Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'The Dark Horse' (1932)

The Dark Horse starts out as a moderately promising political satire before getting sidetracked by dumb relationship comedy, but it has one or two sharp moments along the way. Thanks to a ploy by two different factions in the fictional Progressive Party of an unnamed state, a rube named Zachary Hicks unexpectedly finds himself the party's nominee to run for governor. To ensure that this inexperienced dimwit wins the election, the party hires hotshot campaign manager Hal Blake (Warren William), who can smooth-talk anyone into office.

That's a decent setup for satire, and indeed Blake's training of the consistently oblivious Hicks is good for a laugh or two, especially the way he instructs Hicks to answer every question, "Yes, and again, no." But the movie is more interested in Blake's caddish ways, including his romantic promises to fellow campaign worker Kay Russell (Bette Davis) and endeavors to get out of paying alimony to his vindictive ex-wife (Vivenne Osborne). William is a little too good at playing slimy creeps; as he was in the other movie I've seen him in with Davis, Satan Met a Lady, he's more off-putting than funny here, especially when he's trying to maneuver his way out of commitment. The movie isn't cynical enough to be really cutting when it comes to politics, and its portrayal of Blake tries to make him sympathetic and amoral at the same time, which doesn't quite work.

Davis has a fairly sizable part, but Kay is a pretty flat character. She starts out seeming like a savvy political operative (she's the one who suggests the party recruit Blake), but quickly gets relegated to the long-suffering love interest, stuck enduring Blake's schemes and deceptions related to his ex-wife. Davis shines when Kay is portrayed as competent and assertive, but her pining after the creepy Blake is just kind of sad. The protracted climax, involving a potential scandal between Hicks and Blake's ex-wife, is a chore, but there are still enough decent jokes here and there to put The Dark Horse slightly ahead of some of Davis' other early programmers.

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