Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The Dark Horse (1932): Programmers, Patsies & Politics

"He's the dumbest human being I ever saw. Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge." Warren William as campaign manager Hal S. Blake, The Dark Horse.



This is Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog's contribution to the 2016 Bette Davis Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood. Happy to celebrate Miss Davis' 108th birthday!



It seems timely enough in 2016 to review the 1932 election year opus The Dark Horse, just one of many fast and furious programmers from Warner Brothers (dear readers, if you have not seen this movie, spoilers abound).



While historically important due to Miss Davis' way too small but important role, as well as a story reputedly penned quickly by Darryl F. Zanuck (using the nom de plume Melville Crossman), The Dark Horse is mostly a very goofy comedy that uses corrupt machine politics as a backdrop.



Its basic premise: to break a tie in a gubernatorial race, Zachary Hicks of Menifee County, a nincompoop of nincompoops, has been chosen randomly by the progressive party to run as a "dark horse" candidate.



The party's brilliant secretary, Kay Russell, enlists her beau, reckless but persuasive political operative Hal Samson Blake, to helm the Hicks campaign and convince gullible state voters to embrace the semi-literate knucklehead as a "man of the people."



Prefacing this review: a few notes on Bette Davis' earliest appearances in movies.



Frankly, seeing Miss Davis neither drive the storyline to uncharted territory nor dominate the screen in her early Universal and Warner Brothers films really takes some getting used to.



Watching Bette play a meek mousey milquetoast sort in her silver screen debut in The Bad Sister, a 1931 Universal Pictures vehicle for starlet Sidney Fox, makes the latter-day viewer do a double take worthy of Jimmie Finlayson in a Laurel & Hardy 2-reeler. Even odder is seeing a very early appearance by Humphrey Bogart, still in his "anyone for tennis" stage, in the same potboiler.



Bette does her best to inject blazing white hot insane intensity into these parts - that is, when given any opportunity whatsoever to do so. Mostly in 1931-1932, she's the bonus baby riding the bench, but Bette periodically gets in there and slams some scorching line drives sure to decapitate a pitcher who fails to duck. She more than holds her own with such co-stars as the acclaimed yet florid British stage actor George Arliss and classy pre-code grande dame Ruth Chatterton.





Soon to utter the star-making line in Cabin In The Cotton, "ah'd love to kiss ya, but ah just washed mah hair," Miss Davis plays a pivotal but (yet again) clearly supporting role in The Dark Horse. As Kay Russell, the ambitious secretary of the Progressive Party and smart as a whip paramour of a Whiz Kid Campaign Manager played by Warren William (who THINKS he's the smart one. . . ha ha ha, think again, pal), Bette doesn't get all that much to do. It's Warren William's movie.



As fun as William's "Lee Tracy meets John Barrymore" turn as the egocentric campaign manager who got married while on an extended drunken bender is, inevitably, one wants more scenes featuring Bette Davis. It's obvious from the moment Bette makes her entrance 9:48 into the movie that she is no ordinary talent or background player.



Although one gets the impression that Bette is holding back at all times, there are individual moments in which she commands the screen.



Here's a frame grab from the scene in which she confronts Whiz Kid Campaign Manager's ex-wife, to whom he perpetually owes alimony. The political operative asked his loyal secretary/lover for a substantial amount of dough-re-me to pay the litigious ex and didn't say why. Bad idea.



Indeed, even though Bette has her moments but not much to work with, this is a First National picture and that means stellar contributions from the supporting cast: Warren William as Hal S. Blake, sleazy snake oil salesman/campaign manager, Frank McHugh (soon to fund character actor glory in Jimmy Cagney flicks) as his assistant, Vivienne Osborne as Blake's even sleazier ex-wife and Berton Churchill as the sleazier still conservative party gubernatorial candidate.



The Dark Horse, is enjoyable largely due to the enthusiasm and good humor of all of the above. This correspondent is less enthusiastic about Guy Kibbee in the role of dumb doofus Zachary Hicks.



While nobody loves to see Guy Kibbee chasing showgirls around in Busby Berkeley musicals more than the gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, his character here seems a bit TOO much of an imbecile. There was a film made four decades later starring Robert Redford as The Candidate and a proper alternative title for The Dark Horse would have been The Dumb, Very Dumb, No Make That Very Very Dumb Candidate. How dumb is he? Dumber than Elmer Fudd. Dumber than Tim Conway's Ensign Parker in McHale's Navy. Dumber than the lead characters in Dumb & Dumber. Dumber than a pomeranian this blogger recalls who barked at ceramic rabbits.

The not-quite-believable Zachary Hicks character illustrates what doesn't quite work about this movie, entertaining as it is. One just doesn't buy major elements in the storyline, key among them the romance between Kay Russell and Hal S. Blake. Seems more like a short-term affair than anything remotely resembling a great love.



In the Depression era sub-genre of political movies, this would, along with The Phantom President, a musical starring George M. Cohan, be among the least serious of the bunch. Both are substantially less provocative than The Cats-Paw, directed by Sam Taylor and starring Harold Lloyd and Una Merkel, and the scariest (and most fascinating) one, the still shocking and fascism-friendly Gabriel Over The White House, directed by Gregory LaCava.

Later in the decade, this trend would culminate in the first of Preston Sturges' outstanding Paramount films, The Great McGinty, as well as several more political and populist collaborations between director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin: Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Meet John Doe. Key theme: big city politicos and big business blowhards find someone they think is a sap to run for office or otherwise be their unwitting front man so that they can use him for their own nefarious purposes.

The Dark Horse, which can be seen in its entirety here, concludes with a non-happy ending A.K.A. a denouement that is only happy strictly on Level One. A blithering idiot has been elected governor of a state. Kay Russell, who knows better, lets the pathologically insincere Hal essentially blackmail her into agreeing to his proposal of marriage, then follow him to Reno and his next campaign - yes, totally selling out her modern gal principles and integrity in the process. This will be a happy marriage. . . well, for about five minutes, when he takes Kay's money and cheats on her.

Before utterly blowing the competition away by starring in Of Human Bondage and Dangerous, Bette Davis made brief but indelible marks - in incandescent moments that are too few and far between - in such early appearances as this one.

2 comments:

Summer Reeves said...

I love love love that picture of Bette in the bowler hat! Thanks for a fun overview of her early performances!
-Summer (Serendipitous Anachronisms)

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thanks, Summer! Your post on The Man Who Came To Dinner was excellent as well.

-Paul, as always, Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog