”If you film buffs suspect I’ve skipped a picture I made called Dark Hazard, you’re so right. Try hard not to see it on TV. I loathed it.” — Edward G. Robinson
Ouch, Edward G., that’s a bit rough, especially when I like it so much! Maybe he didn’t like working with the dog. Actors can’t stand working with babies and animals, right, and War Cry, the prizewinning greyhound who played Dark Hazard, didn’t even have any acting experience.
Robinson’s scenes with War Cry noticeably take a lot more effort than we’re used to seeing from an actor who almost always seems completely absorbed into his portrayals. But even if we can see Robinson working, and working hard, to express a pure and unrestrained love when handling the pooch, it’s difficult not to be charmed by his character’s relationship with the animal, a racing dog who earns most of his affection by being first across the finish line.
It was those strong finishes that also first attracted Robinson’s gambler, “Buck” Turner, to Dark Hazard, but as Buck’s personal life crumbles, he remains devoted to Dark Hazard, even after rediscovering him under highly reduced circumstances.
It’s a fine movie, Dark Hazard, with this bit about a man and his dog only a subplot in a story that’s really about addiction, at least most of the way. The final scene relents to reward Buck despite all the harm he’d done to himself and his wife, Marge (Genevieve Tobin). After spending 73 minutes with a collection of characters who are all flawed, I suppose the movie wants to reward us by having everything turn out okay for the most likable of the bunch, Robinson’s lead Buck Turner.
Give credit to Robinson for making Turner seem like a square guy, even if his addiction and the lies born of it drive his wife away and ultimately cause him to abandon his newborn son. Tobin had an even more thankless task, shifting from Buck's loving wife to a wet blanket who makes no attempt to understand his world. It's accepted between them that her way is right, his wrong, but the movie rebels by keeping Buck the hero no matter how often he lets her down. Buck makes multiple efforts to reform along the way, but his past follows him and keeps drawing him back into the gambling life.
We roll with Buck on hot and cold streaks right from the opening scenes of Dark Hazard, when he borrows five dollars for a taxi not long after winning twenty grand on a 20-to-1 shot at the horse track. A lawn jockey welcomes busted Buck into the Mayhew boarding house in Barrowville, Ohio, where he first meets Marge (Tobin), daughter of the boarding house proprietress (Emma Dunn), who soon warns her daughter: “If you marry that gambler, you’ll marry into a life of trouble and disaster.”
Marge refuses to heed mother’s advice and we next join our newlyweds at a Chicago hotel where Buck works and the couple lives. Buck tries to make the best of a bad situation, obeying a Scrooge of a boss (William V. Mong), who orders Buck to evict hotel deadbeats at Christmas, and taking a harsh amount of grief from a nasty resident, Mr. Bright (Sidney Toler), who eventually makes good on his promise to have Buck fired. Mr. Bright turns out to have an ulterior motive to his cruelty, providing a scene with Robinson and Gordon Westcott that still has me laughing along with the characters every time I see it. I won’t spoil the fun with details, but it leads to an arrangement that sends Buck west to California where he’s to oversee a race track.
But this isn’t a horse track, it’s a dog track, and Buck enters the business completely ignorant, or so he thinks.
Buck is none too upset when he loses his first bet at the track, taking it as a lesson learned: “Well, it cost me forty bucks to find out dogs is just like horses. It ain’t how they look, it’s how they run.” And boy, did that Dark Hazard ever run, making quite an impression on Buck. He has every intention of betting on Dark Hazard next time, but his boss catches him on his way to the betting window and tells him that the smart money is on another dog. Buck switches his bet at the last minute and Dark Hazard foils him again. But again, Buck isn’t upset, at this point he’s absolutely charmed by the talents of the sleek black greyhound who’s now cost him twice.
Obviously, Marge’s fears over a track job drawing Buck back into gambling were well-founded. But her character loses audience sympathy with her harsh reception of Val Wilson (Glenda Farrell), Buck’s old gambling buddy and sometimes bed partner, who’s blown back into his life with the dog track. Admittedly, Val’s timing isn’t very good, bursting in with a couple of drunks in tow only moments after Marge has told Buck that she’s pregnant. Buck, who had just promised to reform, is immediately placed in the uncomfortable position of introducing his wife to his playmate. It doesn’t go well.
The more Buck gambles, the more he stays out, and the more he enjoys the nightlife, the more Val is at his side. After a blowout with Marge at home, Buck and Val gamble through to morning, and then Val tries to seduce him when he brings her home. Buck relents, saying he loves his wife, leading to the best line in the movie, courtesy of Glenda Farrell. She’s sprawled across her lounge and Buck has just dashed any hopes she had of his joining her. She tells him to leave, picks up the phone and, for Buck’s benefit, says, “Hey operator, send up a porter with a wheelchair. Huh? No,” she says, her tone deflated, “I didn’t do anything to him.”
Back home, Buck sneaks in after dawn and begins to undress for bed when Marge rolls over and catches him. Buck immediately reverses himself, acting as though he just woke up and is dressing for the day. Marge glances at his untouched side of the bed as Buck cheerfully mentions that he’s going to go out and water the bamboo in their yard. “Looks like you’ve been watering the bamboo all night,” says Marge. Buck tries to escape her wrath by showering her with the money he won that night. Marge seems to calm down and puts the money away in a drawer for safe keeping.
