Frank Capra's Broadway Bill (1934) is a terrific movie, in some ways superior to other pre-war classics like You Can't Take it With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Undoubtedly the only reason this and its scene-for-scene remake, Riding High (1950), are being issued to DVD is to tie its release to the recent Seabiscuit (2004), but this picture is so good -- who cares?
Warner Baxter stars as Dan Brooks, a former penniless race horse owner now married to heiress Margaret (Helen Vinson), who has secured for her husband a place in the family's corporate empire. But Dan feels stifled and out-of-place as president of the Higgins Paper Box Company. He spends all his free-time at the stable with Broadway Bill (Broadway Bill, so say the credits), a race horse with enormous potential but kept out of competition due to Dan's new standing in the community, this despite the pleas of trainer Whitey (Clarence Muse), who recognizes Broadway Bill as a true champion.
At a family gathering, father-in-law J.L. Higgins (Walter Connolly) chastises Dan for failing to adequately look after the box company's interests, and orders his son-in-law to get rid of Broadway Bill. To everyone's shock, Dan abruptly walks out on his privileged life, taking Broadway Bill and Whitey with him. Margaret, however, refuses to join her husband. He's quickly followed, however, by sympathetic sister-in-law Alice (Myrna Loy), who like Dan despises the austere and rigid formality of life as a blue-blooded Higgins, and who's secretly in love with Dan.
Virtually penniless once again, Dan becomes determined to enter Broadway Bill in the $25,000 Imperial Derby, but needs $500 to enter his untested contender. Undeterred, Dan, Whitey and Alice use every means at their disposal to raise enough cash to enter Broadway Bill. Dan sells his car but mostly raises money through sheer bravado. Alice sells her jewelry, Whitey gambles, and they also enlist the aid of "Colonel" Pettigrew (Raymond Walburn), a southern gentleman shyster-type who haunts race tracks with Happy McGuire (Lynne Overman), conning gullible gamblers.
Broadway Bill is sentimental, old-fashioned, and manipulative in the very best sense. Baxter's Dan Brooks is an almost Herculean, Kurosawa-esque hero determined to overcome innumerable, seemingly insurmountable obstacles. At every turn, something goes wrong -- their stable leaks during a thunderstorm and Broadway Bill gets sick days before the race, creditors attach Broadway Bill and throw Dan in jail, etc. -- but Dan, Whitey, and Alice refuse to give up.
The film is an irresistible mix of effective manipulation and appeal to emotion, while at the same time offering a kind of naturalness in the performances that lend it a certain realism and sense of urgency.
Director Capra was especially good at this, and here really shows his talent for getting the most out of his ensemble cast. Baxter, best known for playing a similarly driven character in 42nd Street (1932) and later as the charming Cisco Kid, strikes all the right notes as Dan -- you really believe his entire future, indeed his very life, rests on the outcome of that horse race.
The effervescent Myrna Loy is, as she almost always was, a delight as the rebellious Higgins daughter, whose love for her brother-in-law is expressed almost entirely through her performance rather than dialogue. Similarly, Frankie Darrow, as a crooked jockey hired to ride Broadway Bill by gangster Morgan (Douglas Dumbrille), expresses an amazing range of complex, conflicted emotion while saying hardly a word. Raymond Walburn is quite amusing as an old-fashioned con artist, and in one especially good scene, both Pettigrew and Dan put on airs at a fancy restaurant, only to gradually realize that neither of them has even enough money to pick up the check.
African-American Clarence Muse carries enormous dignity as Bill's trainer. The part in some ways breaks from mid-1930s stereotyping: Muse's Whitey (well, there is that name) is a black man who is essentially the equal of the romantic leads.
Broadway Bill is given enough personality that one can understand Dan's faith and passion, yet Capra wisely doesn't over-anthropomorphize his title character, either. Broadway Bill is still an animal, serving mainly as the means for Dan's redemption.
Two of cinema's all-time great villains appear in atypical roles. Margaret Hamilton, in one of her first roles, plays a mousy landlady wanting to marry Colonel Pettigrew, while Charles Middleton, Ming the Merciless himself, appears as a sympathetic veterinarian. Sharp-eyed viewers will note many familiar faces appearing unbilled in small roles, including Lucille Ball, Ward Bond, Alan Hale, Sr., Clara Blandick (another Wizard of Oz alum) and, in his first of nine featured roles for Capra, the great character player Charles Lane (who will enjoy his 100th birthday in January!).
Ultimately, Broadway Bill's combination of rich characters and the marvelous actors playing them gives it an enormous momentum leading up to the big race. Because so much is at stake for characters so carefully considered in Robert Riskin's excellent script, the race itself is enormously exciting, thrilling even, and the aftermath quite moving.
Video & Audio
Broadway Bill looks okay but not exceptional. The image is quite soft at times, suggesting it was transferred off something other than the original negative. Originally produced by Columbia, rights to the film were sold to Paramount when Capra remade the picture for that studio. Moreover, since an enormous amount of stock footage from Broadway Bill was reused in Riding High, it's possible the original negative was pilfered for use in the remake. In any case the picture by all means is perfectly watchable. Optional English subtitles are included. The mono sound is adequate.
The only extra is a five-minute introduction/overview by Frank Capra, Jr., filmed in 1992, and of marginal interest.
It's greatly overused, but the expression "they really don't make 'em like that anymore" really does apply to Broadway Bill, a bonafide Capra classic.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.