliday. He tells Gelman a story of taking Holliday out to dinner during his first few days in Hollywood doing screen tests for Columbia Pictures; on their way to the restaurant, he got a flat tire. He told Holliday to wait in the car while he went to find assistance at the nearest gas station, but, still new to the Hollywood Hills, got turned around so many times in his own tracks that he decided to head back in defeat. When he joined Holliday again in the car, she asked him for his handkerchief, on which she proceeded to wipe her hands. He asked what for and she replied, “I changed it.” The tire, of course. Judy Holliday had a smart approach to everything she did, and it is her greatest screen partner who never forgot it.