The Bette Davis Project: The Dark Horse (1932)

 The Dark Horse (1932)


When a birdbrained country bumpkin, Zachary Hicks (Guy Kibbee, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), inexplicably wins a gubernatorial primary, party leaders know that they are in big trouble. Secretary Kay Russell (Bette Davis) comes up with a brilliant idea; hire sleazy campaign manager, Hal Samson Blake (Warren William, The Wolfman), who is known in the world of politics for his dirty, but very effective tricks. Blake indeed breaks every rule in order to get the unelectable Hicks inside the Governor’s mansion.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Not bad political satire is filled with many American truisms. The film’s cynical tone makes it interesting to modern eyes. The Dark Horse, directed by Alfred E. Green (Dangerous), makes fun of both the American political machine and low information voters. The small budget hurts a bit, and it does lose steam halfway through, but this is a very entertaining programmer.

The screenplay by Joseph Jackson and Wilson Mizner was based on an original idea by producer Darryl F. Zanuck. In typical 1930s fashion, Zanuck was inspired by newspaper articles. Elections were around the corner and the producer thought it would be a great idea to cash in on the political atmosphere that was suffocating the nation. It’s not a great film per se, but it anticipates classics like Preston Sturges’s The Great McGinty and Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and State of the Union.

Warren William, not a favorite of mine, walks away with the film. This is one of his best performances (he was always good at playing heels). Kibbee is pretty great too as William’s patsy. A reliable and very busy character actor, Kibbee was always a welcome addition to any film.

Sadly, Davis is wasted in an inconsequential role. You could easily eliminate her character without losing anything. The real juicy female part is played by Vivienne Osborne (a silent movie star who ended up as a salesperson at a department store). She plays William’s bitchy wife. In retrospective, I’m sure Davis regretted not switching roles with Osborne. In later interviews, Davis did say that she liked the part mostly because it was a sign that her career was slowly moving upwards.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Dark Horse marks the first collaboration between cinematographer Sol Polito and Davis. He later became one of Davis’s favorite cameramen. Hal B. Wallis was the supervising producer. Music by Leo F. Forbstein. With Frank McHugh, Sam Hardy, Robert Warwick, and Louise Beavers (Imitation of Life). Trivia alert: I believe this is the first time Davis lights up a cigarette on the screen. B&W, 75 minutes, Not Rated.


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