Warner Brothers released The Dark Horse (1932), a First National production, a little over a month after Warren William had gained critical and public acclaim starring in The Mouthpiece (1932). Whereas William portrayed a slick talking unscrupulous lawyer in the earlier film he was cast as a slick talking unscrupulous campaign manager in The Dark Horse.
The film was yet another timely release from the studio premiering just a few weeks ahead of the Chicago National Conventions for each of the major U.S. political parties. Surely many a chord of The Dark Horse would strum true for an audience suffering Depression woes months in advance of electing Roosevelt for his first term and waving good-bye to President Hoover.
The Dark Horse opens on the fourth consecutive day of a of a deadlocked Progressive Party convention. The crowd is tired and frustrated and in the case of one fellow, whom we’ll soon come to know as Zachary Hicks (Guy Kibbee), physically pained. Hicks’ biggest concern at the moment is far from whom his party shall select to run for Governor, his mind is instead on his tight shoes and swollen feet. When the fellow sitting next to him suggests that he cut the shoes off, Hicks thinks it’s a grand idea and immediately slices them off with a pocket knife.
Behind the scenes Mr. Jones (Harry Holman) decides to break the deadlock by nominating a dark horse candidate. Jones decides that one of those “apple knockers from Menefee County” would make the best choice as the entire county is loyal to the opposition. He decides blindly upon Zachary Hicks simply because he likes the name.
When party chairman Clark (Robert Warwick) announces the nomination the opposing group decides to toss Jones and their opponents a curve and also nominate Hicks figuring he can’t be any worse than the candidate that they were fighting against either. Soon Hicks, shoe remnants in hand, is swept up by the cheering crowd who carry him away on their shoulders probably just as relieved as Hicks’ feet that the matter has been settled.
After the convention Mr. Jones along with Mr. Clark and a Mr. Green (Charles Sellon–whom Warren had his fun with in Employees’ Entrance) have their first meeting with Hicks who quickly proves to be even less than they imagined he would be.
For example, Hicks’ previous government employment included the position of county coroner. He resigned from this post because they had a habit of waking him up in the middle of the night on business and he didn’t “like to have my rest broken.” The party bigwigs excuse themselves from Hicks. As soon as the candidate is out of the room Jones asks, “Did you ever see anybody so utterly stupid?”
That’s when their young secretary, Kay (Bette Davis), interrupts and tells them all about Hal S. Blake (the “S” stands for Samson), “the greatest campaign manager in the world.” She sings Blake’s praises touting him as having managed three campaigns for Governor out West and having won every time. “He’s a human dynamo!” she declares.
Kay’s a bit evasive when it comes to getting the power brokers in touch with Blake. “He could get out of his engagement if you put up some money in advance. A sort of retainer.”
Arriving at the local jail the unmistakable voice of Warren William is giving a rousing speech in favor of Hicks. Behind bars in prison attire William stands above all of the other inmates as Hal Blake, punctuating his Hicks speech by waving his arms and slicing pointed finger through the air before distributing a Hicks campaign song that he’d taken the time to compose to the other prisoners. They all break into tune leaving Jones, Green and Clark very impressed and Kay vindicated on the other side of the prison bars.
This leads into the most enjoyable portion of The Dark Horse beginning when Blake and his underling Joe (Frank McHugh) storm inside Hicks headquarters for the first time with Blake tossing off orders to Joe and soon putting Hicks himself, his identity as of yet unknown to Blake, to work hanging a sign with Joe. As Hicks tries to protest Blake cuts him off: “We don’t want any slackers around here, everybody’s got to work. This is a tough fight and we’ve got to win.” Inspired, Hicks puts down his apple and begins taking abuse from Joe.
Blake creeps up on Kay who surprises him with a smack across the face. Blake laughs off her apology saying, “It just shows how faithful you are.” He proposes to her, which we learn is habit, but Kay turns him down. “You’re a born campaigner, darling. You run a great race. When you win it you lose all interest. If you ever caught up with me I wouldn’t be worth having. A successful husband has to stay put.” When Blake remarks that he’s going to keep chasing her then, Kay replies, “I hope so. I love it!”
Bette Davis, as Kay, is about 2 years and a dozen releases away from becoming a major star with her Oscar nominated role in Of Human Bondage (1934). Frankly she’s nothing special as Kay but at just 24 years old it’s no surprise to see her come off as very green. Unfortunately her worst scene comes early when she’s selling Hal Blake to the party men. It tends towards brutal on repeated viewings. She’s much better after that initial effort. (I wonder if it was filmed first).
Davis, who has been credited with saying some especially nasty things about Warren in later years, would have a small role in Three on a Match with him later that year. She’d also play opposite William in Satan Met a Lady (1936), the second, and often reviled, adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. At any rate, The Dark Horse belongs to Warren William and to a lesser degree Guy Kibbee more than any of the other actors billed, Bette included.
Hicks takes a few more insults before Blake is finally alerted that he is in fact the candidate. After a talk with Hicks, Blake tells the other men that “He’s the dumbest human being I ever saw. Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.” They worry he’s going to quit on them but Blake tells them no: “We’re going to capitalize his dumbness.” Hicks is just like the people, the breath of fresh air that they crave, “Sure he’s dumb. But he’s honest.”
