Warren William with Billie Dove in an as-yet unnamed film.
I first heard about Warren William from one of my regular readers, kda, and then read about him in Mick LaSalle's "Dangerous Men." Those two recommendations alone were enough to sign me up for his fan club, the only trouble was I hadn't actually seen any of the man's films. Well TCM this month has decided to be complete pre-code awesomeness and I finally got my Warren William movie, in the form of The Dark Horse. I was not disappointed.
William plays Hal Blake, a smooth political operator who is called in by a desperate party to get a patsy dark horse candidate, literally named "Hicks," elected governor. William was known as the poor-man's John Barrymore (perhaps, they should have said, Warner's John Barrymore, as it amounted to much the same thing) because of his likeness of profile. I think that's a really shallow assessment though, given what I've seen of Barrymore's acting. I can't see Barrymore touching this deviously cynical character whose chief troubles revolve trying to get his current girlfriend (Bette Davis) to help him with his alimony payments. Not exactly the type of noble character Barrymore would play. Warren also has a zany energy that is nothing like John Barrymore. If anything it recalls Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. In fact, I might go so far as to say that Grant's Walter Burns is almost an homage to the sort of slimy, yet charming characters that William played in his pre-code films.
Paired with smart and capable actresses, Bette Davis , and Vivianne Osborne as his backstabbing ex-wife, Warren William throws ethics both professional and romantic to the wind and the audience is completely prepared to still accept him as a hero. It goes to show that Grant could never have gotten away with playing Walter Burns the way he did if Rosalind Russel had been one bit less his equal. Bette Davis is not quite up to Roz Russell level of gal Friday perfection, but she certainly oozes intelligence and competence though she may be a bit stiff at times. Osborn fairs better as a woman who is every bit as unethical as her ex-husband, but lacking in his redeeming romanticism.
The Dark Horse is a perfect introduction to this actor, as it's timely, smart and funny. Looking beyond William's shellaced hair and pencil thin mustache, concessions to the Barrymore look, I'm sure, William reminds me of Liam Neeson of all people. An early scene in The Dark Horse reminded me so much of Neeson in Michael Collin's rousing the prisoner's to the cause of the Irish Independence that I was distracted for the first ten minutes of the film. Of course, Hal Blake knows nothing about the man he's praising in such grand terms, and is the first, but not the last instance of grand theatrics used to sell politics. This satire feels as fresh as the day it was made. The key points about the electorate needing to feel that the candidate is as stupid as they are certainly hit home in an election season where a Wellesley College graduate drank bourbon and talked NASCAR and a vice presidential candidate's chief qualifications have to do with the ability to shoot something besides her hunting companions.
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