Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
- “He’s the son of the people!” “He’s a son of a what?”
- Suffragettes are still considered a pain in the ass, and the candidates are aching to appeal to both the ‘Wet’ and the ‘Dry’.
- One guy gets crotch stuck on barbed wire, which is both funny and very painful looking. Yeah, let’s see you do that, Olivier’s Hamlet!
- Nevada is the only place to get a no-fault divorce.
- The climax of the film hinges on strip poker, and I didn’t know that the game had been around that long. Can you imagine your grandparents playing strip poker?
- I knew you could.
Politics in 1932 was a sad business. Kicking Herbert Hoover out (he got 10% of the electoral vote!) was a national cause célèbre, and the Depression dramatically changed the electoral landscape. Franklin Roosevelt was a godsend, but it was going to take more than his campaign to wash the taste of a decade of corrupt and incompetent politicians from the country’s collective mouth.
That brings us to today’s selection, The Dark Horse, which regards politics with as much respect as most of us would treat a used condom found in the gutter.
Our story begins at the Progressive’s political convention as it tries to nominate a new candidate for governor. The delegations are deadlocked, and a political maneuver meant to throw one side off results in both sides flipping over to a candidate who was picked from a hat.
Guy Kibbee plays nominee Zachary Hicks with a head empty enough to spark fears of a vacuum. Hicks is a special kind of idiot, and the movie delights in finding new ways of showcasing his idiocy. He’s introduced as a man who can’t get his shoes off because he’s been sitting too long; someone suggests he try untying them and he’s surprised he didn’t think of that.
“I heard this Hicks fella could be the champion sea cow of the planet!”
The party leadership wisely panics, and, at the insistence of a posturing Bette Davis, summons Warren William to lead this doomed campaign. William (finally harvesting his breezy charm for good) is described as a man who “can manage more words than Webster ever could” but suffers from one major fault– an ex-wife.
The ex-wife is a pretty rare character in Pre-Code and would become even more rare when the code’s enforcement became more pronounced. And while I wish I could say that the ex-wife in this movie is treated fairly, I think it would be safer to assume that the screenwriter had a bad experience in his past because this one is a piece of work. After making plenty of threats towards William for his failure to pay alimony, she goes to the morbid extremes to destroy him.
The Dark Horse quickly reveals itself to be the story of how an idiot survives a political gain. All of the politicians live off of abusing the words of political giants (William immediately begins drilling the speeches of Abraham Lincoln into) and embarrassing their rivals (who just so happen try and crib one of the same Lincoln speeches). When journalists try to get any opinions or any sort of comment out of Hicks, he defaults to his standard line, “Well, yes. And, again, no.” He hurries away before he can clarify and quickly becomes the favorite.
“He’s the dumbest man I’ve ever known. Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”
But this machinery of the political circus is run by spite and pettiness; the end of the movie involves rival politicians blackmailing William to remarry his ex-wife just because they don’t like him. Hicks’ simultaneous near-downfall from playing a poor game of strip poker is a moment of bare truth for the man. Hicks is a selfish lecherous boor with no redeeming qualities, a character who may be regarded as either too cartoonish or not cartoonish enough.
The Dark Horse is a political satire that has some strains of the screwball comedy in its frames. William, Davis, and Kibbee bring near Marxian levels of precision to their barbs, and the film is quite right on ending with both an appropriate note and big fat punchline.
Because, while the villains of the piece are the political rivals, it’s within the audience’s best interest to root for them: their candidate is the competent one! Instead, because William and Davis are so likeable, it’s hard to muster much ill will towards them, even as you begin to see our continued national bad luck played out.
What The Dark Horse kindly suggests both satirically and implicitly is that because the politicians do nothing but attempt to give us what we want, then Americans get the politicians we deserve. And, more often than not, that’s damned hard to argue with.