Garson Kanin originally wrote It Should Happen to You as a vehicle for Danny Kaye. When his creative partner and wife Ruth Gordon read it, she knew who would be perfect for the part—Judy Holliday! The script was rewritten for her. What resulted was part satire on the pursuit of fame and part romantic comedy. At its center is Judy’s character Gladys Glover, an American girl who’s average, but not too average, possessing more than a smidgen of Billie Dawn’s initial ditziness, but a lot more ambition. She wants to make a name for herself. She’s not sure at what or how, but she’s got the will to make her way, and the $1,000 in her bank account will help her.
When we first meet Gladys, she’s roaming the park depressed and shoeless. She’s lost her job modeling girdles on account of being ¾ of an inch too wide. A transplant to New York City, she travelled there with the hopes of many young women. She wanted to make it big in the city and not through marriage. Now she’s been there two years, and she fears even if she had not lost her job she would be getting nowhere in her quest not to be nobody. She’s removed her shoes in order to think about what to do next.
Her shoelessness and a hilarious altercation with another park patron accusing her of trying to pick him up draw the attention of documentary filmmaker Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon). He’s another transplant, and the two bond over the unfriendliness of New Yorkers. That may be an in-joke because offscreen Judy and Jack bonded because they were both native New Yorkers in Hollywood. She’s very hard on herself to him saying her name isn’t “much of a name” because “nobody ever heard of it, and I guess nobody ever will.” He thinks she’s on the “young side,” and that’s why she’s so bothered.
In some ways, Gladys’s lament could be made by any person. He or she moves somewhere like a big city and struggles to get ahead or even just to live. The grand ambitions of being important or doing something important can get lost in the daily grind of making that living. Combine that with the alienation involved in living somewhere you don’t know hardly anyone in an unfriendly seeming place, and the world becomes too much for some. As Gladys says, “Some people when they get to that point, when they realize they’re getting nowhere, you know, they just kill themselves. I don’t feel like it.”
As a woman, she knows her options. “The only other thing is to go back home. Do the same thing as everybody else. Go back to work in the shoe factory. Marry the first man that asks or the second. And then good-bye name for yourself. Good-bye dreams. In fact, good-bye Charlie.” Her name could be replaced by her husband’s before she’s done anything with it. She’s presenting two options: Will she keep up her pursuit or give in to conventionality and become somebody’s wife? Pete assures her, “Good luck to you, Gladys. I sure hope you make a name for yourself if that’s what you want. If that’s what you really want, you’ll get it.” He gets her number to call her later, and he does.
Inspiration strikes when she sees an empty billboard in Columbus Circle! She will spend her savings to put her name up on the billboard. We’re treated to a fantasy sequence of Gladys imaging all the ways her name and image can be painted on the billboard. Judy makes Gladys seem so happy and genuine in her awe that we feel excited for her, too. She has no further plans than seeing her name erected in big letters for the maximum amount of time she can afford. She’s found her way to be “above the crowd.” She sets about her task immediately.
The film shows its screwball comedy roots by making the situation spiral out of control. That one billboard will lead to others and eventually a job of being famous to be famous. Gladys becomes a hit, especially on the TV circuit, where her quirky responses make audiences laugh. Soon those who contributed to her rise will find ways to make money off of her. Her name becomes known, but what will it mean to those who know it? Will success spoil Gladys Glover and cause a rift in her nascent relationship with Pete? Will she make her name stand for something or has she sold-out permanently?
Hidden within the comedy is a conservatism in Gladys’s represented choices. She can keep pursuing fame and become an oddity, or she can become Pete’s wife. What of a middle way? Kanin hints to us about her remaining ambition at film’s end. All that ambition would need an outlet. Daily household tasks would not be likely releases. Judy “liked playing characters who wouldn’t settle for being ordinary, who struggled to live their lives as responsibly and creatively as possible.” Judy enchants us as Gladys, and we want Gladys to be happy. We don’t want Gladys to settle even if she settles down with Pete. Judy keeps enough sparkle in Gladys’s eyes to hint at this third option.