Thursday 7 January 2010

Riding High (1950)

Director: Frank Capra
Stars: Bing Crosby, Coleen Gray, Charles Bickford and Frances Gifford
As if there weren't enough names in the original version, 1934's Broadway Bill, Frank Capra added a Who's Who of 1950s supporting actors for this remake of his own film. There's Charles Bickford, James Gleason, Harry Davenport, William Demarest, Gene Lockhart... it's an irresistible cast for me even though Warner Baxter's lead role goes instead to the biggest star of the time, Bing Crosby, thus inevitably turning the film into a musical. I'm more likely to want to see a musical with Clarence Muse in it than one with Bing Crosby, but fortunately Muse is back along with a number of other members of the original cast. What's most stunning isn't that a number of actors reprise their roles, it's that most of them are only there through use of footage taken directly from the original film, making this picture appear stunningly cheap.

Sure, Clarence Muse is back in the same role, with a face sixteen years older and a voice sixteen years deeper. Raymond Walburn and Margaret Hamilton are back too, though Pettigrew is now a Professor instead of a Colonel. It looks like Paul Harvey is back in some scenes but not in others, depending on how easy they could be reshot. Ward Bond, Douglass Dumbrille and Frankie Darro appear the same way and in fact much of the fun here is in working out who's really back and who's only back through the magic of Hollywood. I'm sure I haven't worked out all of them but some are blatant because they age sixteen years from one scene to the next and then magically get young again. Certainly that isn't Clara Blandick reprising her role as Higgins's secretary at the beginning of the film, it's the Clara Blandick of sixteen years earlier in exactly the same footage, and she's not alone. Many of the lesser background scenes are just stolen from the original.

By the time we get to new actors, we find that this just isn't a patch on Broadway Bill. Bing Crosby really isn't that bad, as while he's remembered as a singer he was also a very capable actor. He's also far more comfortable around horses than Baxter was, leading to some great moments at least, but he's lumbered with a really clumsy explanatory monologue to introduce the whole setup and this clumsiness continues to explain how this version is subject to the rigorous requirements of the Production Code. He's still Dan Brooks and he's still running the J L Higgins Paper Box factory, but he's not one of J L Higgins's son-in-laws this time because the way the story unfolds just couldn't happen in 1950. So this time he's merely engaged to Margaret Higgins, who in the form of Frances Gifford is less believable and more annoying than Helen Vinson ever was.

Unfortunately these odd little changes break things so the writers have to patch them up and generally they're about as effective as the job they do on the barn when the storm hits. It seems that everyone has to explain everything, as if we can't be trusted to grasp the implications of what's being set up. The fifties were supposed to be the era of sophisticated Hollywood filmmaking. If so, they sure got over this one quickly. The story is generally the same: Brooks gets fed up of running a paper box factory and leaves Higginsville to live his dream and race his horse, Broadway Bill. His fiancée couldn't care less, his father-in-law is upset with him and only young Alice applauds when he leaves. She goes to follow him too without even the scene to explain why. That's all told in hindsight this time out.

Alice Higgins is even more obvious here than she was in the original film, and while Coleen Gray does look a little more like the right age for Alice than Myrna Loy she can't match her in any other respect. With her appearing a little younger, it introduces one of classic Hollywood's most dubious concepts, the dirty old man who isn't supposed to be: Gray was 28 and Bing was 47, something not easily avoided by the viewer. She may be chirpy but that just makes it worse. At least they didn't cast Fred Astaire this time, as he was four years older than Crosby and looked older still. I can't say that 19 year gap is much different than that between Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy, given that they were 45 and 29 respectively, but Loy was always older than her years and she carried the depth and the tension wonderfully. Gray can't do either. Her best scene is her last one.

Riding High isn't all bad, mostly because of the supporting actors, though Charles Bickford is far better than the material he's given and can't do much with it. As written here it's less of a part than it was sixteen years earlier and he knows it. Raymond Walburn is just as much fun this time out as he was in the original, gloriously roguish as Pettigrew, and while Lynne Overman was great as his sidekick in 1934, William Demarest is just as good as his replacement. The pair of them play very well off each other, and they do the same with Oliver Hardy, appearing here in a rare film without his regular partner, Stan Laurel. Margaret Rutherford gets a little more to do this time, but still not enough. Harry Davenport is as great as you'd expect but doesn't get much to do, though he sneaks one great moment in that's new. Gene Lockhart makes the J P Chase scene much better than the original and James Gleason is, as always, utterly perfect. He could be saddled with the most clichéd dialogue and still make me feel it.

In the main though this is a painfully cheap remake, utterly unworthy of Frank Capra. While Broadway Bill was never the most subtle film in the book, the lack of Myrna Loy is felt so astutely here that this becomes nothing but cheap and blatant. It's also a musical to boot, but to be fair the songs are few and far between and surprisingly decent. Sunshine Cake is a silly song in the best ways and suggests that everyone involved was having great fun singing it. Camptown Races is surreal, given that the most memorable version was made by another black actor in an utterly different way, namely Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles. When the most fun to be had is working out how many corners Capra cut to meet the budget, you know something is up. If he didn't like what he did in Broadway Bill, what must he have felt about this?

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