It's no Seabiscuit, but this Capra musical about Bing Crosby and his racehorse should pleasantly while away the hours before the betting windows open.
"Horses I understand. But women…!"—Dan Brooks (Bing Crosby)
Frank Capra's Riding High is a pleasant bit of disposable entertainment for horse lovers or Bing Crosby fans. This musical remake of Capra's own 1934 film Broadway Bill also goes to show that today's directors don't have a monopoly on shameless remakes: Capra recycles not only the plot but many of his actors and even some of the footage from the earlier film. The end result is an amiable, tuneful comedy, although it changes gears rather startlingly toward the end.
Riding High tells the story of Dan Brooks (Bing Crosby, Road to Utopia), who tries to break away from the big-business interests represented by lumber mogul J.L. Higgins (Charles Bickford), his future father-in law. Although fiancée Margaret (Frances Gifford) wants him to make a go of his new position in a paper box factory, Dan yearns to return to his real love: horse racing. He and his best friend, horse trainer Whitey (Clarence Muse, repeating his role from Broadway Bill), are convinced that their horse Broadway Bill can outrun anything going, even though he's never competed in a single race. Bill and (not coincidentally) Dan also find support from Margaret's sister Alice (Coleen Gray), who has little respect for her father's empire and urges Dan to reject a future in the lumber business. Margaret, however, isn't prepared to leave her life of privilege for a man with nothing in his pocket but the Racing Form. So when Dan rebels against his future father-in-law and decides to enter Bill in a high-stakes race, both his career and his marriage are riding on a win.
With no money to pay for feed, board, and racing entry fees, Dan and Whitey call on two disreputable friends for assistance: jovial Professor Pettigrew (Raymond Walburn, another alumnus of Broadway Bill) and sarcastic Happy (William Demarest, The Lady Eve). Relying on their skills as con men (and some under-the-table help from Alice), this crew of connivers manages to get Bill entered in the Imperial Derby. But will Bill ever make it to the race? Between financial woes, Bill's illness, and the machinations of other horse owners, it looks like the future is far from a sure thing.
Riding High is formulaic enough to hold few surprises for its audience: We can be pretty certain that Dan and his pals will have to surmount many obstacles on the way to the Big Race, that somehow these underdogs will overcome, and that at some point along the way Dan will wake up to the fact that plucky Alice is the woman he really wants to marry, not bossy Margaret. Indeed, this fast-paced film seems to rely on audience familiarity with its structure, since it speeds through episodes with such dispatch that often the resolution to a plot crisis zips by in a matter of seconds, at which point the film moves right along to the next predicament. The peppy pace is an advantage, however, in holding the audience's interest, and Capra keeps the atmosphere lively and upbeat; musical numbers like "Camptown Races," the silly but high-spirited "Sunshine Cake," and the ensemble number "A Horse Told Me," set in a beer garden, maintain the buoyant atmosphere. Although leading lady Gray isn't much of a singer, Bing and co-star Muse complement each other well in song, especially in the easygoing travel duet "Anywhere Road." With the exception of some welcome lulls provided mainly by musical numbers, the film's pace is so relentless that it sometimes seems as if Bing doesn't have a chance to draw breath. Viewers who aren't fond of Bing, in fact, may come to feel that he never stops talking; if you aren't at least a lukewarm fan of the crooner, then Riding High is probably not the horse flick for you.
The otherwise comedic atmosphere shifts toward the end of the film, with a genuinely suspenseful race sequence and, more jarringly, a plot twist that alters the whole mood of the film. This twist feels like a slap in the face after the lighthearted, even fluffy tone set by the film heretofore, but it makes a certain sense in the way it allows the director to bring to the fore some characteristically Capra-esque themes. Until this point, Capra motifs such as the criticism of heartless business enterprises have been treated with humor and a lightly satirical touch, but this ultimately gives way to a much more didactic approach toward the end of the film. With scarcely any transition to pave the way for them, these sequences sit uneasily with the bulk of the film, and the message we are to take away from this part of the story (articulated in a speech by J.L. Higgins) almost seems to come out of left field. It fits naturally into Capra's oeuvre as a whole, but it doesn't fit as comfortably into this film.
On the plus side, however, the journey to this point is mostly a pleasant one. The presence of such terrific character actors as Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz), reprising her role as the "vinegar puss" landlady, and ever-grouchy William Demarest, boosts the film's appeal. Fans of Gone with the Wind will be intrigued to see Rand Brooks, Scarlett's gormless first husband, as one of Higgins's obsequious sons-in-law. Raymond Walburn as the gentlemanly scoundrel Professor Pettigrew is highly amusing (favorite line: "Bilked by my own chicanery!"), as are the scenes in which he and Happy, sometimes with the assistance of Dan, work a clever con on an unsuspecting patsy. (One such patsy is Oliver Hardy, in a Laurel-free cameo.) Capra moves these scenes along at a screwball pace, and along with the climactic race scene, they are probably the film's best moments. Clarence Muse's performance is another strong point. Providing a pleasing counterpoint to Bing's flippant persona, Muse brings warmth and a more mature quality to the film. I can't help but wonder, though, how this African American actor felt about being addressed throughout the film as "Whitey"—his character's full name is Clarence White, hence the nickname, but the sobriquet still jars.
Riding High receives a satisfactory transfer; the mono audio track is clear and agreeable, and the black-and-white picture, presented in its original aspect ratio, features an attractive range of greyscale tones. There is a not surprising amount of speckling and grain, and there is some faint flicker, but these don't seriously interfere with the viewing experience except in the sequences that were recycled from the first film: These are instantly recognizable by their increased grain, diminished contrast, and visual noise. On the whole, though, considering the film's age, it looks good. There are no extras.
Overall, Riding High is entertaining, but it doesn't approach the level of Capra's classic films. Although the direction is sure-handed, the film never really transcends B-movie status. If you love horse movies or adore Bing, you'll probably enjoy having it in your collection, but just don't expect this to be another Meet John Doe or It Happened One Night.
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