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Broadway Bill

Broadway Bill(1934)

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For many years considered a lost Frank Capra film, Broadway Bill (1934) emerged in the 1990s showcasing the talents of the director and his stars, Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy and Clarence Muse. The film was based on an original story by famed writer and Broadway columnist (and future Hollywood producer) Mark Hellinger called On the Nose (also known as Strictly Confidential), for which he was paid $8,000; the screenplay was adapted by frequent Capra collaborator Robert Riskin. It was the story of a man who leaves his cushy job at his father-in-law's paper box factory - and his overbearing wife - to train his horse to run in the Kentucky Derby.

In an interview shortly before filming began, Capra expressed frustration with the production of the film, "We have one advantage at this studio [Columbia Pictures]. We take time to select a story; one we can get hepped up over. We don't have to write it to fit star personalities; Columbia hasn't enough of them for that, anyway. It's the story, the treatment that counts. Then we go out and get the players to fit. We're two months late in starting Broadway Bill - that's our next right now. The people we want, most of them, are under contract to other studios. So far, we've got Warner Baxter for the lead." According to cinematographer Joseph Walker, Capra tried to get Clark Gable for the part of Dan Brooks (having just directed him in It Happened One Night [1934]) but settled on Baxter. For the two female leads, Capra got Myrna Loy and Helen Vinson, playing sisters. In supporting roles, Louis Calhern was replaced with Douglas Dumbrille before shooting began, Sidney Skolsky, who would later become a famous columnist, was replaced in the small role as a jockey, and twenty-three year old Lucille Ball had a brief part as a blonde telephone operator. According to Kathleen Brady in her biography of Ball, she would "forge lifetime bonds with some of her fellow bit players in Broadway Bill, including Charles Lane, who played a crook, and Irving Bacon, who played a hot dog stand owner. Both actors later appeared regularly on I Love Lucy." Later, when asked about his seeming gift for propelling his actors to stardom he said, "I believe that actors, if they're given a little aid and a little leeway, get along much better than they are normally supposed to. The trick is to get that best scene from that actor at the right time, so that it can go onto the screen, even if it's just twenty seconds but that twenty seconds that that actor works must be his top. Now, if you can skim the top from that actor's performance, and you have him give the top performance on every scene, and never let him down below his top that he's able to give, you'll get a fine performance. If his scenes go up and down, from top to medium to below standard (for his capability), you have an uneven performance. The trick of a director is to get only the peaks."

Actor-writer-composer Clarence Muse, playing Whitey, was a graduate of the Dickinson School of Law in Pennsylvania. As an African-American actor in 1930s Hollywood, he was required to play broad characters, but Muse always injected restraint into his roles and was a favorite of Frank Capra. According to Donald Bogle in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, "Muse had previously worked for Capra in Rain or Shine [1930] and Dirigible [1931], and the director, who affectionately called Muse his "pet actor," handled him sensitively. Cast opposite Caucasian actor Warner Baxter, Muse again played the amiable alter ego. The film is about a race horse, Broadway Bill, that Baxter and Muse hope to enter in the Kentucky Derby. Both are short on cash, and when Baxter discovers Muse's savings in the latter's boots, he uses the money of his black friend who is called Whitey for the racing enterprise. Throughout the film the two men are true compatriots. They sleep under the same roof. They share whatever food they can get. Still Muse's role called for much tommery and even some racking instances of Jim Crowism. In one scene, the film's producers upheld their self-imposed color bar by having Muse eat his food standing while Baxter remained seated. It would have been unheard of to have a black and white sit at the same table. Yet again, Muse managed to strike at consciences through the depth of his own personality. Even the manner in which he walked with head lifted, body erect, eyes straight ahead indicated a self-respect and black self-awareness that other actors of the period lacked."

Broadway Bill was shot on a tight schedule between June 18 August 16, 1934 at the Columbia Studios in Hollywood and on location at Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno, California, the Warner Ranch, and the Pacific Coast Steel Mills. It previewed on October 24, 1932, went into reedits based upon audience reaction, then previewed again on November 24th. The film went into general release on November 30, 1934.

