Sunday 10 July 2016

The Dark Horse (1932)

Director: Alfred E Green
Writer: Meville Crossman
Stars: Warren William, Bette Davis and Guy Kibbee
This review is part of the Hot & Bothered: The Films of 1932 blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and CineMaven's Essays from the Couch.

Posts for 9th July can be found at this page at Once Upon a Screen and posts for 10th July are at this page at Essays from the Couch.
I’ve taken part in blogathons before, but it’s been a while. The idea is simple: someone sets a theme, a bevy of bloggers pick a title that fits and each writes a new review to be posted, all in a flurry on the same day. I simply couldn’t resist Hot & Bothered: The Films of 1932, though, when I saw it mentioned in CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch, because it’s about my favourite year in American film. I’m not saying that there aren’t better years (hello, 1939, you ‘golden year of Hollywood’, you), but 1932 was surely the most honest. It marks the point where the studios had firmly figured out how to use sound, which had come in back in the twenties but not killed the silent movie until Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights wrapped up that era only a year earlier. It also marks the point where a whole new era really kicked into gear: the pre-code. I’ve talked about this a lot at Apocalypse Later but, for new eyes, it’s a brief point in time between the silent era and the imposition of the Production Code in 1934 which stopped all the fun on screen.

I love pre-codes because their stories feel so alive and so edgy for black and white film that my brain often rebels and believes I’m in a parallel universe where Americans actually acknowledge sex as well as violence. To over-generalise, pre-code heroes were all gangsters and pre-code heroines were all prostitutes; women had power, the races mixed and criminals tended to get away with things (or, at least, the tacked on Hollywood endings were so absurdly tacked on that you could often blink and miss them). It was the time of unjustly forgotten stars like Richard Barthelmess, Joan Blondell and Lee Tracy. It marked the arrivals on screen of stars we know such as Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable and Bette Davis. And it was the playground of my favourite actor, the unparalleled Warren William, little remembered today but the quintessential pre-code actor. He made two films in the twenties and two more in 1931, then took over in 1932 with no less than eight, including gems like The Mouthpiece, Skyscraper Souls and The Match King.
I chose The Dark Horse from these eight because I haven’t seen it in a decade, it’s a Warren William picture that I haven’t reviewed at Apocalypse Later before and it plays into the current political climate perfectly. We find ourselves in an unnamed state in a US where the Conservatives battle the Progressives and a governor’s seat is up for grabs. The Progressive Convention is deadlocked for a fourth day because White and Wilson are tied and neither can seem to get an edge. So, the Wilson camp tries the well oiled political move of shenanigans, nominating the dark horse of the title to split the opposition’s vote. How about Zachary Hicks? That seems like a great political name! Nobody’s heard of him, but he’ll do! The catch is that the White camp backs the play just to avoid Wilson getting in, so Hicks wins the primary and both sides try to figure out who he is. Well, he’s Guy Kibbee and he’s asleep in the audience, having taken up his neighbour’s sarcastic advice to cut off his own shoes to let his aching feet breathe.

Kibbee was born to play this role, of a jolly fool who has slid through the halls of power without really understanding them. Hicks was a county coroner, but he resigned because he didn’t like his rest being constantly interrupted. Kibbee specialised in this sort of part, inept but good natured support for the leads, and Hollywood was happy to put him to work; never mind William’s eight, Guy Kibbee made eighteen pictures in 1932 alone, though he was rarely the lead himself. When he was, in films like 1934’s Merry Wives of Reno, the results were hilarious; RKO eventually gave him his own series and he made six Scattergood Baines movies in the early forties. Most people remember him from big pictures like Mr Smith Goes to Washington, in which he also played a governor, but for me it’s a whole slew of pre-codes: musicals like 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade and other films as varied as Two Seconds, Crooner and Lady for a Day. And, of course, this one, in which he plays the title character if not the lead role.
The lead is Warren William, playing Hal S Blake (‘the S is for Samson’), because when the Progressive backroom boys realise what a mess they’ve created for themselves, their secretary, Kay Russell, tells them that they need to hire him to get them out of it. She’s a very young Bette Davis, who, like William and Kibbee (excluding the odd silent supporting role in both instances), had kicked off her career in 1931 and stepped into high gear in 1932: she made four in the former and nine in the latter, including Hell’s House, So Big! and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, not to mention Three on a Match, with its dream cast for a pre-code that included William, Blondell and Humphrey Bogart, among others. She’s still learning her trade here, not apparently as comfortable as her co-stars (she hated her early output for Warner Brothers) but still with an obvious promise that, of course, she more than delivered on. She manages to steal some scenes too and it wasn’t easy to steal scenes from Warren William in a pre-code!

