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.)
For this picture that seems to mock American politics, I’d encourage you to ignore the mindless, knee-jerk desire to use phrases like “as relevant today as it was back then” and “more timely than ever” when describing this film, for the truth of the matter is, there has always been corruption and buffoonery in government. Just because you may be more aware of it today than you were yesterday, doesn’t mean that you couldn’t have said that The Dark Horse was “more timely than ever” five years ago, 25 years ago, or 75 years ago. The evergreen nature of this political satire forever makes it feel relevant… even if, accordingly, it lacks the bite that makes some of this genre’s finest features so memorable. To wit, several months ago we highlighted — as a Pre-Code Essential — a relatively terrible film called Gabriel Over The White House. It, too, was a satire born from the Great Depression, but it was absurd, ham-fisted and intellectually hyperbolic… In other words, it’s a classic, because that type of boldness only could have happened in that specific cultural moment, which bred such political anxiety, and it couldn’t have been released by Hollywood even just a year later… In contrast, The Dark Horse is less era-unique. Oh, sure, it’s as much of its time as any work is “of its time” — scheduled intentionally just before a big election year where the incumbent political figures (like Hoover) were considered cruel jokes. But the readiness with which you can compare the events of the film to things you’ll see five years from now, 25 years from now, and 75 years from now is part of why it’s notable, but not an Essential — it’s really not saying much about the world in 1932.
Forming this hierarchy of Pre-Codian value is important, for the film’s limited acuity — this kind of lampoon was familiar, even in 1932 — is often used to decry the work within its own individualized context. But I actually think this is a better written film than Gabriel Over The White House. I’ll be plainer: many reviews of this work note a pivot in The Dark Horse‘s narrative trajectory, recognizing that the first half feels like a political satire about a crooked machine backing a dumb candidate, while the second devolves into a romantic farce involving the campaign manager and his alimony-seeking ex-wife, who goes to work for the opposition party. Those critics are right — the midpoint occurs precisely when Vivienne Osborne strides onto the scene, and the film’s focus is redirected. Yet they’re wrong about the juxtaposition of two seemingly disparate ideas. You see, to believe that the film goes from satire to farce is to believe that its thesis is, like Gabriel‘s, political — that the send-up of foolish, corrupt politicians is the main thrust. But it’s not… It’s a star vehicle for Warren William that crafts for him a love triangle with Bette Davis on one end and Vivienne Osborne on the other. He isn’t introduced until well into the script’s first act, but he’s actually the picture’s raison d’être, and so when the narrative’s attention turns to his romantic life, that’s when The Dark Horse truly starts.
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!