I’m still on the blogathon trail! This is my contribution to the Animals in Film Blogathon, which is being hosted by Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please do go along and look at the other postings.
Horse-racing tale Broadway Bill was clearly a story which meant a lot to Frank Capra. After being dissatisfied with the film first time around, he remade it 16 years on as Riding High. The original film was then thought to be lost for many years, before resurfacing in the 1990s. I thought it would be fun to compare the two for the blogathon, as I’ve already done with another Capra film that he remade, Lady for a Day and Pocketful of Miracles. However, I hadn’t quite realised just how similar the two versions of Broadway Bill would be!
Broadway Bill is available on DVD in both region 1 and the UK/region 2. The print on the region 2 DVD I watched is grainy and doesn’t look very good, although it’s said to be restored. Riding High is available from Warner Archive in region 1 and there is also a Spanish region 2 DVD, but I watched it via streaming at Amazon.co.uk, where the picture and sound quality were good.
The story, scripted by Robert Riskin, centres on a charming drifter, Dan Brooks (Warner Baxter). He has married an heiress and uneasily settled down in her small home town, Higginsville, where every business in sight is owned by her dad, overbearing banker J.L. Higgins (Walter Connolly). Shades of Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life – though Higgins doesn’t quite have Potter’s evil glee!
Dan is put in charge of one of the family businesses, a “paper box” company – but starts to feel that he is in a box himself. He breaks out and quits. Leaving all his money behind, he goes back to his previous life in the horse racing world, and tries to enter his horse, Broadway Bill, for the Imperial Derby. His wife, Margaret (Helen Vinson), refuses to support him and sticks with Dad, but her younger sister, Alice (Myrna Loy), follows him to the racetrack and the dilapidated barn where he is trying to train Bill. Soon the couple are falling into an unspoken love.
Many scenes in the two versions are frame for frame, word for word remakes. In other sequences, Capra didn’t even have to imitate his own previous work, since he cut 20 minutes of footage from the original film into the remake to save the studio money. Seven of the same actors returned to reprise their original roles, with one, comic character actor Raymond Walburn, looking scarily identical to his appearance 16 years earlier. Did he have a picture in the attic? The horse in the remake also looks identical to the first Broadway Bill. Although the remake is also in grainy black and white, to stop the joins showing, it can’t quite recapture the downbeat, Depression era feel of the original.
Made as a follow-up to It Happened One Night, Broadway Bill has a similar theme of love across the class divide – but, although it is very enjoyable and has its moments, I’d have to say it is nowhere near as good as the previous film. There are various reasons for this, including the fact that the Production Code had just come into force – though the film still gets away with more than was possible later. Another problem is that the rediscovered print wasn’t complete, so some material has been lost from the version we have. Also, Capra couldn’t get his first choice, Clark Gable, for the lead this time around and had to settle for Warner Baxter. Capra claims in his autobiography that Baxter was afraid of horses (odd, since he had starred in Westerns) and that he therefore refused to appear in enough close-ups with Bill. It’s interesting to wonder how Gable would have played the part. He makes a great team with the dog in Wellman’s The Call of the Wild, made the following year, so maybe he and the horse would have had a similar warmth together in this.
However, while Baxter might be less than ideal for the part of Dan, he does still have a weary, raffish quality which carries him through. He also has good chemistry with Myrna Loy, who had starred with him in the witty pre-Code Penthouse the previous year. There are many amusing scenes set in and around the racetrack, where Dan and his pals try to con their way into getting enough money to pay for their horse to race. Dan is constantly accompanied by his best friend/sidekick, Clarence White, played by Clarence Muse – yep, another film where an African-American character is nicknamed “Whitey”. Although Muse’s role is somewhat stereotyped, he and Baxter work well together, supported by a handful of character actors. Muse reprises the role in the remake, where he gets more chance to show his singing talents in the musical numbers with Crosby.
In the remake, the casting of Crosby instantly makes the central character, Dan Brooks, more happy go lucky than Baxter’s characteristically nervous interpretation in the original film. By contrast, Coleen Gray makes a more delicate, vulnerable Alice than Loy in the original, who is sweet but has a toughness and determination. The addition of a few songs, including the catchy Sunshine Cake, also lightens the mood, and there is far more footage of the horse and his best friend, a cockerel called Skeeter – so the remake is a better bet for animal lovers! Another change is that Bing’s character is only engaged, not married, so there’s no need for a controversial divorce. A few comic sequences are built up more in Riding High, including an hilarious skit where an unbilled Oliver Hardy plays a rich gambler at the racetrack – this is almost like a comedy short within the main film, and had me laughing out loud.
There are some spoilers in this next bit.
Although much of the story is a comedy, as in other Capra fairytales there is a bitter-sweet flavour and some heartbreak. Like boxing, horse racing is a sport which was spurred on by desperation during the Great Depression. In both films, the sequences where Dan and the others carry out a series of comic cons do underline the general need for cash, as do all the little scenes of individuals betting a couple of dollars – all they can afford – in the hope of raising enough money to pay their debts and change their lives. The ending first gives us a fairytale, as Broadway Bill wins through, literally against the odds, and all the “suckers” who have placed those little bets are winners. This might seem like a characteristic Capra happy ending, but then the ground is cut away as the horse drops dead as soon as it gets over the finishing line. There is then a funeral for the horse, where the fact that it is a victim of “greed” is spelt out – but really that shot of it on the ground has already said it all.
Another happy ending is tagged on, where Dan has two new horses and returns for a romantic reunion with Alice – but the tragic twist is the climax of the story.
Overall, I enjoyed both films, but they are so similar that I’d advise against watching them close together, as I did. Space them out, and then you won’t feel as if you’re watching the same film twice!
For further reading, see Stacia’s review of Riding High at She Blogged by Night, which is very interesting on the re-use of the old footage.