She plays Blake up sensationally as the ‘greatest campaign manager in the world’, ‘the greatest manipulator of public opinion this country has ever produced’ and ‘the fastest worker in the world’. The latter is quickly apparent because when the committee get to his jail cell (as he’s been locked up for non-payment of alimony), he already has the whole block eating out of his hand and even singing a campaign song for Zachary Hicks that he’s written on the fly! Of course, he doesn’t know who Hicks is either so, after he arrives at Progressive headquarters and inadvertently puts the candidate to work putting up his own campaign sign, he’s in for a shock. But, hey, this is Warren William. His assistant, Joe, played by Warners regular Frank McHugh, describes Hicks to his face as the ‘champion seacow of this planet’ and is promptly lost for words when he discovers who he really is; Blake, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a beat after a similar mistake, charms Hicks in a moment and has him volunteer to go right back and fix that sign.
What William did better than anyone else in the pre-code era and, frankly, in the entirety of American film, is to keep our support even when he’s the bad guy. And he played real bad guys, not just what we might call anti-heroes today. He specialised in ruthless businessmen, who don’t get more ruthless than he does in The Match King; cunning lawyers, even before he brought Perry Mason to life on the big screen for four movies in the mid-thirties; and outright conmen, such as the outrageous fake psychic he plays in The Mind Reader. In my review of that picture, I wrote that imposing the Production Code on William was ‘like declawing a wildcat’ and I stand by that. His career went on, but it wasn’t the same and couldn’t have been: most of the tools in his toolbox had become illegal and the parts he played best were no longer written. The pre-codes were made during the height of the depression and he played the roles ‘you love to hate’. However, he had such charisma and fearless optimism that they’re roles ‘you hate to love’ too.

A quintessential William moment here arrives during the first public debate between Zachary Hicks and his competitor, the Hon William A Underwood. Because Hicks has as much political savvy as the shoes he cut up, Blake has him memorise one of Lincoln’s speeches that paints him as a man of the people, dumb but honest, in keeping with his campaign slogan of ‘Hicks from the Sticks’. Unfortunately, Underwood beats him to the punch by launching into precisely the same speech, so Blake, as sharp as ever, takes the stage to expose Underwood as an unashamed plaguarist, accusing him of ‘the vilest of crimes, filching thoughts from a dead man’s grave’. We ought to be horrified, watching a campaign manager destroy the opposing candidate for doing exactly what he had trained his own candidate to do, but we’re with him all the way. Of course, this is merely the 1930s version of the attack ad, a polite creature indeed to what we see during prominent American election campaigns today.
So much of this feels familiar as we move steadily towards the political conventions that will soon provide America with the best opportunity to vote ‘none of the above’ that history has perhaps ever seen. The script was written by Courtney Terrett and Darryl F Zanuck, the future head of Twentieth Century Fox, under the pseudonym of Melville Crossman, and, for all the trappings of the 1930s, it feels remarkably timeless. If they had a time machine to hand, they could have based Hal S Blake on Corey Lewandowski, who ran Donald Trump’s presidential campaign until last month. Early in his career, he worked for Congressman Bob Ney, known today for a thirty month sentence he received for corruption. Lewandowski was arrested too, for apparently smuggling a gun and ammo inside a laundry bag into a Congress office building. He ran a senate reelection campaign that smeared the opposition as a terrorist. He was a controversial lobbyist for years and used violence to handle press and protestors when working for Trump.

