Friday, December 24, 2010
Our Home is a Barn
Broadway Bill is ostensibly a movie about horse racing, but the growing story of impossible love rivals the unlikely rise of the horse with 100-1 odds at the Imperial Derby. As the director, Frank Capra faces the challenging task of slowly developing a taboo relationship between Dan Brooks and Alice Higgins, one which challenges the horse racing story for primacy in the film. Yet the romance never overtakes the story about Broadway Bill. Dan’s love is horses first of all, and any woman who loves Dan must understand that. His wife doesn’t. Though the relationship between Dan and Alice is hinted at from the very beginning, the union of Brooks with the sister of his wife is delayed until the end of the movie. Capra must invoke the potential for adultery in the minds of his audience, while keeping his two main characters sympathetic at the same time. The most emotionally complex and effective scene in the movie for invoking this double attitude is when Alice makes the barn into a home while risking open acknowledgement of their romantic conflict.
Horse racing is exciting, which helps the challenge of the director. Capra reveals and submerges the forbidden romance of Dan and Alice as Broadway Bill is prepared for competition. Capra heats up his taboo relationship, and then cools it down by pointing our attention in a different direction. Love is complex, and we can’t necessarily choose with whom we fall in love. Love is as inexplicable as the rooster Skeeter and Broadway Bill. Not only are they different species, they’re both male. Bill can’t function without his beloved rooster, so someone has to bring him. Alice is not coming to Dan to commit adultery. She is simply bringing the rooster. His wife could have done it, but she didn’t. Skeeter is not only the hook to bring Alice to the Derby, the barn scene also begins with Skeeter and Bill nuzzling each other. This scene is wholesome on the surface with Alice preparing a humble dinner, but the potential for adultery is invoked at the same time. Alice isn’t going back to the hotel; she is at the barn to stay. A barn is not a house, but it is not outside either. Capra establishes a kind of horse racing “green world” where moral laws can be suspended, ever so slightly. Alice and Dan can play at domesticity without making the plunge.
The challenge for Capra is to advance the romance of Alice and Dan while denying the very possibility at the same time. He wants the audience to feel the rightness of their relationship, and its conflicts, while not registering any major moral disturbance. This is a tricky objective, and the potential for disaster—for moral imbalance—is greatest in the barn scene. Otherwise Dan is the villain in the thin mustache, and Alice is the Lolita younger sister who wants to steal Margaret’s husband. To that end, Whitey is a potential chaperone, but only his head appears in a window. He is also singing a romantic song. If he is their chaperone as a third human presence, he is also distracted and absent when he needs to be. There is an erratic quality to this scene, one of playful distraction in the makeshift domesticity. Capra needs to touch on the taboo possibility while simultaneously being able to shift in any number of directions to quickly change the subject.
Our feelings will rapidly change about these characters if they give into their feelings, and our feelings for these characters will shift if they don’t. We can’t like them if they get together. We can’t like them and not want them to be together. Capra is slowly making the forbidden love sympathetic, and normalized to a degree. He does this most directly with the dungarees that Alice is wearing. She is wearing Dan’s pants. The pants establish a radical intimacy between them. Dan wants his pants back, and he does what would be natural—for two stable boys, or two lovers—he begins to take them back, on his own. Dan unbuttons her pants, and the reality of what he is doing dawns on him, and on her. He stops, but the boundary has been breached. He is literally in her pants. Capra could have never done this were the scene’s subject overtly one of romance. The subject must be quickly changed. The line must be redrawn, yet the audience won’t forget how normal the violation seemed in the moment. They must separate, which they do. Dan resorts to his big bother-kid sister routine as he teases her about her imaginary boyfriend, but the physical chemistry between the two characters is undeniable. Dan can repress the awareness, but we can’t as successfully. Neither can Alice.
Their courtship must be recognized and hidden at the same time. The two characters can’t be aware of it at the same time. In the barn scene, Capra must give the occasion for physical intimacy, yet provide barriers between the characters when they need them. This gives the scene its erratic quality—the urgent need to focus on something else. There are nearby distractions like the tin cans of food, which Dan opens. But he also sings romantically about two cans that just go together. The cans fail to completely change the subject. When there are no longer objects of food to distract Dan, he can always turn to his first love, which is the horse and the upcoming race. He broods at the table while seeming to forget about this growing problem with his wife’s sister, the twisting thorn in their sides. Despite their moments of physical closeness, the characters often spin away from each other, sometimes moving out of the camera range. Moreover, there is very little eye contact between Dan and Alice. They are close together without looking directly at each other. They can repress and become more intimate at the same time.
The choreography of the characters is more important than dialogue. How they move near each other is more important than what they say. However, this primacy of movement comes to an abrupt halt. Dan finally says what the audience, and Alice, has been thinking during this scene: “It looks like I married the wrong woman.” Alice can no longer play along with the breezy kitchen coziness, and Dan is turned away from her when he says his line. He says the line whimsically, without taking responsibility for what he is saying. The line is playfully delivered, but it hits her like a punch. Her conflict is out in the open, and the camera stays with her nonverbal reaction. Alice can’t say anything for a few moments, and she can’t regain her composure. Her vulnerability is completely out in the open. The pace of the scene slows down, but not for long. Dan keeps on talking, but the camera’s focus is on her. She regains her footing, but denial is impossible for Alice now. Repression is no longer an option. She eventually turns her back to the camera, and the rain mirrors the tears that we can imagine but cannot see. The rain doubles her emotional condition symbolically, and it also provides Capra with the most radical and abrupt change of subject in this scene. Suddenly the barn is contrasted with Lady Gallant’s stately headquarters. The peril of the leaky barn then becomes the primary objective, not the taboo romance, and the crisis requires all hands on deck to survive the night. Their romance is repressed in the emergency, but it is not forgotten by the audience.
The characters in Broadway Bill are conflicted and moral, and Dan chastely tucks in his Princess at the end of the barn scene. When they, and we, have fully experience the exhilaration of the race itself, from jubilation to tragedy, the emotional range that we have shared makes their relationship achieve almost a normalcy. They leave the funeral for Bill something like husband and wife, but even then they separate. This is an extraordinary advancement by Capra, one which is possible because of the simultaneous moral tension and sexual reticence, the complex double attitude, of the barn scene. Even the most priggish members of the audience move ahead of Dan and Alice in the barn. We can safely contemplate the potential for tragedy in their taboo attraction, but it is delayed in its consummation. It is delayed even after the derby is long over, and Bill is buried. It is delayed until the father of the daughters recognizes the authenticity and rightness of Dan and Alice. The relationship is delayed until it is no longer tragedy, but rather the perfect pitch of romance at the end. Alice really is the princess, and it is time for her to run free with the man that she loves.