“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.
At a time when the current presidential primary season just keeps getting more and more ridiculous and the lines between reality and satire are becoming increasingly blurred, the folks at Warner Archives have shown some considerable prescience timing by releasing Warner Brothers’ blistering 1932 political satire The Dark Horse on DVD. The film is just 17 years short of being a century old, but with the way the current GOP presidential candidates seem to be competing to see who can utter the most self-destructive verbal gaffes, it couldn’t be more timely or relevant.
This particular paradox isn’t unusual for the Warner Brothers movies of the 1930s and 40s, that two-decade period often referred to as “The Golden Age of Hollywood.” Warners’ movies had a uniquely dynamic vitality combined with a cynical insouciance that most of the other studios generally avoided (especially MGM). Warners was also the only studio where the films’ protagonists could be unrepentant iconoclasts, making it the perfect home for the likes of James Cagney, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and John Garfield. As a result, the Warners policy of depicting particularly topical subjects resulted in lasting classics that, ironically, have dated very little, such as the 1942 wartime romance Casablanca and the hard-hitting 1932 expose I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (which created such a furor that the state of Georgia was shamed into reluctantly dismantling their chain gang incarceration system). Although a comedy (albeit a very dark and caustic one), The Dark Horse is firmly in the Warners tradition of topical entertainment. Not surprisingly, with the Depression getting worse and no immediate relief in sight, the American public’s regard for politicians and the government was at an all-time low and The Dark Horse gleefully exploited this distrust. (Also, not surprisingly, the film was a box office success.)
For a film that was largely forgotten within a few decades of its release, The Dark Horse remained a favorite of film historians. William K. Everson in his 1961 program notes for the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society described The Dark Horse as “a pungent and fast-moving political satire in the typical no-holds-barred Warner tradition of the thirties—the more notable because it was made in an election year, and doesn’t hesitate to kid politics for being corrupt and the public for being saps… Certainly, for a comparatively minor production, it carries quite a wallop and doesn’t concern itself with whose nose it tweaks—and like all good satire, it is frighteningly near the truth, as a casual perusal of any daily newspaper will show.” And, in his 1971 book We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films, Andrew Bergman (whose greatest contribution to the cinema was his breathtakingly funny screenplay for the original 1979 version of The In-Laws) called The Dark Horse “an extremely funny and bitter film about electoral politics.”
Originally conceived by Warners‘ head of production Darryl F. Zanuck (writing under one of his pseudonyms, Melville Crossman) as a sequel to High Pressure, a satirical comedy starring William Powell as a conniving “promoter” released earlier that year, The Dark Horse was revised as a vehicle for up-and-coming leading man Warren William when the author of the play High Pressure was based on held out for too much money. (Bergman rated William as “one of the thirties’ most endearing and valuable comic actors.”) The script was assigned to staff writers Joseph Jackson and renowned wit Wilson Mizner and the direction to Alfred E. Green, one of those unexceptional craftsmen (like Archie Mayo, William Beaudine, and D. Ross Lederman) who, given the right material, could turn out first-rate entertainment.
In the rapid-paced opening scene, a series of behind-the-scenes machinations at a brokered, deadlocked gubernatorial primary inadvertently leads to the “dark horse” nomination of an unknown hack appropriately named Zachary Hicks (Guy Kibbee). To say that Hicks is lacking in street smarts, savvy, or any practical political experience would be putting it mercifully. As his campaign manager, Hal S. Blake (William), puts it after a few minutes of conversation with Hicks: “He’s the dumbest human being I ever saw. Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”
Miraculously, Hicks has two things in his favor. The first is Blake himself, recruited from jail (he was behind in his alimony) on the recommendation of “gal Friday” Kay Russell (Bette Davis) to the heads of the “Progressive Party.” (The fact that Kay is Blake’s current girlfriend is hardly a coincidence.) Blake represents a familiar figure in Warners’ repertoire of archetypes, the amoral, fast-talking, razor-witted hustler, forever on the lookout for rubes to peddle gold bricks to, a part made to order for several of Warners’ stock players, including Warren William, James Cagney, Lee Tracy, William Powell, Glenda Farrell, and Pat O’Brien.
After sizing up the candidate, Blake shrewdly decides to turn Hicks’ inexperience and naivety from a liability to an asset by emphasizing his lack of connections to the established political forces, the ultimate “outsider.” “We’re going to capitalize on his dumbness,” Blake tells the party bosses. “Sure, he’s dumb. But he’s honest.” The first thing Blake does is convince Hicks to parrot an invariable “one-size-fits-all” answer to any question put to him: “Yes, and then again, no.”
The other thing in Hicks’ favor is that his opponent, the “Conservative Party” candidate, is a pompous windbag named William A. Underwood (Burton Churchill). The very casting of Churchill was a form of shorthand for 30s audiences as he spent most of his film career typed as corrupt politicos or ruthless capitalists. (Churchill is best known to filmgoers for his role in John Ford’s seminal western Stagecoach as the hypocritical, absconding banker, who never hesitates to criticize the moral failings of others.)
After spending weeks bullying Hicks into memorizing one of Abraham Lincoln’s early speeches in order to pass it off as his own thoughts, Blake is astounded when, at a town hall debate, Underwood’s opening remarks are that exact same speech. (Shades of Joe Biden’s notorious appropriation of Neil Kinnock’s speech!) Without missing a beat, Blake unhesitatingly takes to the stage and denounces Underwood as a plagiarist. Amid a chorus of boos and catcalls, Churchill shamefully flees from the debate.
The movie loses some of its momentum with the introduction of Maybelle (Vivienne Osbourne), Blake’s gold-digging ex-wife who holds the threat of imprisonment over his head like the Sword of Damocles if he doesn’t fork over the back alimony she demands. Correctly assessing Hicks as a lamb just waiting for the slaughter, Maybelle sinks her meathooks into him and, in collusion with the competing party, lures him to a mountain cabin getaway across the state line, setting him up to be arrested on a Mann Act violation. The movie’s grand finale consists of a cross-country chase, cutting back-and-forth between the rival party bosses with the local sheriff in their car and Blake and his assistant Joe (Frank McHugh) in a chartered airplane, both racing to the scene of the “crime,” while, in the meantime, Hicks is currently losing that new card game that Maybelle just introduced him to called “strip poker.” (Yes, he’s that clueless.)
The bulk of the film’s comedy is in the capable hands of William, Kibbee, and McHugh (who made a career of playing comic sidekicks). Although her subsequent film stardom would eclipse those of everyone else in the cast, Davis’ bland, underwritten role pretty much makes her the Zeppo of the team. But The Dark Horse was never intended to be a Bette Davis vehicle; it was conceived and executed as a cinematic Bronx cheer directed at all the politicians who had made such a mess of the country’s affairs and, as such, succeeded wonderfully.
As usual, outside of the original trailer, the Warner Archives release of The Dark Horse contains no extras. For many of us, however, that’s an acceptable trade-off for finally getting a DVD release of a little-known gem that probably wouldn’t have been given home video status otherwise.