Andre Sennwald in The New York Times hailed the film and Frank Capra, "Out of the sentimental simplicities of Mark Hellinger's story, Mr. Capra manufactures the kind of entertainment which pleases the thin-nosed sophisticate as well as the ribbon-counter empress and the affrighted defender of the public morale. So skillfully does he wield his gently satirical cameras that, if you are not aware of the portentous matters he is spoofing, you are still under the impression that the screen is providing an uncommonly pleasant experience. For Mr. Capra owns a rare gift for cinema. It is a fortunate coincidence that he bestows it for the greatest good of the greatest number....The players who work for Mr. Capra have a habit of performing at the top of their talent. Mr. Baxter is enormously agreeable as the Dan Brooks who fights his way out of the cubby hole where life and circumstance have conspired to imprison him. As his sympathetic assistant, the Princess, Myrna Loy reaffirms our faith in her, both as a light comedienne and as a person. Then there are Walter Connolly as the omnipotent oom of the Higgins enterprises, Clarence Muse as the diverting stable-boy, Lynne Overman as the skeptical racetrack tout, Raymond Walburn as the strictly phoney gentleman who calls himself Colonel Pettigrew, and the charming Helen Vinson as Dan's chill and conservative wife. Broadway Bill is passed without reservations and Mr. Capra is recommended for a furlough with pay."

Unfortunately for Capra, the hectic schedule of making film after film, an infection from a burst appendix, and the birth of a deaf and possibly autistic son caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown after the completion of Broadway Bill which required a lengthy recovery in a hospital. He did eventually go on to make some of the best films of the 1930s and 1940s including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939] and It's a Wonderful Life [1946]. He would later remake Broadway Bill for Paramount as Riding High [1950] with Bing Crosby and Coleen Gray. Reprising their roles from the original film were Clarence Muse, Douglas Dumbrille, Margaret Hamilton, Frankie Darro, Ward Bond, Raymond Walburn, and Irving Bacon. Clarence Muse's final film would be another horse epic, The Black Stallion [1979], the same year he died one day short of his 90th birthday.

Broadway Bill had been considered a "lost" film, having been held from distribution because Paramount (who had bought the rights to the film) did not want it to conflict with Riding High. The film eventually resurfaced in the 1990s. Michael Schlesinger, manager of Paramount's Theatrical Repertory Sales said, in an interview in the Los Angeles Times, "Obviously, we (Paramount) would have liked to have re-released it when Capra was alive, but there were underlying story rights, musical rights, all kinds of rights that had to be cleared. Then there was the problem of the negative. The only fine-grain 35-millimeter in existence was at the Library of Congress," Like It Happened One Night, Broadway Bill was missing scenes from the original film. The 1934 running time of the film was 125 minutes. The rediscovered version now runs 104 minutes, leaving scholars to wonder what gems have been lost.

Producer: Frank Capra, Harry Cohn (uncredited)
Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Robert Riskin; Mark Hellinger (story); Sidney Buchman (uncredited)
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Art Direction: Jerome Pycha Jr. (uncredited)
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff, Howard Jackson, Louis Silvers (all uncredited)
Film Editing: Gene Havlick
Cast: Warner Baxter (Dan Brooks), Myrna Loy (The Princess), Walter Connolly (J.L. Higgins), Helen Vinson (Margaret), Douglas Dumbrille (Eddie Morgan), Raymond Walburn (Colonel Pettigrew), Lynne Overman (Happy McGuire), Clarence Muse (Whitey), Broadway Bill (Himself), Margaret Hamilton (Edna), Frankie Darro (Ted Williams).

by Lorraine LoBianco

Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films by Donald Bogle
The American Film Institute Catalog by Alan Gevinson
The Internet Movie Database
Broadway Bill: a New Comedy Directed by Frank Capra, at the Radio City Music Hall by Andre Sennwald, The New York Times , November 30, 1934.
The All-Movie Guide by Hal Erickson
Off-Centerpiece Movies Capra's "Broadway Bill" Finally Gets Untracked by Jane Galbraith. The Los Angeles Times , April 19, 1992.
Frank Capra Interviews by Frank Capra and Leland A. Poague
Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball by Kathleen Brady

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