Behind the campaign slogan of “Vote for Hicks from the Sticks,” Blake gets to work making his candidate presentable to the voters. First he has him memorize one of Lincoln’s speeches, a plan which backfires but is saved by Blake, who’s quick on his feet, quite literally in this case. Then he teaches him how to handle the press. Hicks is to answer any question with the two-faced response, “Yes. And again, no.” Are you for the wets or the drys, Mr. Hicks? “Yes. And again, no.” Huh?
For about 35 minutes The Dark Horse is great fun consisting mainly of William’s Hal Blake pulling out all the stops to form Kibbee’s Hicks into not only a passable, but winning candidate. It’s the perfect follow-up to The Mouthpiece, Hal Blake and that film’s Vince Day being cut almost completely from the same cloth. It’s the same win at any costs William character that we come to know and love in later titles such as Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees’ Entrance (1933). The motivation is always victory.
But then Vivienne Osborne shows up as Blake’s ex-wife, Maybelle. Not that there’s anything wrong with Osborne, she’s great as the money hungry, diabolical ex-wife and gives a more subtle performance than Davis, the only other woman in the movie. Maybelle had been the cause of Blake’s earlier incarceration and she’s back to collect on another late alimony payment with threats of future time behind bars backing her.
There’s a 10-12 minute interruption in the political action as Maybelle does her best to wrangle $400 out of Blake. This section culminates with one of Warren’s most brutal lines to Kibbee, “Get away from me you lunkhead before I brain you.” This was after Kibbee’s Hicks had led Maybelle right to the understandably evasive Blake. But then rather than returning to Blake and Hicks’ tutoring and campaigning we’re sidelined with more Maybelle and a bit of Kay on the march towards the end of The Dark Horse.
Oh, the story of the election is satisfied but to get there we aren’t privileged to much more of Blake’s political wrangling. We’re left instead with his alternatively begging Kay’s forgiveness and combating Maybelle’s treachery.
We’re introduced to the campaign manager of Hicks’ opponent, a Mr. Black (Sam Hardy), whom it feels like we should have met much earlier. A good time would have been when his candidate, Underwood (Berton Churchill), wriggled off stage after Hal Blake brought down his wrath upon him for “filching thoughts from a dead man’s grave.” (Great line!)
It may be coincidence, but their names, Black and Blake, are so close that I like to think Black is supposed to be the slightly darker version of our hero. But by not showing him earlier, nor stressing him much once he does arrive, Black is made so unimportant to The Dark Horse that there isn’t too much more that can be added to this observation.
As for Hicks, rather than taking abuse from Blake or perhaps even be given a chance to bond with him, he spends the rest of The Dark Horse in Maybelle’s clutches with the Mann Act looming as potential political torpedo.
I don’t want to say that The Dark Horse falls off a cliff after Maybelle shows up, but prior to her entrance it is a first rate behind the scenes political comedy. All the intrigue has up until then arisen from Blake’s impossible duty of putting over his very unlikely candidate.
Osborne’s initial scene which sees William and McHugh desperately trying to paying her off and be done with her is very entertaining (I love when William starts patting down her shoulders as the two men beg her for leniency). But as The Dark Horse progresses Maybelle’s arrival stands as the moment where the movie began to get away from itself.
Politics and political maneuvering are no longer the focus. By the end of the movie we’ve devolved into a physical race by each of the political camps to either, depending upon their loyalties, rescue or smear Hicks’ reputation. By this point The Dark Horse doesn’t feel nearly as special as the path of the first half of the movie started us on.
Mordaunt Hall, who loved it, wrote in The New York Times the morning after The Dark Horse’s New York premier that “The picture has an excellent start, and sustains its fast pace until it passes the post. It was no wonder that it aroused chuckles, giggles and loud laughter last night, for it is filled with bright lines and clever incidents and never a word or an action is wasted.”
Hall doesn’t make any further mention of what happens after it “passes the post” but adds that “Mr. Kibbee and Mr. William leave no stone unturned to afford merriment.”
I don’t want to come down too hard upon The Dark Horse because it is an important movie for Warren William and he does all he can throughout. He’s especially masterful in the first half when he throws his all into yet another manic and Machiavellian part.
Perhaps the love story with Davis drains some of the spirit out of The Dark Horse, but the Kay character seems necessary to the story. Besides, I can forgive her presence just because of William’s scene as her father. Maybe if Maybelle had been written out completely and the writers were told to get to the finish without her we’d have a better overall movie today, one where they stuck to the political lessons and actual politicking. And again, no knock on Vivienne Osborne when I say this. She’s excellent, but her character does appear to cause the main drain on our story.
While the second half of the movie could have used more interaction between Blake and Hicks, by the finish the election is tied up nicely and the viewer is left mostly satisfied with The Dark Horse as a whole. At a later date the ending might have even signaled a sequel for Blake with a new candidate in a new city. For Warren William it was off to enjoy about 4 weeks vacation time before returning to be loaned out to MGM for his next hit in 1932: Skyscraper Souls.
The Dark Horse is a very good movie, it’s just that the first half is so strong that the backside can’t keep up with it.