Broadway Bill and Riding High (Frank Capra, 1934 and 1950)

broadway billI’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!

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The Road to Glory (Howard Hawks, 1936)

road to glory 2

This is my contribution to the World War I in Classic Film blogathon . Please do visit and take a look at the other postings!

Where previous Howard Hawks films about the First World War focused on pilots, this one goes into the trenches. Warner Baxter, Fredric March and Lionel Barrymore star as beleaguered French soldiers struggling to cope with the ceaseless death and destruction all around them on the Western Front. A contemporary review in the New York Times criticised The Road to Glory for its mix of grimness and romanticism, and failure to draw any conclusions about the “ultimate value of [the soldiers’] sacrifice”. Yet, to a modern audience, the bleakness is the thing which resonates – the feeling of individuals caught up in events which they can’t control and don’t understand. While it isn’t as well-known as some Hawks movies, this film is now available on DVD in both region 1 and UK/region 2.

The drama centres on two melodramatic tales of human relationships, a love triangle between two soldiers and a nurse, and a father and son coming together on the frontline. However, the most powerful and memorable elements of the film, beyond these stories, are the portrayals of the war itself. There is some very stark photography of the men advancing through a ruined landscape full of darkness and shadows. Much of this footage was taken from a great French film, Raymond Bernard’s Les Croix de Bois, after Twentieth Century Fox bought up the rights. But this movie has its own story.

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Warner Baxter

As well as writing about films on this blog, I’ve been meaning to write a few postings about the actors and actresses I  especially like. While some of the top stars of the 1930s, like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, are still (and deservedly so) household names, others, who were equally popular at the time, have been all but forgotten. One of these is Warner Baxter (1889-1951). He starred in almost 100 films, both silent and talkies, and was said to be possibly the highest-paid actor in Hollywood in his peak year,1936. He was also the very first male star to win the Oscar for best actor, in 1929. But today many film fans have never heard of him at all – and those who have probably only know him for a handful of his films, mainly for 42nd Street and his role as Doctor Samuel Mudd in John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island.

So what is it that I like about him? In all honesty, it is partly his looks – but I’m also attracted by his screen personality, in the handful of films of his that I’ve managed to see so far, anyway, and by the demanding roles he took on. Below is a link to a tribute to him on Youtube, which gives a feeling of the range of roles he played, many in films which have now disappeared. He was the original screen Gatsby in a silent film made only a year after the novel was published, but that film is now lost, along with many of his other silents and early talkies.

Here is a brief run-down of the films of Baxter’s that I’ve seen so far, which are only a few. I’d be interested to hear recommendations of others to look for. I know the Crime Doctor films which he made in later life, after suffering a nervous breakdown and other health problems, are said to be worth seeing, but I haven’t had an opportunity to do so as yet. I have found an article which appeared under Baxter’s byline in a German movie magazine which is interesting and I will hope to translate it back into English as a follow-up to this posting – sadly I haven’t managed to find the English original of this piece!

The first film I saw Baxter in was 42nd Street (1933), and I was immediately impressed by his portrayal of driven, tortured producer Julian Marsh, who is suffering from some unspecified illness (it seems to be to do with his nerves), and slumps down outside the theatre at the end after his musical production has triumphed. The film is of course best-known for its astonishing Busby Berkeley production numbers, and for performances by musical stars like Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers. Nevertheless, Baxter gets top billing and he also speaks the most memorable line: “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” In some ways this seems to be a typical role for him in his talkies – lonely, on the edge, tired, and still so  handsome, but with the feeling that those looks could be about to fade any minute.

The other films of his I’ve seen to date are:

Broadway Bill (1934, Frank Capra): For many years this comedy-drama was thought to be a lost film until rediscovered in the 1990s. Baxter plays the son-in-law of a domineering businessman, who breaks away from his life in the family paper business and stakes everything on training a racehorse, supported by his sister-in-law, Myrna Loy. This was actually made in the very early days of the Hays Code, but still feels like a pre-Code, as the in-laws inevitably fall in love while training the horse. Baxter is on the edge at the start of the film, but gradually mellows and is able to have more fun in this than in 42nd Street.

The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936, John Ford): This may be Baxter’s best-known role. He plays a doctor who innocently treats Lincoln’s injured assassin, and is therefore regarded as an accomplice and sent off to a nightmare island prison ridden with Yellow Fever. The film is said to be highly historically inaccurate, but it makes gripping viewing and Baxter gives one of his most powerful performances as the exhausted, despairing and yet dedicated doctor. R.D. Finch has just written a full review of this film at his blog.

The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936, William A Wellman): Baxter plays a character 20 years younger than he really was in the early sections of this politically conscious Western, and he is also saddled with a cod Spanish accent as he plays a Mexican bandit. (He also played a Mexican bandit in the film he won his Oscar for, In Old Arizona (1928), which I haven’t seen as yet, and reprised that role, as The Cisco Kid, in some follow-up movies.) This little-known film shows the way forward to later Wellman films like The Ox Bow Incident in its powerful indictment of lynch law and prejudice. I’ve previously written a long review of this film on my blog.

The Road to Glory (1936, Howard Hawks): This is a little-known Hawks film, and not on DVD, but I really like it and have been meaning to write a full review of this one, though I will need to watch it again first. It has a lot in common with Hawks’ earlier The Dawn Patrol, focusing on a group of soldiers, here a French regiment in the First World War, with the mood becoming increasingly sombre as replacements turn up and are killed in turn. Baxter plays the stressed-out captain, who is caught up in a love triangle with Fredric March and the woman they both fall for. However, the most touching relationship is between Baxter and his father, played by Lionel Barrymore, who lies about his age and turns up at the front to serve under his son.

The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936)

Warner Baxter in 'The Robin Hood of El Dorado'

I’ll admit I was expecting an awful lot from The Robin Hood of El Dorado – yet another 1930s William A Wellman film (this one made for MGM rather than Warner or RKO) which isn’t as yet officially available on DVD. I knew that it was a socially-conscious Western which had a high reputation, and also that it starred Warner Baxter. He is an actor I admire though sadly many of his films seem to have disappeared (especially the silent ones, like the very first adaptation of The Great Gatsby) or are very hard to track down. This Western is also the first movie where Wellman was credited as scriptwriter as well as director – coming just a year before he won the Oscar for writing A Star Is Born.

So one way and another my hopes were high, but on first viewing I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed. I was impressed by the film’s powerful indictment of racism and prejudice, but felt as if the drama falls off in the middle after a powerful start. And I was also slightly taken aback to see Baxter playing a Mexican bandit, Joaquin Murrieta, complete with a heavy fake Spanish accent rather than his own expressive voice. There are many scenes where the Mexican characters speak among themselves in accented English, which I find hard to take at times  – though there isn’t much option in a film where some of the actors, like Mexican actress Margo as Murrieta’s young bride Rosita, really are from Latin America and others aren’t.

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