The Dark Horse (1932) with Bette Davis

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He’s the dumbest human being I ever saw. Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge. – Hal Blake

Many of our fans simply adore Bette Davis. For whatever reason I don’t, even though I can’t really tell you why. Perhaps if she was chasing down a stagecoach or something else dramatic in an over the top sort of way.

However, over the weekend I opted to run 1932’s The Dark Horse through ye old iPod and was pleasantly surprised by the results. The Dark Horse is by no means one of Davis’ better known films, and justifiably so. Although she is fine in what ultimately is a secondary and even somewhat underdeveloped character, this really isn’t her picture.  Her best days are still to come.

Stealing the show is the mostly overlooked actor Warren William, who plays somewhat shady campaign manager Hal Blake, who is romantically involved with Kay Russell, played by Davis. Along the way he is fairly consistently delinquent in his alimony to his previous wife, although it gets a bit cloudy later on whether they are in fact divorced or simply estranged.

Being a student of history, it is a great time to look back at this at times completely absurd slapstick comedy which really points some quite incriminating fingers at the political process. Extremely interesting how little things change as the overall storyline would not need much tweaking to fit into 2011.

We open at the Progressive party’s nominating convention for the Governorship. Two divisive arms of the party have been stalemated for hours promoting opposing candidates. One side, in a fit of desperation, decides to nominate an unknown Zachary Hicks, literally picked almost at random, in an attempt to break the deadlock. Of course the idea is that Hicks (played to the hilt by Guy Kibbee) is a complete buffoon and won’t carry the nomination. Well he does, go figure.  Well, of course the plan backfires and he becomes the candidate.

Hal Blake is drafted from jail to manage the campaign and that not only gives you a sense of his background but also the production’s take on the political process as well- remember Hoover (Herbert, not the vacuum cleaner) was President. The interplay of Blake especially, but also the balance of the cast with buffoon Hicks is snappy and outlandish and completely fits the bill.

Kibbee’s perfection of a glazed over look coupled with a toothy grin definitely merits being called the “dumbest person ever” and “so stupid” comments his party labels him with. Then comes the molding of the innocuous candidate into pure unmitigated nothingness. He’s prepped to answer every question with “Yes….and again, no.” Classic.

I enjoyed this storyline quite a bit, but about halfway through the film the gubernatorial race becomes an afterthought and the action refocuses on Blake’s marital issues and the jockeying of Kay versus the previous Ms. Blake. Not terrible by any means, but definitely a step down from the much stronger earlier portion of the film.

Perhaps the writers didn’t know where else to take the plot or felt the audience would tire of the blank looks and stupid grinning of candidate Hicks (who of course does win the election in the final scene).

It is truly a shame that most of the leads in this picture are forgotten, with the exception of Davis. William made 65 films throughout his career, with 7 in 1932 alone. Unfortunately he passed in 1948 after a bout of bone cancer. He looks like a campaign manager and his overly dramatic voice is perfect for this part, especially when reciting the speech of Abraham Lincoln.

And Guy Kibbee could have taken this picture and made it his own if the second half had anything to do with his character. Kibbee came to Hollywood fairly late in live and became a part of Warner’s stock company, perhaps having his most memorable role – at least to me, in 1935’s Captain Blood as Hagthorpe. Kibbee too, is an even more distant afterthought.

And Bette Davis. She of these three found lasting fame and success. Rather than becoming an afterthought, Davis reached such climatic successes that it is films like The Dark Horse, which become the afterthought rather than the actress herself.

Not to my knowledge available in any format this isn’t high art by any means. That being said, it is a absurdly funny comedy which at times still rings all too true. I highly suggest that if you do see it cross TCM sometime, take the time to.

One thought to “The Dark Horse (1932) with Bette Davis”

  1. IMHO one of the best movie lines of all times, “He’s the dumbest human being I ever saw. Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.” So completely overacted yet with a delivery that is drop dead funny. Makes me laugh every time and even now as I write this.

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