All of these things would be believable actions for Hal S Blake, who goes to incredible lengths towards the end of the film to block his candidate from being arrested in the final days of the campaign in a sting set up by the floundering Underwood camp. Even in more personal actions outside the campaign itself, he stoops to some serious depths. Maybelle is his ex-wife, the one who had him locked up at the beginning of the film for non-payment of alimony. He’s been slipping on that again, so she shows up at campaign headquarters to collect and he actually goes to his girlfriend to get the cash, ostensibly for ‘a little bill I overlooked’. As you might expect for a character played by Bette Davis, she’s sharp and sees through much of what he does, to the degree that she continues to rebuff his proposals of marriage because she knows that he’s all about the chase rather than the catch; she’s more than happy to be chased but not willing to be caught in matrimony, as Blake would move on once she was conquered, as if she were a mountain.
Maybelle is played by Vivienne Osborne, yet another star to shine with the advent of sound. She’d made a number of silent films in the early twenties, but had effectively retired as of 1922 until she returned in 1931; almost half of her filmography was made in the pre-code era, including such textbook pre-codes as Husband’s Holiday, Two Seconds or Week-End Marriage, stories that revolve around infidelity, the death penalty and working women (no, not that kind, for a change). What’s notable here is that Maybelle is no more ruthless than her ex-husband but she comes off emphatically as the villain of the piece while he spins his way into the hero’s role. If you examine the story, they’re really no different. Blake does what he does to get Hicks elected, however unethical those actions might be; Maybelle does what she does for no better reason, just the old one of money. Our judgements are based on performance alone: William was best as the used car salesman who charms our socks off, but Osborne as the scheming ‘other woman’.

William dominated every pre-code he was in but in very different ways to contemporaries like Cagney, Bogart or Robinson. Take a look at an early post-code, The Case of the Lucky Legs, the third of his Perry Mason movies, to see the perfect example of that. He’s a whirlwind of energy and it’s often difficult to acknowledge that anyone else is even in the film. He’s somewhat restrained here, by his standards at least, and he leads a strong cast indeed. Bette Davis, second billed, could have been given a much more substantial role, given that Kay Russell is clearly a very capable young lady, but she does what she can with it before it falls into mush. It’s not fair to dismiss all her roles before, say, Of Human Bondage in 1934, but they certainly tended towards less substance. Guy Kibbee was perfect as Zachary Hicks and it’s surprising how well he enforces his presence here, given that he’s inherently playing a character easy to overlook. Frank McHugh is the capable support he always was; I often watch early Warners just for him and Allen Jenkins.
Pre-codes are a rabbit hole. They’re entirely unknown to most of the film-going public and even firm fans of classic Hollywood are much more likely to watch pictures from the later thirties or forties. However, once discovered, they have a tendency to suck us in because they’re a door to a different world, one that entices all the more because it doesn’t feel like it fits. Hollywood’s golden age did a great job of hiding reality, spinning stories that took us away from the everyday. Pre-codes show us that reality, often wildly. I frequently say that pre-codes contain things that we don’t expect to see in black and white and that applies to more than just the outrageous titles like Freaks, Kongo and Island of Lost Souls or Baby Face, Female and Red-Headed Woman. It also applies to social stories like Wild Boys of the Road, Gabriel Over the White House and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang; comedies like Duck Soup, I’m No Angel and Peach-O-Reno; and musicals like 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933. Add to that list anything with Warren William.


CineMaven said...

Ahhhhh! The cad of my heart. Warren William owned pre~code, didn't he. Thank you Hal for bringing the bad boy of the 1930's into our hot and bothered party. He's quite an addition to any event!!!

Caftan Woman said...

I felt the movie rather petered out by the end, but not enough to make you forget the joys that came earlier.

I loved your description of the pleasures of the pre-code. You should garner many converts.

Silver Screenings said...

Loved, loved, LOVED your essay. I agree that 1932 was an "honest" year for Hollywood films. And Warren William definitely deserves more recognition these days. Like you said, you cheer for him even while you're hating him. That's real talent!

Thanks for the introduction to this film. I know I'll enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I love this movie, and feel that it's quite underrated.

I'm also hosting two blogathons, and would love to invite you to participate. The links are below with more details.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks, folks.

Oh yeah, Warren William owned the pre-codes and I wish they could have carried on just for him. Well, OK, for a lot of other reasons too but that one first!

Thanks also for the invite. I enjoyed taking part in a blogathon again and have some time over the next couple of months that I actually googled to see what else was going on. I'd be happy to take part in both of those. I posted in the comments. Hopefully they'll come through.

CineMaven said...

This was an excellent review. Ripped from the headlines. Campaign managers...stooges...all of it. I enjoyed your write-up very much. Thank you for joining our blogathon!