Garson Kanin wrote that Marilyn Monroe made a screen test for this film in 1948 before signing a two-picture contract. Those who saw it thought it was excellent, but Columbia head Harry Cohn did not take the trouble to walk six steps from his desk to his projection room to watch it.
In his autobiography, Garson Kanin wrote that Harry Cohn paid the record $1 million for the films rights because he had heard that Kanin said he "wouldn't sell the rights to Harry Cohn for any amount - not even a million dollars."
The part of Billie Dawn was written by Garson Kanin for Jean Arthur. A couple of nights before the play was due to open, Arthur abruptly dropped out and Judy Holliday was drafted in. Arthur was briefly considered for the film version, but turned the part down. A move to loan out Lana Turner from MGM for the role of Billie Dawn was later abandoned.
Judy Holliday won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film. In contrast, Melanie Griffith, who plays Billie Dawn in the remake, Born Yesterday (1993), was nominated for the Razzie Award for Worst Actress. She failed to win, however.
During location shooting in Washington, George Cukor was so moved by the sight of the Jefferson Memorial, that he insisted on having Judy Holliday and William Holden visit it during their tour of the city.
To help facilitate shooting, George Cukor decided to rehearse Born Yesterday (1950) as if it were still a stage play. For two weeks, the cast worked on their lines while a construction crew built a 300-seat mini-theater within one of the studio's sound-stages. It was there that Judy Holliday, William Holden and Broderick Crawford gave six performances in front of a live audience so that Cukor could precision-time the pacing of the film's jokes.
Paul Douglas, who created the role of Harry Brock on stage, turned down the chance to play him in the movie adaptation because the part had been considerably reduced for the film. He later went on to star opposite Judy as Edward L. McKeever in the 1956 film, The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) where Judy once again plays a ditsy blonde who ends up outsmarting her opponents.
Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, paid $1 million for the film rights, intending it to be a vehicle for his hottest female star, Rita Hayworth. His star, however, wasn't interested as she'd just married Prince Aly Khan. One thing Cohn didn't want was for Judy Holliday to reprise her Broadway role. He relented when he saw how effectively George Cukor used her in Adam's Rib (1949).
George Cukor instructed production designer Harry Horner to approach the script as if it had never been a stage play. Instead of the play's one-room set, Horner constructed an entire hotel suite, allowing Cukor to move the action from room to room as the action would have dictated in real life.
Used to the honeyed tones of the typical Hollywood leading lady, the sound department tried to clean up the sound of Judy Holliday's voice. When George Cukor watched the first rushes, he complained that her voice sounded different. The sound engineer told him "We just cut out some of the crud in her lower register." Cukor told them to stop because "You've also cut out the comedy and the heart."
Judy Holliday had a hard time adjusting to filming the play without an audience. Although the crew often laughed during rehearsals, she had to play the scenes to total silence. Critics would later complain that some of the dialogue was so quickly paced that audience laughter drowned out lines.
William Holden and Broderick Crawford became good friends during filming, united by their fondness for liquor and a mutual dislike of Harry Cohn. Among the jokes they played on him were ordering large Scotches at lunch so he would worry about their getting drunk in the middle of a shooting day. They also ran up huge bills for room service during location shooting in Washington just to aggravate him.
Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford extended their famous gin-rummy scene to their off-screen relationship. Afraid of flying, Holliday insisted on taking the train to Washington for location shooting. Crawford went along and they passed the four-day trip playing gin for money. When they arrived in Washington, Holliday had won $600 from him, along with his undying friendship.
At the time the film appeared, Judy Holliday was listed in the anti-Communist publication Red Channels as a member of organizations charged as fronts for the Communist Party. As a result, the film was picketed by veterans in New York and New Jersey.
Judy Holliday listened to the Oscar® broadcast at a New York night club with George Cukor and Swanson, who was appearing on Broadway at the time in Twentieth Century. When she won, on-lookers couldn't tell if Swanson wanted to congratulate her or kill her. After a failed attempt to make a speech for the press, interrupted by the broadcast of Ethel Barrymore's accepting the award on her behalf in Hollywood, Holliday returned to her table, where Swanson whispered to her, "Why couldn't you have waited until next year?"
After reading and working on the Albert Mannheimer screenplay, George Cukor met with Harry Cohn to get his permission for Garson Kanin to rewrite the film's screenplay. Cukor felt the Mannheimer screen play's dialogue was missing the rhythm and tempo between Billie Dawn and Harry Brock in the original Broadway stage property. Kanin's rewrite was used instead of the original Mannheimer screen play adaptation.
When production ended, Judy Holliday stayed in town for some interviews, then returned to the East where she and her husband, classical musician David Oppenheim, had bought a country home near West Point.
Initially, William Holden passed on the role of Paul Verrall, claiming that it would be overshadowed by the other leading roles. Finally, Garson Kanin convinced him that the three roles had been written as equals, but Paul Douglas and Judy Holliday had so overpowered the original Broadway Paul (Gary Merrill.), it had made people think of it as a secondary role. When he offered to build the role up for the screen, Holden finally agreed to do the film.
Three weeks before the film's December 26 premiere, the reviewer for Tidings, a Catholic newspaper based in Los Angeles, jumped the gun with a scathing review of the film's political content. Inspired by Garson Kanin's own liberal politics and the nation's rising tide of anti-Communist rhetoric, reviewer William H. Mooring, stated, "Never have human symbols been more subtly molded to carry destructive comment through disarming comedy." The notice, syndicated to Catholic papers around the country, triggered an uproar in Hollywood, with protests from even the most conservative members. Gossip columnist Louella Parsons countered, "If there are any pink ideas infiltrated into Born Yesterday, they are way over my head." By the time the film premiered, the controversy had blown over.
Hollywood's Production Code Administration forbade any overt reference to the fact that Billie Dawn and Harry Brock lived together, so Garson Kanin and George Cukor had to come up with shots of Billie sneaking into Brock's Washington apartment through the back door to make it seem that she had her own place elsewhere.
At Judy Holliday's first official meeting with Harry Cohn after she had been cast in the film, he looked her up and down then muttered, just loud enough for her to hear, "Well, I've worked with fat asses before." He then tried to get her to sign a standard seven-year contract. Instead Holliday, who intended to continue living in New York between pictures, negotiated a one-film-a-year contract for seven years that also allowed her to do stage, television and radio work. In return, he got her for the then low salary of $30,000, with only $10,000 raises promised for each subsequent film.