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The Dark Horse

The Dark Horse(1932)

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teaser The Dark Horse (1932)

The Dark Horse was one of nine films Bette Davis made for Warners-First National in 1932. It was the first of six in which Alfred Green directed her between 1932 and 1936 (their 1935 Dangerous won Davis her first Oscar®). Warren William, to whom she got second billing here, made seven films in 1932. Clearly the studio was no haven for slackers. Darryl F. Zanuck, Jack Warner's wunderkind production chief, was no slouch himself. Had he not gone on to become the last of the legendary studio bosses, leaving in 1933 and willing 20th Century-Fox into being when he realized he would never be more than a Warner employee, he could have enjoyed a respectable existence as a writer. One year, he ground out 19 scripts for Warner, ripping many story ideas from newspapers. This film simply says, right under the title, "by Melville Crossman." It was one of three noms de plume Zanuck used. He called himself Mark Canfield for melodramas, Gregory Rogers for comedies and Crossman (appropriately!) for everything between.

The Dark Horse is a between. It's part comedy-romance, part political satire, carefully timed to open in the summer of a presidential election year. Unlike many of the social dramas of the period, it cheerfully assumes and skates through a climate of boisterous political chicanery. In it, William and Davis spearhead an effort to elect a dim-bulb compromise candidate, Guy Kibbee's upstate apple-knocker named what else? -- Hicks. The film's political orientation is unmistakable. The party we're being asked to root for, however shameless, is the Progressive Party. The enemy is the Conservative Party. It can't have been a casual choice to cast as the Conservative candidate an actor named Berton Churchill, whose looks suggest a cross between Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover, neither Republican president high in the esteem of a Depression-beleaguered America in 1932.

At 73 minutes, it's a prime example of the stuff that rolled off the Warner assembly line snappy, cynical, efficient, topical. The legendary Wilson Mizner, famed for cracking up story conferences with his wit, has screenplay credit here with Joseph Jackson, and Mizner's hand is apparent in the crisp dialogue. That the studio realized it had a good thing in Davis, and was grooming her for bigger things, is evident in the fact that Davis gets a juicy close-up six minutes into the film. She picks it up and runs with it. Already the Bette Davis eyes are in evidence big, hungry, observant, intelligent. We sense the wheels turning in her head a few seconds after we see her as a stenographer on the convention floor. Hearing the political bosses argue, she realizes the time is right to hatch the scheme that brought her there in the first place namely, to sell them on hiring her sweetheart (William), as the promoter who can connive his way to putting their man in the governor's mansion.

William, a sort of down-market John Barrymore with profile to match in frequent close-ups, had shed the patrician roles in which he specialized with his classic features, pencil mustache, tall physique and classy manners for more interesting roles in which he was as well something of a heel. It made him more interesting, resulting in his breakout role earlier that same year in The Mouthpiece in which he played a stylish, fast-talking criminal defense lawyer based on the legendary real thing, William Fallon of Prohibition Era Chicago (most recently resurrected in the hit musical of that name). All glib assurance and slickness personified, he's first seen galvanizing fellow prisoners in the jail to which he's been sent for failure to pay alimony to his grasping ex-wife. When the bosses balk at hiring him after Davis explains he's in jail, she doesn't bat an eye, pointing out that other great men Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Columbus were jailbirds, too.

It's that kind of unwavering sass that puts The Dark Horse across. Like so many Warner films of the period, it shakes loose from what could be formulaic shackles because it plays like a convergence of energies, from Zanuck's on down the line. William enjoyed years of success as soon as he connected to roles that spiced his handsome, manly bearing with caddishness, raffishness or roguishness. His range wasn't great, but he could play comedy, as we're reminded in a scene where at a debate, he recognizes the rival candidate's speech as having been filched from Abraham Lincoln because he was about to have Kibbee plagiarize the very same speech. He turns it into an image-boosting triumph by rushing to the stage, identifying the theft and routing the embarrassed rival while avoiding having his own candidate have to embarrass himself.

Making a round of spin-doctoring that remains depressingly resonant today, he and his candidate never look back as Kibbee is packaged and sold as a simple man of the people who'll give the common man a square deal. As "Hicks from the sticks," Kibbee is a distinct plus, smiling fatuously, wearing stupidity like a halo. When he makes a pass at a pretty woman at campaign headquarters, his approach line is "Want an apple?" What he doesn't realize is that the woman is his campaign manager's scheming, spiteful ex (lightly yet pungently played by Vivienne Osborne). With the election in the bag, his enemies plan to snatch it away from him by framing him in a love nest set-up. Can William's wiseguy save the day? Can he stay out of jail?

You can accomplish a lot with Bette Davis on your side. Doffing the cloche hat we first see her in, she's a smart cookie beneath her blond marcelled hairdo. If William is the mouthpiece of the duo, he's as nave in his way as Kibbee's buffoonish pol. She's the brains of the outfit. Here, her savvy but straight-shooting working girl never does anything impulsively. We're aware that even at this early stage of her career, she's well aware that in film a lot of acting is reacting. In scene after scene, we see her take in new information, shrewdly evaluate it, then figure out the right next move. Those big eyes filled with skepticism convince us utterly that she really cares. She's fully engaged, fully in the moment. At the end, when they fall into the obligatory clinch, the film deflates into one of those you're-a-big-lug-but-I-love-you-anyway-and-I'll-keep-going-with-you moments. You can't help believing that this tough cookie would know better. Whenever they share a scene, William is wood, Davis is fire. Her way of getting her smart-guy boyfriend out of jam after jam is awfully sexy. It, and its surprising political relevance, make The Dark Horse seem still larky today.

Director: Alfred E. Green
Screenplay: Joseph Jackson, Wilson Mizner, based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Film Editing: George Marks
Cast: Warren William (Hal Samson Blake), Bette Davis (Kay Russell), Guy Kibbee (Zachary Hicks), Vivienne Osborne (Maybelle Blake), Frank McHugh (Joe), Sam Hardy (Mr. Black), Harry Holman (Mr. Jones).

by Jay Carr

The Films of Bette Davis, by Gene Ringgold
Mother Goddam, Story of the Career of Bette Davis, by Whitney Stine
Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis, by Lawrence J. Quirk
Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking: A Biography of Daryl F. Zanuck, by Mel Gussow
The Warner Brothers, by Michael Freedland
My First Hundred Years in Hollywood, by Jack Warner, with Dean Jennings

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