“That’s not a family; it’s a disease”: Broadway Bill (1934)

In 1934, director Frank Capra released the seminal classic It Happened One Night, a picture that helped define the relatively new genre of screwball comedy. On the heels of that film’s monumental success, Capra followed up with another comedy, Broadway Bill. But while Night became a perennial favorite, Bill virtually disappeared for decades after its release; according to the TCMdb entry on the film, it was yanked from distribution by Paramount so it would not compete with Capra’s own 1950 remake of the material, Riding High with Bing Crosby, which Capra undertook to “improve” upon the 1934 version. While its own director may not have been pleased with the final product, Broadway Bill presents an amusing, albeit sometimes frustrating tale about the peccadilloes of the rich and “horsey” set.

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The film opens with an illustration of the Higgins family dynamics. Banking tycoon and head of the family, J.L. Higgins, (Walter Connolly) insists that his three sons-in-law be personally notified of a board meeting, even though apparently the entire town is already aware of each meeting. J.L. has given each of his sons-in-law control of a subsidiary of his empire, and he runs a tight ship. One of his sons-in-law, Dan Brooks (Warner Baxter), can’t be reached to be reminded of the impending meeting, as he is out with his wife’s sister, “Princess” Alice (Myrna Loy). The two are at the stables, racing Dan’s horse, Broadway Bill. Dan doesn’t seem interested in the family business, and enjoys spending his time with his horse away from the office. Dan’s wife, Margaret (Helen Vinson), isn’t amused by Dan’s carefree attitude. He begs her to skip the meeting and sit under the moon with him. He tries to tell her that he’s miserable, and begs her to run away with him, to no avail.

The family dinner/board meeting starts off amusingly enough: each family member sits at the table at the same time; each guest at the table sips his or her soup at the same time; each person dips their fingers in the washbowl at the end of the meal at the same time. Unfortunately, things become dramatic when J.L. begins to discuss business. He admonishes Dan for his “shameful neglect” of the box-company subsidiary that he has been put in charge of running for his father-in-law. When J.L. demands that Dan get rid of his beloved horse, Broadway Bill, Dan is pushed a step too far. He tells his father-in-law that he’s quitting the business:

“The reason is simple. I’ve hated it. I’ve always hated it. Oh, not that it isn’t a good business, mind you. It’s all right for you and Mr. Winslow or Mr. Early. I don’t blame them for wanting it. They’re suited to it, I’m not. Boy, I know I sound crazy to you, maybe I am. But somehow you strike me the same way. Everything here seems lopsided to me. Higginsville, the Higgins family, the Higgins Enterprises. Oh, don’t get offended. It’s just we don’t speak the same language, that’s all.You’re interested in only one thing. Accumulating money, expanding the Higgins Enterprises, gobbling up all the little fellows. Look, you’ve just snatched the Acme Lumber Company away from some poor people that spent their lives building it up. I hope it made you happy … Look at you. You haven’t taken a vacation in 40 years. You’re just rotting away in your own little kingdom. If that’s your idea of a holiday, you can have it. It isn’t mine.”

Unfortunately for Dan, Margaret does not feel the same way about his new-found freedom and his excitement about breaking away from the family wealth. She refuses to leave with him. Her single and free-spirited sister Princess, however, claps for Dan’s speech. She tells her father: “Daddy dear, your little monarchy is fast folding up. Your crown prince has flown … Oh, you’re a strong and powerful ruler, almighty king. But you’re not going to crush him under your heels any longer.” Her father is confused when she is one moment rejoicing in Dan’s triumph, and crying into her pillow the next. Unbeknownst to him, she has had feelings for Dan for some time.

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Photo credit: acertaincinema.com

Newly divorced from the Higgins family, Dan heads straight to the racetrack with Broadway Bill to try his luck at the races. Barely scraping by, Dan struggles to find the money even to feed himself as he hedges all his bets on Broadway Bill. Princess spends a great deal of time at the race track with Dan, encouraging him in his dream and helping to take care of him. “Looks like I married the wrong woman,” he says, unaware of her romantic feelings for him. The two work hard to get Broadway Bill to the race, with great yet ultimately tragic success.

Although Broadway Bill–recently released through Warner Archive’s MOD (manufactured-on-demand) service–was fairly warmly reviewed by critics at the time, I found it a bit harder to find the charm. However, I can’t help but wonder how differently I would have viewed this film in my younger years. On one hand, I admire the sacrifice and desire to give up everything to follow one’s dreams. On the other hand, having the responsibility of children and a mortgage, I can’t help but shake my head at the irresponsibility of giving up such a sweet deal as running a successful family business.

And I have to admit, although I don’t have a sister, it seems inherently wrong and icky to me that a brother-in-law and sister-in-law end up together.

True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of Broadway Bill for the purposes of this review.

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