Broadway Bill (1934): Frank Capra’s Dramedy about Horse Racing, Starring Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy (Remade as Rising High, Starring Bing Crosby)

Frank Capra directed Broadway Bill, a dramedy starring Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy.

Broadway Bill
Movie poster showing Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy embracing

Theatrical release poster

The screenplay was written by Robert Riskin, based on the unpublished short story “Strictly Confidential” by New York Daily Mirror columnist Mark Hellinger (who later would become a producer).

Premise:

The film concerns a man’s love for his thoroughbred racehorse and the woman who helps him achieve his dreams.

Remake

Disliking the final product, Capra remade the film in 1950, under the title Riding High.

Dan Brooks (Warner Baxter) runs a paper-box factory for his father-in-law, J. L. Higgins (Walter Connolly), who owns most of the major businesses in Higginsville. Uninspired by his position, Dan devotes his energy to training thoroughbred racehorse, Broadway Bill, hoping to return to horse racing. Dan is encouraged to follow his dream by his unwed sister-in-law Alice (Myrna Loy) and stable hand Whitey (Clarence Muse).

When J. L. reports that sales are down in the paper box division, blame is put on Dan’s neglect.  Refusing to sell the horse and focus on his factory job, Dan resigns and leaves Higginsville without his wife Margaret (Helen Vinson), who has no sympathy for him.

Two years later, J. L. announces to his family that since Margaret’s divorce he has sold off most of his holdings and intends to sell the bank next. His announcement is interrupted when Dan arrives honking his car horn, demanding that J. L. “release the princess from the dark tower”. A joyous Alice runs to join Dan, Whitey, and their two new thoroughbreds, Broadway Bill II and Princess. As they’re preparing to drive away, J. L. leaves his family behind and runs after to join them.

Power of Love

Broadway Bill features the common theme in Capra films of love as bridge across class and social divide, which was central to It Happened One Night, a better film that won the 1934 Best Picture Oscar.

Like Claudette Colbert’s character Ellen Andrews, Myrna Loy’s Alice Higgins rebels against her father’s wealth and the constraints they impose on her search of love. These constraints are comically underscored in the dinner scenes in which the Higgins family eats in regimented style.

During these ritualistic meals that resemble board meetings, Alice is seated opposite an empty chair reserved for her future husband who, like her brothers-in-law, will be required to work for her father. Dan rejects the constraints that box him into J. L.’s lifeless world–a world of paper boxes–and decides to follow his love and passion for horse racing.

Reliable Collaborator: Riskin

Riskin had written previous scripts for Capra for The Miracle Woman (1931), Platinum Blonde (1931), American Madness (1933), Lady for a Day (1933), and It Happened One Night (1934), earning an Oscar the latter film. As the owner of racehorses and regular at tracks, Riskin captures the dynamics of horse racing and the characters in that environment, jockeys, stable hands, and gamblers.

Movie Ending:

While filming at Tanforan Racetrack, Capra became dissatisfied with the script’s happy ending, wishing instead more bittersweet and ambivalent ending comment on the American success ethic.

Since Riskin was vacationing in Europe, Capra invited former Paramount screenwriter Sidney Buchman to Palo Alto to discuss changes. Buchman the wrote 4 pages of new scenes depicting the horse’s death after crossing the finish line, the subsequent funeral, and new ending. Buchman was never credited for his contribution. He would later write the text for Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Capra wanted Clark Gable for the lead, but the actor was unavailable, so he settled for Warner Baxter. However, Baxter’s fear of horses restricted Capra’s ability to film close-up scenes. Disappointed, he vowed to remake the film with an actor who loved horses, which he did, casting Bing Crosby in Riding High (1950).

Cast
Warner Baxter as Dan Brooks
Myrna Loy as Alice Higgins
Walter Connolly as J. L. Higgins
Helen Vinson as Margaret
Douglass Dumbrille as Eddie Morgan
Raymond Walburn as Colonel Pettigrew
Lynne Overman as Happy McGuire
Clarence Muse as Whitey
Margaret Hamilton as Edna
Frankie Darro as Ted Williams
George Cooper as Joe
George Meeker as Henry Early
Jason Robards, Sr. as Arthur Winslow
Ed Tucker as Jimmy Baker
Edmund Breese as Racetrack Judge
Clara Blandick as Mrs. Peterson

Credits:

Directed, produced by Frank Capra
Screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on “Strictly Confidential” by Mark Hellinger
Cinematography Joseph Walker
Edited by Gene Havlick

Production and distribution: Columbia Pictures

Release dates: Nov 30, 1934 (NY, premiere); Dec 27, 1934 (USA)

Running time: 102 minutes
Box office $668,900 (U.S)