She leaves Buck five hundred dollars and a note telling him that he’s welcome to join her back at the boarding house. Next scene finds Buck losing big at cards. More of the same at roulette, then dice. Finally, looking a bit grubby, he sneaks off a freight car and finds his way back to the Mayhew boarding house, where the formerly welcoming lawn jockey has now been very purposely removed because of the life it had implied. A happy reunion is attempted, but we know Buck is doomed the moment Marge’s brother (Hobart Cavanagh) passes word that a dog track is coming to town.
Buck’s life with Marge is beyond salvation, but old friends may provide a more general rescue. Buck bumps into Dark Hazard’s owner (Robert Barrat) at the new track, and is surprised to find out his old favorite isn’t doing so well. "Practically a three-legged dog,” his owner says. Those words prove prophetic after Dark Hazard takes a bad tumble running the hurdles, a gimmick race that is all he was good for at that point. The final straw comes at home when Buck returns carrying Dark Hazard in his arms, and Marge finally gives up the pretense of rescuing their marriage.
With Buck on the side of the road sharing a sandwich with Dark Hazard while trying to hitch a ride, a happy ending seems miles off. But it’s only a few moments before life turns for Buck and Dark Hazard, in a final scene that reveals Buck’s problems boiled down to choosing the wrong woman. Marge just couldn’t tame him, but there’s a hope that Val’s strong personality can keep Buck’s demons under wraps into the future. I doubt it, but at least we get to smile when we leave the theater.
Dark Hazard is one of four pre-Code titles on the recent Warner Archive DVD-R release, Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 8. Despite its flaws, it’s my favorite of a quartet whose other entries feature leading performances from James Cagney, Paul Muni, and Norma Shearer.
In Dark Hazard our hero is pretty much a lowlife with a good disposition. The original heroine is devoured by her own morality, while the supposed woman of low morals steps into her shoes, in a film that seems to be sending a very definite message of one sort, until loosening its grip in the final moments to invalidate any previous moralizing. It’s a topsy-turvy time that really doesn’t go anywhere from beginning to end, but allows Robinson to boost a character who pretty much runs in place for most of the time in between.
The movie is based on a novel from W.R. Burnett, author of a more famous book previously brought to life on screen by Robinson in 1931, Little Caesar. Later novels by Burnett include High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle. Burnett had intimate knowledge of his material when it came to Dark Hazard, as he was owner of Robinson’s co-star, the greyhound War Cry. One old clipping I found referred to War Cry as, “the Man O’ War of the dogs,” who had won forty-four races in one year, finishing out of the money only four times that season. He later sired many champions.
Warner’s contract director Alfred E. Green directed Dark Hazard, his fourth time working with Robinson. Previous efforts together were Smart Money (1931), Silver Dollar (1932), and I Loved a Woman (1933), the last a terribly titled, but entertaining, story of a turn of the century meat packing business, also co-starring Genevieve Tobin as another unhappy wife to Robinson. The contemporary New York Times review of Dark Hazard took Green to task for “an irritating abruptness” in his transitions, “used … as a device to convey a false illusion speed.” It worked for me.
Dark Hazard has an original setting, many excellent characters, led by Edward G. Robinson’s star portrayal, several little moments of pre-Code sexiness, courtesy Glenda Farrell, and typical Warner Bros. imprints of the period, including pacing, relevancy, and exposure to a slice of life that can leave a middle class viewer feeling as though they’re doing a bit of slumming. That’s all enough to distract me from looking for a strong story.
My thanks to Warner Archive for providing a review copy of their recent manufactured-on-demand DVD-R set Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 8. In addition to Dark Hazard the set also includes Blonde Crazy with Cagney and Joan Blondell, Hi, Nellie! with Muni, and Strangers May Kiss with Shearer. Reviews of each are coming soon to this site.
- Bradley, Hugh. “Goin’ to Dogs Gets Tip-Off That Food Costs 25c Per Day.” New York Post. 19 March 1936: 1. Web. Old Fulton NY Postcards. 8 December 2014.
- Robinson, Edward G and Leonard Spigelgass. All My Yesterdays: An Autobiography. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973.
- ADS. "Review: Dark Hazard." New York Times. 23 February 1934. Web. New York Times Archives. 8 December 2014.
- Thoughts on The Thin Man: Essays on the Delightful Detective Work of Nick and Nora Charles, edited by Danny Reid of Pre-Code.com. You'll find my biography of Edward Ellis inside this new release, plus Thin Man related essays from several other writers, including Danny.
- More Pre-Code eBook 2 Preview Posts. Completed so far: Born to Be Bad (1934).
- Arsene Lupin (1932) review
- Review of each of the the other 3 titles on the Warner Archive new release, Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 8.
- Additional Warner Archive review copies on hand: Ace of Aces (1933), Reno (1939), and The Man Who Played God (1932). These are all guaranteed to appear on the site at some point, but not on any strict schedule.