In this day and age, horse racing as a sport suffers from both a lack of mainstream coverage, and damaging negative press. The average person probably knows about the Kentucky Derby, peaks an interest if the Triple Crown is on the line, or reads about the unfortunate breakdowns and race day medication issues in American racing.
Compare that to the 1930s and 40s, when boxing, baseball and horse racing reigned supreme. The mainstream public knew the ins and outs of the game much more than today, and the track was a popular place to set a movie.
The sad thing is, while there are some bad apples in the cart, most associated with racing love the sport and its athletes. It’s a 365 days a year job, with long hours starting at the crack of dawn, no vacations, and sometimes, little reward. Racing is something that has to be in your blood, and chances are if it is, it’s a hard thing to shake.
Director Frank Capra captured some of that passion in his 1934 film, Broadway Bill. Released in November of 1934, Broadway Bill has the unfortunate distinction of being stuck between It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in the Capra canon. Thus, it is much less known. In fact, in going back and flipping through Capra’s autobiography, The Name Above the Title, there’s really no mention of the production of the movie.
Broadway Bill features Warner Baxter as Dan Brooks, a man with previous ties to the racing world who gave it up to marry Margaret Higgins (Helen Vinson). Margaret is the oldest of the four daughters of J.L Higgins (Walter Connelly), a strict businessman and the founder of Higginsville. Each of the son-in-laws is charged with a Higgins business, with Brooks stuck at the paper box company.
To keep himself happy, Dan sneaks out to train his one racehorse, a maiden named Broadway Bill. Bill is a leggy colt with a distinctive broken blaze down his forehead and a lot of promise. Dan is helped by his groom, Whitey (Clarence Muse), and the youngest Higgins daughter, Alice (Myrna Loy), whom he calls “Princess.” Margaret disapproves of her husband’s actions, feeling that her stable, wealthy lifestyle is threatened by Dan’s racetrack dreams.
At the next meeting of the business heads, J.L. calls Dan out for his lack of supervision at the paper box company, and demands he get rid of the horse. Dan finally decides to leave his job and hits the road with Whitey and Broadway Bill in tow, searching for a good spot for Bill’s first race.
Completely broke, Dan can’t afford to board Broadway Bill in the track stables, and is forced to keep him in the ramshackle barn of the feed supplier. Knowing he has a good horse, he keeps Bill under wraps and sets his sights on the big Imperial Derby.
With no money to front the Derby entry fee of 500 dollars, Dan decides to run Bill in a race to hopefully win the money they need. But the horse, still young and inexperienced, throws his rider at the barrier and takes off, landing on the schooling list until he can prove that he can start a race. Dan writes letters home to Margaret, asking her to come and visit, and bring Bill’s sidekick rooster to calm the horse. Margaret refuses, but Alice, seeking adventure, brings Dan the rooster and joins him at the track.
The trio then braves several obstacles on their way to the final race. Bill falls ill after a rainstorm leaks water into the barn all night, Dan is thrown in jail for not paying his feed bill, and his attempts to borrow the money he needs from friends proves futile when they also turn out to be broke. Through Alice selling her expensive clothes and jewelry, they are able to scrap up the Derby entry fee, and Dan is bailed out by a seemingly kind man who also offers him a jockey to ride Bill. Little does Dan know that this man is a bookmaker looking to fix the race for better odds on the horse he’s supporting.
Dan saddles Broadway Bill for the race, thinking his luck has turned. During the running of the contest, Bill is restrained by his jockey in an attempt to keep him from winning. But coming around the turn the colt grabs the bit and takes off, winning the race in driving fashion. Just a few strides after the wire, Bill collapses and dies of a heart attack.
As Broadway Bill is buried on the racetrack infield the following day, Dan realizes that although he is shattered, his place is at the track. Alice decides she will return home, but is happy for Dan, knowing he is free.
Years pass, and at a similar business meeting at the Higgins residence, J.L. announces that he has sold off most of his businesses and expects his son-in-laws to go to work and make something of themselves. At that moment, a car horn is sounded and rocks thrown through the dining room windows, with the declaration to “release the princess from the dark tower.” Alice rushes out to find Dan and Whitey, and two new horses, Broadway Bill II and Princess. Just as Alice says goodbye, J.L. makes the spontaneous decision to leave, and asks to join them.
Broadway Bill is a fairly simple film. There are the Capra touches of his themes of the working man and his unrelenting vision, but not nearly at the level that they would be explored in the Common Man trilogy of Mr. Deeds, Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. While Baxter and Loy are solid in the leads, Capra does a good job with his supporting players, making them interesting characters with large personalities. Unfortunately for Clarence Muse, a lot of Whitey’s character is based on racial stereotypes, but through most of the film I think there is a sense of friendship and admiration between Dan and Whitey.
One of my favorite sequences in this film is the final race. Shot at Tanforan Race Track, Capra gets up close with the horses, and unlike today where actors aren’t put at risk riding at high speeds, the racing footage is real. It helps give a sense of the racehorse as an athlete, their drive and competitiveness.
Interestingly enough, Warner Baxter apparently was scared of horses, so taking this role proved to be a challenge for him. Capra would remake Broadway Bill in 1950 as Riding High, where Bing Crosby was cast as Dan Brooks. Crosby had no issues with horses, owning racing thoroughbreds of his own.
As for the shooting locations, Tanforan no longer exists. Built in San Bruno, California near San Francisco, Capra shot racing scenes for both Broadway Bill and Riding High there. During its heyday, the track saw such horses and Seabiscuit and Citation on the grounds. It burned down in a 1964 fire, and the site is now home to a shopping mall.
While Broadway Bill in my opinion doesn’t have the force of impact as some of Capra’s later films, it’s a mostly breezy comedy-drama with a likable cast. I can relate to Dan Brooks in the way that I have always been enchanted by racehorses. Their sleek, on-their-toes and fiery presence was in direct contrast to the gentle, plodding creatures I rode when I was younger. A good racehorse, like a Secretariat, captures the masses’ imagination of greatness. In many ways, Broadway Bill captures just a little bit of that magic, using a horse to bring together characters, and inspire them to chase their dreams.
This post is my contribution to Page’s Horseathon. Check out My Love of Old Hollywood for links to the other Horseathon entries.