Friday, July 03, 2015

Tonight's Movie: The Dark Horse (1932) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

THE DARK HORSE (1932) is a diverting pre-Code political comedy released last month by the Warner Archive.

Warren William, perhaps the greatest pre-Code scoundrel of them all, plays Hal Blake, a campaign manager so great at salesmanship that he's confident he can elect an utter nitwit, Zachary Hicks (Guy Kibbee), as governor.

Hicks is so dense that Blake says of him "Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge." (That line alone might have made the movie worthwhile!) Despite that problem, Blake convinces the public that Hicks is a plainspoken "everyman," and he cements that impression with a campaign short on substance and long on photo ops. In that regard, the campaign doesn't seem so different from some which are run today!

Hal is aided by two assistants, Joe (Frank McHugh) and Kay (Bette Davis). Hal wants to marry Kay but she's convinced he only loves the thrill of the campaign and would become bored with her once he lands her. Case in point, Hal's ex-wife Maybelle (Vivienne Osborne), who is constantly hounding him for unpaid alimony.

THE DARK HORSE isn't a top-flight film, but it's entertaining enough, and it's rather fascinating how much of it still seems relevant over 80 years later.

The movie is also a good example of pre-Code style, blatantly cynical and ever so slightly raunchy.

William is terrific in a role which seems tailor made for him. He has a great scene where he realizes the opposing candidate has cribbed the same Lincoln speech he'd planned for Hicks to recite, and after a moment of panic that the addle-brained Hicks will have nothing to say, he solves the problem by exposing the other man's plagiarism, avoiding any need for Hicks to speak at all!

I always enjoy seeing Davis's early work at Warner Bros., when she wasn't yet a "diva" but was nonetheless a fresh and interesting personality. She has the chance to play a woman as quick-thinking as her boss, who sees an opening for him to take the campaign job and helps make it happen -- despite the fact that Hal is in jail due to falling behind on his alimony! She loves Hal yet is clear-eyed about his flaws, and for most of the movie has no intention of marrying him, another "pre-Code" aspect of the film.

I confess Kibbee isn't one of my favorite character actors; when he puts the moves on pre-Code ladies, as he does in this film, I cringe, though that was probably the intended effect! While there are many actors I enjoy more, he was good at what he did, and he's perfectly cast in the title role.

McHugh is a welcome supporting player, and he's backed by familiar faces such as Robert Emmett O'Connor, Robert Warwick, and Berton Churchill. Louise Beavers turns up in a scene as Kay's maid; was it only in the movies that someone making a secretary's pay could afford a maid?!

THE DARK HORSE was directed by Alfred E. Green and filmed by Sol Polito. It runs 75 minutes.

The Warner Archive DVD is a good print, especially considering the film's age. The DVD includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.

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