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Film / The Dark Horse

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Where Blake realizes he's got his work cut out for him.
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The Dark Horse is a 1932 film directed by Alfred E. Green, starring Warren William, Guy Kibbee, and Bette Davis.

Zachary Hicks (Kibbee) is an amiable but very, very dumb minor political functionary. At the Progressive Party's convention, the candidates for governor are deadlocked through ballot after ballot. Eventually they wind up nominating Hicks more or less randomly because they can't agree on anyone else.

Enter Kay Russell (Davis), the party's smart, sassy secretary, who offers up her boyfriend Hal Blake (William) as a campaign manager who can get dimwitted Hicks elected. Unfortunately Blake is in jail for failure to pay alimony to his vengeful ex-wife Maybelle. After Blake is sprung from prison he embarks on a deeply cynical campaign to get Hicks elected, while fending off a grasping Maybelle.

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This was one of the first starring roles for 24-year-old Bette Davis, who would soon become the biggest star at Warner Brothers. It was also one of the very few comedies featuring Davis, who became a more-or-less literal drama queen; The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) is another one.


Tropes:

  • Dark Horse Victory: Weren't expecting this trope, were you? Hicks gets nominated by accident, and then wins, despite being an utterly clueless empty suit.
  • Dirty Old Man: Hicks is not only a dummy, he's also a lecher, who openly stares at Maybelle's ass, and winds up making her his girlfriend.
  • The Ditz: Hicks. Asked what his positions are, he says he'd like to eliminate capital punishment, only to be told that the state banned capital punishment six months ago.
    “He’s the dumbest man I’ve ever known. Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”
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  • Divorce in Reno: It's the happy ending! After Blake gets forced into remarrying Maybelle to escape jail for violating the Mann Act, he gets an offer to manage a campaign for governor of Nevada. He promises Kay that they'll get married after he gets a divorce in Reno.
  • Election Day Episode: The movie ends with Hicks winning a landslide victory.
  • Fictional Political Party: Instead of No Party Given, we get this, as the "Progressive" and "Conservative" parties face off in the gubernatorial election. Even odder, Democrats and Republicans apparently exist in this universe anyway, as Hicks is mentioned to be having meetings with both of them.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: "Well, give her the money, but don't let her near my wife."
  • Heavy Sleeper: Hicks misses his own nomination as candidate for governor because he is asleep in his chair on the convention floor.
  • Honey Trap: When the opposition finds out that Maybelle is having an affair with Hicks, they turn her into a mole, and arrange with her to have Hicks caught in an affair and arrested for violating the Mann Act.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Blake preps Hicks for a debate by having him memorize an old Abraham Lincoln speech. At the debate, the Progressives are startled when the Conservative candidate recites the same Lincoln speech. A quick-thinking Blake then jumps up on stage and humiliates the other candidate for ripping off Lincoln.
  • Ice-Cream Koan: Blake teaches Hicks a standard response for any time a reporter asks him a question about anything. Hicks strokes his chin thoughtfully and says "Well, yes—and again, no."
  • Landslide Election: What Hicks wins after escaping the Honey Trap.
  • Repeat After Me: When Blake is having Hicks memorize an Abraham Lincoln speech (actually a slightly mangled version of this speech), he gets to the part where Lincoln says "the independent voters of this county" and tells Hicks "—change that to state." Hicks, naturally, repeats him word for word.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Real cynical, seeing as how the Progressives nominate a hapless dimwit and then get him elected by exploiting his stupidity, making him out to be just like the common man. And both sides plagiarize Abraham Lincoln speeches because apparently no one can come up with an original thought.
  • Strip Poker: Yes, this trope dates back to the 1930s. Maybelle entices Hicks into a game of strip poker because she wants an excuse to be scantily clad when the reporters and police come. But Hicks is so bad at poker that he loses every hand, and is down to his underwear by the time their audience arrives. (And yes, this is a film from The Pre-Code Era.)
  • Title Drop: "Let's nominate one of White' supporters—a dark horse."
  • We Win Because You Did Not: One faction at the convention nominates Hicks to splinter the other faction's support. The other faction then also supports Hicks, and winds up nominating him, just to spite the first faction.
  • Worst News Judgment Ever: Sure, a political campaign is news, but "ZACHARY HICKS STUMPS STATE" probably doesn't deserve a huge front-page headline.
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