Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…
The Dark Horse (1932)
A political machine backs a dimwitted candidate for governor. Starring Warren William, Bette Davis, Guy Kibbee, Vivienne Osborne, and Frank McHugh. Written by Joseph Jackson and Wilson Mizner. Story by Melville Crossman (Darryl F. Zanuck). Directed by Alfred E. Green. Produced by First National Pictures. Distributed by Warner Bros.
“To break a deadlock at the Progressive party convention, dark horse candidate Zachary Hicks is nominated. Hicks is ‘so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge,’ and the party leaders despair of getting him elected governor. Kay Russell, the secretary, suggests that they hire her boyfriend, Hal S. Blake, as campaign manager. They agree, only to find that he is in jail for non-payment of alimony. After they bail him out, Hal sets to work coaching Hicks, advising him to answer all questions, ‘well, yes, and again, no.’ When the conservative candidate, Underwood, gives the same Abraham Lincoln speech that Hal has planned for Hicks, Hal jumps up on stage and accuses him of plagiarism. Hicks continues to make public appearances all over the state without ever stating his position on the issues. Meanwhile, Hal’s ex-wife Maybelle visits campaign headquarters to demand her late alimony.
“Although Joe, Hal’s assistant, tells her that Hal is not in the office, Hicks, who finds her attractive, tries to impress her by leading her directly to Hal. Hal somehow manages to come up with her weekly payment, but she is angry about its lateness, so when the opposition campaign manager approaches her with a plan to compromise Hicks, she agrees. On election eve, just after Kay finally agrees to marry him, Hal finds out that Maybelle has taken Hicks across the state line to the country, where they are to be found together playing strip poker. He manages to get Hicks away in time, but when members of the opposition discover Hal and Maybelle together, they threaten to arrest Hal under the Mann Act, and he is forced to remarry Maybelle. Kay is furious until Hal explains that he has accepted a job in Nevada and will get a Reno divorce with no alimony.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
That is, the film’s admittedly rote satirical intentions are secondary to its star-driven laugh-seeking primary pursuits, and thus, when we seek to hold the nature of The Dark Horse‘s political satire against it, we’re actually missing the point. Accordingly, I encourage you to seek out this film not because it’s of a political fascination — it’s not, really. You see this kind of satire daily. (I have to say, the plagiarizing of the Lincoln speech is pretty good though.) But rather you should see The Dark Horse because of its laughs and its stars; William is as rootable a cad as ever, Osborne is light and sexy, Kibbee is hysterical — especially when he gets physical comedy, like in the picture’s latter half (the scene where he and Frank McHugh get their crotches stuck on barbed wire is slapstick heaven), and Davis is a fiery ball of passion (not fully put to use yet). When they get to function as the picture intends, all those narrative shortcomings — namely the predictability of the satire and the lack of tightness in the telling (it’s not the picture’s point, but the fizzling out of the political story is nevertheless a weakness) — are mitigated in deference to the thesis. And fortunately, there’s more character stuff here than in Gabriel Over The White House. It’s not as political, it’s not as brave, and it’s therefore not as valuable… but it’s more textually sound. And that’s good enough for me. After all, why ask for the moon? We have the stars. (William, Davis, Kibbee, and Osborne, et al.)
Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more sitcom fun!