Bing Crosby stars as Dan Brooks, a former penniless race horse owner now engaged to heiress Margaret (Frances Gifford), who secured for her husband a place in the family's corporate empire. But Dan feels stifled and out-of-place "on probation" as president of the Higgins Paper Box Company. He spends all his free-time at the stable with Broadway Bill, a race horse with enormous potential but kept out of competition due to Dan's social standing, this despite the pleas of trainer Whitey (Clarence Muse), who recognizes Broadway Bill as a champion.
At a family gathering, future father-in-law J.L. Higgins (Charles Bickford) chastises Dan for failing to look after the box company's interests, and orders his would-be 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 Margaret's sister, Alice (Coleen Gray), who like Dan despises the austere and rigid formality of life as a 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 race horse. 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 the 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 the race tracks with Happy McGuire (William Demarest), conning gullible gamblers.
Riding High (1950) is not one of Frank Capra's better films, but it's a fascinating effort all the same. A remake of his far superior Broadway Bill (1934), Capra was reportedly forced to trim his budget to the point where whole chunks of the original film have been integrated into the remake, all in an effort to save some money. The result is quite strange and intriguing for classic film buffs. Some characters appear only in new footage, others only in stock footage from the first film; some actors appear in both old and new scenes shot 16 years apart and who more or less compete with their younger selves.
For instance, Douglas Dumbrille, Ward Bond, and Charles Lane appear in several long scenes lifted whole cloth from Broadway Bill. However, they also appear in new footage, still wearing mid-1930s-era suits and hats to match the stock scenes and looking decidedly older. Bond, athletic and trim with dark hair in the old footage, is fat with graying hair in new scenes. (Capra or maybe his cameramen realized this, as new shots favor Dumbrille and Lane.)
What's especially odd is watching these straddling performers appear in new scenes which, sometimes unnecessarily, use the same dialogue, often word-for-word, and in some cases are shot and cut exactly the same way. Besides Dumbrille, Bond, and Lane, other actors appearing in both old and new footage include: Raymond Walburn, Margaret Hamilton, Paul Harvey, Irving Bacon, and Frankie Darro. In some cases, actors like Clara Blandick appear only in stock footage speaking, thanks to the miracle of editing, to people filmed nearly a generation later.
Because of changing cinematographic styles (more than the passing years), the difference between the old footage and the new is generally quite obvious, though the editing often cleverly works overtime to hide this. Once married to this approach, however, the use of the stock scenes necessitated that the script couldn't stray too far from the original material. An unexpected result of all this is that, in retrospect, Riding High plays much more dated and old-fashioned than Broadway Bill.
There are two major changes, neither of which help the picture. The first is that star Bing Crosby gets to sing several songs (including Sunshine Cake and, inevitably, Camptown Races), which aren't bad in and of themselves, but tend to stop the narrative dead rather than supplement it or move it forward. The second, a concession to the more prudish 1950s, is that Dan is engaged to Margaret rather than already married to her. Apparently the notion of an unhappily married man leaving his wife and eventually falling in love with his sister-in-law was too racy by 1950 standards, but this only weakens the story by, in essence, lowering the stakes for Dan.
The bulk of the film plays like a scene-for-scene remake, though some of the new footage is treated with much less subtly, such as a long, syrupy monologue Dan delivers about Broadway Bill's days as a pony, when he looked after his blind mother (!), or when Bill is attached by creditors, and the caretaker assigned to the horse savagely whips it. These moments are cringingly manipulative -- the kind of Capra corn the filmmaker was justly accused of in many of his later films.
But the biggest problem is Bing Crosby, who pales next to Warner Baxter's superior characterization. Crosby's easy confidence lacks the sense of urgency and determination Baxter gave the part. Bing's too breezy, too unfazed, too unconcerned by the high odds against him to be believable. Coleen Gray is fine in the Myrna Loy role, but the part seems to have been rethought in bland 1950s housewife terms. Instead of a rebellious daughter yearning for adventure, Gray's "princess" is like an atomic age mom happiest making dinner for the boys.
Of the new cast, both William Demarest, as a humorless cynic (who shares scenes with character favorite Dub Taylor), and James Gleason, as a sympathetic racing secretary, come off best. In a rare solo turn, a well-cast Oliver Hardy makes an unbilled appearance as a gullible gambler at the races whom sharpies Demarest and Walburn dupe out of $25. Though Hardy is uncomfortably overweight here (beads of sweat pour down his face in every shot), it's a memorable cameo, and he's very good in the part.
Video & Audio
Riding High looks good for its age (ages?): the full-frame transfer is bright with good resolution. The stock footage is also in good condition, maybe marginally better than it appears on the Broadway Bill DVD. The mono sound is fine, and the disc offer optional English subtitles.
More a footnote than anything else, Riding High is of interest mainly to film buffs, Capra and Oliver Hardy fans. Those looking for a genuinely good movie from the same script are strongly advised to see Broadway Bill instead.
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.