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Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Broadway Bill (1934)

Directors: Frank Capra
Stars: Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy
I knew Frank Capra had remade one of his own films, turning 1933's Lady for a Day into 1961's Pocketful of Miracles. However I hadn't realised that he'd done it twice. He also made Broadway Bill in 1934 and then revisited it in 1950 under the title Riding High. I've always wondered what made directors remake their own films, something that a few of the big names did, but it's even more surprising here given that Broadway Bill just isn't known as a great Capra film and apparently he was dissatisfied with it. Then again, maybe that's why he wanted to remake it. Perhaps he felt it was a better story than he had made it and believed he could do it better justice on a second attempt. Playing them back to back, it'll be easy to see which wins out.

We begin in Higginsville where the name of J L Higgins is everywhere, including on what appears to be every business in town, all of which are run by sons-in-law of J L Higgins. He has four daughters and only Alice hasn't married yet, so his empire includes the offshoots named Early and Winslow and Brooks, and whatever else he can acquire. To some he's Emperor Higgins, to others the name is more like a disease than a family. In Higginsville you just can't get away from it. Dan Brooks, married to the former Margaret Higgins, would love to get away from it but he's stuck running the J L Higgins Paper Box company which he hates with a passion. He's capable, a born con artist as we'll soon discover, but his heart just isn't in paper boxes. He'd rather be out racing his horse, the Broadway Bill of the title.

Needless to say J L doesn't approve in the slightest, having brought him into the fold penniless, giving him a company and a daughter and expecting him to take care of both. Higgins is a relentless man, all about making money and extending his empire, causing his daughter Alice to suggest that the only things that change in the Higgins household are bedspreads and underwear. It's Alice, that happily unmarried Higgins daughter, who offers Brooks his only real support. She would appear to be a far better match for him than the daughter he landed and she knows it too. Of course he wouldn't see her if she stripped naked and danced a jig on top of his horse, still thinking of her as a kid even though she's played by Myrna Loy the same year she broke out of her exotic period with The Thin Man. She would go on to make a habit of playing the women that men should end up with and she makes no exception here.

When Brooks finally gets fed up enough to leave Higginsville to race his horse instead of making paper boxes, Margaret won't go with him and won't join him later, even when he writes to ask her. As far as she's concerned his place is with her and it's up to him to come back once he's gone through his little phase. Alice on the other hand, doesn't just join him at the Imperial Racetrack, she goes utterly above and beyond the call of duty. She beds down in the barn that Brooks has managed to acquire for Broadway Bill, all the while pretending that she has a hotel. She pawns her coat and jewellery to raise money for entry fees, though she makes sure stable boy Whitey pretends he made it rolling dice. She even brings Skeeter the rooster to help calm down Dan's horse, given that it won't stay in the gate without it.
In the able form of Warner Baxter, Dan Brooks is no slacker himself, though he does get more than a little annoying on occasion. Perhaps that was partly because he was afraid of horses, making the casting choice rather bizarre. He's much better setting up a whole host of con tricks to try to raise the money to get Broadway Bill entered in the $25,000 Imperial Derby, in cahoots with an old friend and colleague, Colonel Pettigrew, and his sidekick Oscar McGuire, better known as Happy, because he plainly isn't. Pettigrew, through the joyous presence of Raymond Walburn, steals every scene he's in, even wooing Margaret Hamilton to raise more cash, but Myrna Loy keeps us going with more subtle work whenever he disappears.

Those names never quit. Dan's stable boy/rider/whatever happens to be needed at the time is played by Clarence Muse, making the character's name of Whitey as dubious as the fact that he tries to raise his share of the dough rolling loaded bones. Muse was one of the great African American actors of his day, one who was sadly stuck for the most part in lesser supporting roles, though he luckily gets some opportunities here. Walter Connolly plays Emperor Higgins. Helen Vinson plays Dan's wife and she was always good with a hint or two of snobbery. The other sons-in-law are played by George Meeker and Jason Robards (that's Sr not Jr). Add Clara Blandick, Frankie Darro, even Lucille Ball hiding way down the cast list as a telephone operator passing on gossip, and you'll recognise most of the faces you see.

I'm sure you can imagine most of the plot in your head, because it's hardly surprising, at least until we get suckerpunched at the end of the race that counts. This scene is masterful filmmaking, letting the race unfold precisely how we expect, only to kick us in the teeth when we least expect it. It's all utterly appropriate but I can't remember the last time I was caught so on the hop by a cinematic twist. It even sets up the message of the film and where would a real Frank Capra movie be without a message. To be fair there are a few, and they're dished out to quite a few characters too, as well as we, the viewers.

All in all, Broadway Bill is a pretty solid comedy, that suffers most through its company, following Lady for a Day and It Happened One Night and being followed in turn by Mr Deeds Goes to Town. It's not in the same class as any of those three and is probably the least of his films in at least a fifteen year stretch but that doesn't mean it isn't great fun. The run Frank Capra had between the early to mid thirties and the late forties is almost unbeatable, generating classic after classic, almost all of which are still much viewed and much loved today. If it was better known, this would be too, albeit a little less than those other great films filling up Capra's filmography. Make no mistake, it's an enjoyable picture but it isn't 'the comedy successor to It Happened One Night', whatever the posters claimed and it wouldn't have turned into the success It's a Wonderful Life did, even if it had become a television perennial.

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