Sunday, June 5, 2011

Broadway Bill (1934)

“He has come to rescue the princess from the dark tower!”

            Broadway Bill is not a story about a man making it big on Broadway and winning the girl at the end. The film is actually about a horse named Broadway Bill and his owner breaking away from high society and winning a race no one ever thought the horse would win.
            Dan Brooks (Warner Baxter) is married to Margaret Higgins whose family the town they live in is named after. Dan works for his wife’s father J.L. Higgins at a cardboard box factory. He does not want the life he is living anymore he wants to be free and be with his horse. Margaret’s younger sister Alice (Myrna Loy) shares the same free spirit as Dan as well as love for his horse Broadway Bill. Over dinner one night Dan tells his family he is running away to enter Bill in the Imperial Derby. Alice applauds Dan while everyone just sits in silence she is so happy that one of them is breaking away. She really loves him they have so much in common while Margaret does not understand Dan and his need to get away. All the wealth in the world does not matter to him, he is not happy with his life. He wants to return to the racetrack where he used to hang around before he married Margaret. His dream is to breed and raise horses.
            Almost as soon as Dan gets into town where the derby is he is already in a bit of trouble. He does not have enough money to enter the race or keep Bill in a farm and pay the owner for feed. What’s more Bill is not doing well he is restless and lonely. Dan and his friend Whitey mail home a letter for Margaret to send a rooster that is Bill’s friend. Margaret tells Alice about the letter. Alice is all excited about the rooster who she named Skeeter and personally takes the bird to Dan and Bill. She can tell the men and the horse are in some financial trouble. She brings along some of her own money but as time goes on she pawns some of her jewelry and her fur coat.
            Things are going smoothly for Dan, Alice, Whitey, and Bill until a rainstorm comes. The roof leaks and drenches Bill and everyone in the barn. The next day Bill gets sick and even worse gets taken away by the police who were called by the barn owner for Dan not paying him for the feed. Luck seems to be on Dan’s side: a nurse at a hospital who bets on the races decides to bet on Bill who is a hundred to one shot. She tells a patient of hers who just happens to be very wealthy who she is betting on and he bets on the horse as well. The word spreads all over and soon hundreds of people are betting on Bill. This news gets back to the bookies and Bill becomes a new favorite to win. News that Dan has been put in jail and Bill is being held by the police also gets back to the bookies. The head of the booking department gets Dan out of jail and Bill out of police custody.
            Needless to say you know who wins the race. But the ending has a twist. Also you can probably guess that Dan and Margaret divorce and he and Alice wind up together. They drive away into the night with  Broadway Bill and a new horse named Princess.
            The story was very predictable. If you have seen those against the odds films you have seen them all. Broadway Bill was directed by Frank Capra if you have seen any of his films often times they deal with the rejection of wealth or norms and overcoming obstacles for the sake of happiness. I enjoyed the film to some degree. I found myself a bit bored with it after some time but I liked it. The cast was very good all around. I do not believe I have ever seen Warner Baxter in a film before. Baxter was good he was not over the top or annoying in any way (he kind of reminded me of William Powell a bit in some scenes). One scene I liked with Baxter was when Dan was sitting in a restaurant with his friend. Neither man can pay for the meal and realize they have to leave. To get out of paying Dan calls over a waiter who has plates in his hand. Dan flips the plates out of the waiter’s hands and he and his friend walk out making it look like the waiter was clumsy so they do not have to pay. The only problem with Baxter, according to Capra in his autobiography, was that he was deathly afraid of horses and would not go near Bill too much. This fact you can clearly see throughout the film whenever the horse and actor were together there was no warmth between owner and horse when there was supposed to be tons. Myrna Loy was lovely. She played Alice just before she played her most famous role Nora Charles. You can see the beginning of her feistiness, take-no-crap attitude, and independence that she would recreate fabulously in many of her films. Baxter and Loy had very good chemistry (but as I often say with Myrna Loy and any actor she worked with… who didn’t she have good chemistry with?). Their chemistry can be clearly seen by how much Alice cares for Dan and he cares for her. Dan lovingly calls Alice “Princess” and the two of them kid that her father is the “emperor.”
            Little casting tidbit: look out for an uncredited Lucille Ball as a telephone operator. Also keep an eye out for Margaret Hamilton a.k.a The Wicked Witch of the West as the owner of a boarding house.
            Broadway Bill is a very cute film although it is a bit predictable. On the movie poster it says “The Comedy Successor to It Happened One Night!”. Please, if you ever sit down to watch Broadway Bill do not go into thinking it will be as good or as funny as It Happened One Night because it is in no way like its predecessor. The film was most likely billed that way because it was a Frank Capra directorial. This is not one of Capra’s best films but it is cute and heartwarming with some very good laughs along the way. Catch Broadway Bill if it is ever on TV or watch it now on YouTube while it is available on the site.

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