Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Horse is a Horse

"The convention could do worse...and probably will."

--Thomas Brackett Reed, Speaker of the House (1889-91, 1895-99)

Watching The Dark Horse (1932, directed by Alfred E. Green) is bound to give anyone who follows politics a case of deja vu. The players may change, the issues may change, but the process of politics, it seems, is constant. You could remake this film point for point, not changing anything, and it would feel completely contemporary. It certainly seems prescient in the wake of decades of politicians whose only qualifications are that they seem just like average Joes: the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with, as a recent American head of state was oft described. This movie has a cynical view of politics that's positively Swiftian. Like the rulers of Laputa in Gulliver's Travels, the politicians in The Dark Horse are controlled by "flappers," who decide when they will speak and what they will say because they have no brains of their own.

The story here finds the Progressive Party Convention deadlocked. Neither of the candidates for Governor can win the convention, so one campaign conceives of a spoiler, a "dark horse," to break the logjam. If their dark horse can siphon off just a smidge of the other candidate's support, their guy wins. Only the other side foxes them, and the dark horse wins the nomination. The dark horse in question is one Zachary Hicks, a simple man in more than one meaning of the word. The party muckety mucks turn to ace campaign manager Hal Samson Blake at the urging of Kay Russell, their secretary. She knows that Blake can get anyone elected, even a turnip like Hicks. And lo and behold, he's successful. He manages Hicks to play up the fact that he's just as dumb as everyone else, that the voters are choosing someone who is on their level. Meanwhile, Blake has his own problems. He wants to marry Kay, but he also has to deal with his vengeful ex-wife, Maybelle. Maybelle, herself, has been co-opted by the opposition in a scheme to disgrace Hicks, but she winds up fouling Blake's relationship with Kay instead.

While I say that this movie is a shockingly contemporary view of politics, that's only partially true. Sure, we still suffer the moronic candidates and their flappers: People like Karl Rove and Rahm Emmanuel are recognizable as Hal Blake's descendants. But in a lot of ways, this movie is also very much of its time. This was made during the worst year of The Great Depression, after all, and the idiocy of Guy Kibbee's Zachary Hicks is almost certainly a barometer of the political climate of 1932. This is a film that tears down politics at a time when there needed to be real solutions from the government and when they weren't being offered. More: while The Dark Horse shows a master media manipulator at work, it's worth keeping in mind that the media being manipulated--movies, presumably radio--were still in their infancy. This was the year before Joseph Goebbels took over as Propaganda Minister in Nazi Germany and rewrote the book on how to craft bigger and bigger lies in order to sway the public. There's a sense of invention in The Dark Horse's use of media that seems absent in contemporary politics. This film is a comedy, but it foretells ominous things about the century that followed it. Beyond all of that, there's a subtle agenda behind the movie. The "heroes" of the movie are the Progressive Party, which is a thinly veiled version of the Democrats, while the "villains" are the Conservative Party. The release date of the movie is listed on the IMDb as June 16, 1932, which would have been smack in the middle of campaign season, right before the Presidential conventions. None of this is accidental. The Republicans were on the outs in 1932, having driven the economy to the brink of extinction, and The Dark Horse gives us a "Conservative" candidate who bears a striking resemblance to Herbert Hoover. Warner/First National, who produced it, reflected the New Deal progressivism of studio head, Jack Warner, so there's no question that the studio would have backed this. It wasn't smuggled in by the filmmakers. It's right up front.

The Dark Horse has a snappy, Pre-code sensibility that makes watching it a lot of fun, but it doesn't quite gloss over the major structural problem with the film. The first half of the film is a dead on skewering of politics, and it's hilarious. The second half of the film, once Maybelle (Vivienne Osborne) comes onto the scene, shifts its focus to Blake's personal problems, which are a lot less interesting. True, the two eventually converge as Maybelle becomes enmeshed in the scheme at the end of the movie, but this part of the movie seems like make-work. This was written and filmed quickly and they didn't have time for niceties like an integrated plot, I guess. This is really two films spliced together and the seams do show. Still this has funny scenes throughout, and its funniest scene, one involving a barbed wire fence, is near the end. And the movie is subtle in the way it arrives at the conclusion that the emperor has no clothes (in this case, literally).

If the second half of the movie has any value, it's as a showcase for Warren Williams. Williams plays Blake as a man with confidence, smarts, and ego. He has the profile for it, too, with his aquiline nose and pencil thin mustache. Williams was a fine and unjustly forgotten actor and this role plays to his strengths. He was the ideal flim-flam man, the very figure of a city slicker, and the  movie exploits this vigorously. Bette Davis has considerably less to do in the movie than Williams, but she somehow makes as much of an impression. This isn't a film that she is remembered for, and there's no reason it should be. Her part is thankless. She's another of the Pre-code era's hyper competent women who goes to pieces in the end over love. In spite of all of this, Davis seizes the camera's attention whenever she's on screen. Davis is the paragon of the classic movie actress, but she was a movie star, too, and you can see that even in this role. The organizer of the screening I went to suggested that Davis was about twelve films from stardom when she made The Dark Horse--and he's not wrong--but you can totally see Davis's embryonic star power.  One almost wishes that Davis had played Maybelle, the film's ostensible villainess, because Vivienne Osborne is totally outshined by Williams and Davis, though the role of Kay Randall is certainly worthy of Davis. She is, after all, one of the prime movers in the plot. Like many Pre-code women, she has more agency than the women in movies made after the Code slammed down on Hollywood.

Ultimately, though, this is Williams's movie, and Guy Kibbee's. Kibbee played oodles of vaguely corrupt doofuses in his careeer, and this film distills them all into a veritable Forrest Gump, a man too stupid to fail. I like to think that this movie is a kind of prequel to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where Kibbee, still a doofus, plays the governor who puts the equally clueless, equally naive Jeff Smith into the Senate. The Dark Horse almost seems like a rebuke of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, actually, and nevermind the fact that it was made seven years earlier. The best scenes in the movie find Blake teaching Hicks how to prevaricate and give completely fatuous non-answers to the press when asked about the issues. On his own, Hicks believes in "government of the people, for the people, and by the people," which is all very well and good, but as his advisers note, it lacks something in originality.

This is a movie that never would have flown after the Code. While corrupt politicians have always been a staple of the movies, the code would have demanded they be punished (a la Senator Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Although there was no specific injunction against depicting corrupt public officials--as there is in contemporary Chinese film, for example--The Breen Office frowned on criticisms of the system itself and there was an injunction against "sedition," which is something that's often in the eye of the beholder, depending on their political point of view. While this may sound outrageous to American ears in an era of relaxed censorship, it's worth keeping in mind that movies were unprotected as speech in the classic Hollywood era, having been ruled so by The Supreme Court in 1915 (a decision not overturned until 1952). It was legal for governments to censor them, and they often did.

More than its political content, the arsenal of dirty tricks deployed in The Dark Horse--particularly the frame up of Hicks to violate the Mann act--would have been far too salacious under the code. The Breen office would have looked askance at the marital status of Hal Blake, too, and he certainly wouldn't have been allowed to continue chasing Kay Randall after being cornered into remarrying Maybelle. That would have been a complete no no.

I'm not sure that this movie would fly today, either. Not in theaters, surely, given that movie studios are big conglomerates anymore and don't want to offend anyone (least of all the "stupid" common denominator Zachary Hicks represents). You might see something like this on cable television, but not in a multiplex. That's a pity, because the audience I saw this with was into it. It still plays, because to paraphrase the late Molly Ivins, "Politics is the most entertaining free show on the planet."

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