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Black Legion (1937)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

BLACK LEGION (1937)

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O'Brien-Moore, Ann Sheridan, Samuel Hinds

Written By: Abem Finkel, William Wister Haines, Robert Lord (story) Directed By: Archie Mayo

The Short Version

Humphrey Bogart plays a role you’re not used to from him.

Black Legion is a Depression Era film about hatemongers and bigots.

Sad Part #1: It’s based on real world events.

Sad Part #2: It’s still extremely relevant.

It’s preachy and it’s not fun, but Black Legion is also still worthwhile.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

WISCONSIN COLBY.

Fine cheese that is likely to have been made by Polish Americans.


Pairs Well With...

BLATZ.

The beer with which many a Depression Era blue collar worker got blitzed.

“You’ve got to hand it to him.”

“They already handed it to him, didn’t they?”


Let me set a scene for you.

The American economy is not in good shape.  People who have jobs consider themselves lucky, while many of their neighbors stand unemployed.  Local businesses struggle to make ends meet, not just because their customers often don’t have jobs, but also because they can’t compete with other businesses that keep undercutting them.  There are whispers and then out loud grumblings about immigrants being at fault, undermining the economy and taking jobs away from “real Americans.”  Soon, a movement starts to deal with the “parasites,” and the message is clear: get the hell out, and let the “real” Americans have the jobs and run the businesses.

I wish that the above was nothing more than a description of the plot of Black Legion, a fictional motion picture put out by Warner Brothers in 1937.

I wish that it was not also a description of real events that occurred in Michigan in 1935 that culminated in a KKK-affiliated group called the Black Legion murdering a worker.

I really wish it was not also a description of events that one regularly hears about on the news more than a decade into the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, despite the “this is pure fiction” warning plastered at the beginning of the picture, Black Legion really did gets its inspiration from true events that occurred in 1935.  (It’s said that there was a script draft ready within three weeks of the actual incident.)  Indeed, it plays so close to the truth that when the KKK saw a certain emblem on the hooded costumes, they tried to sue for trademark infringement.  Really.

And even more unfortunately, it seems that one can’t hear, read, or watch the news in the present day United States for more than a few minutes without hearing about bigots and hatemongers… and the popular support they enjoy, fueled in part by a lousy economy looking for scapegoats.

I wish that Black Legion could be looked upon as an outdated relic of a film, but, alas, it isn’t.  Black Legion is still very, very relevant.

With that said, unless you’re watching specifically for appreciation of craft or unless your idea of fun is to find more reasons to get pissed off at the world, Black Legion is not going to be anyone’s definition of “entertainment.”  So if fun really is what you’re looking for, keep looking.  And now that the warning’s out of the way...

Looking at the script first, Black Legion does an excellent job of covering the entire evolutionary process of how the main character, Frank Taylor, can start out as a decent man who loves his family and hates no one and eventually turn into a hate-spewing bigot who commits terrible crimes and betrays everyone he knows.  The script very carefully shows each step in Taylor’s transformation, starting with his losing a “sure thing” promotion to a Polish co-worker.  Every step that follows makes perfect sense, both in terms of the horrible changes that occur and the ways in which Frank rationalizes them.  When the audience first meets Frank, it seems impossible that he would ever say so much as a cross word to his wife, much less hit her; and indeed, at that time, he wouldn’t.  But when it does happen…  It’s awful that it happens, but there’s no way that the audience can say that it doesn’t make sense from a character psychology perspective.  Similarly, the script also does an excellent job of portraying the hate group known as the Black Legion as a realistic and unnervingly plausible organization rather than as some impossible monstrosity.  Everything about its structure and methods rings true, including the leaders’ exploitation of the group’s hateful message as a means of lining their own pockets with cash.

But of course all of the above rings true.  The reality is so monstrous that the writers didn’t need to embellish a thing.

Well, almost.  When the hatemongers are exposed for what they are, the preaching gets poured on very, very thick, especially at the end of the picture.  Any subtlety was reserved for the bad guys (if you can call hoods and whips subtle); the judge lays it on with a trowel.  On the other hand, the evil here is so great that I can’t say that this bothers me as much as 1930s-style cinematic moralizing usually does, and I actually applaud the starkness of the final outcome.  Perhaps it’s because I see so many people who still haven’t gotten the memo 75 years later.

With that said, one other item that might have seemed tedious at the time that Black Legion was released turns out to be a great favor for those of us watching the film through modern eyes.  Let’s face it: the households of today are not the households of the Depression Era, and the script does a great job of not only introducing all of its characters, but also of immersing the audience in their world.  The kitchen scenes, for example, may mystify some people and just plain anger modern feminists, but they do serve as a real historical reference to ground the audience, as do things like gathering around the radio to listen to the dramas and discussion of buying a vacuum cleaner like it’s an incredibly big deal.  Most impressive for me, though, is a scene wherein the audience watches radio news being read from an inside-the-studio perspective, including a live band on the set and different voice actors reading quotes from the news stories that the reporters are presenting.  It’s all a real slice of 1930s life that might have seemed a drag to some back in the day, but which is an invaluable reference for audiences now.

For those who aren’t watching Black Legion for its social justice appeal or for its historical interest, though, there’s still one more major draw; indeed, the major draw: Mr. Humphrey Bogart.

Frank Taylor is not the sort of character one normally expects to see Bogart playing.  Taylor’s got a wife and kid, for one thing.  He’s also a sucker and a sap, words one rarely associates with any character touched by Bogart, and at the end of the day, he’s a villain in the bad sense of the word.  And yet, thanks to the talent of Mr. Bogart, he’s also very, very compelling.  He dives into the role of the “there but for the grace” Everyman, playing every aspect of his troubles character to the full.  Though he’s primarily appreciated for playing cool, collected, in-control tough guys by modern audiences, Humphrey Bogart actually has great range as a character actor, and Black Legion gives him the chance to show it.  Two scenes in particular stand out for me. 

There comes a point when Taylor hits what the audience would think at the time is rock bottom, with his wife and job both gone.  He sinks into a deep, dark depression, and ends up slamming endless cans of beer in his kitchen with the town tramp for a sympathetic ear.  If you have ever seen a real person drowning his or her sorrows, you’ll know that Bogart nails it.  Taylor also happens to be a musical drunk (I suspect that tendency in people to have been the real genesis of karaoke), and so he and the aforementioned tramp get into a rousing attempt at “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” complete with arguments about how to sing it properly.  There is plenty of comic potential in a moment like this, but had that potential been realized, the scene and possibly even the entire character would have been ruined.  But Bogart resists that temptation, and instead, the scene is sad, awful, and heartbreaking.  Indeed, he plays it so well that for most actors, this scene could stand as a career triumph; even for Bogart, it makes the highlight reel.

The second standout scene is not one of coherent dialogue; it’s primarily conveyed by looks and a single action.  Taylor has been taken to jail and awaits trial for his most heinous crime, and its weight haunts him.  He’s led by the police into a room, and discovers his wife (herself well played by Erin O’Brien-Moore) standing there.  Taylor was already crushed by the weight of his deeds, but in this moment, with just a look, Bogart takes the shell of his character and crushes it even further.  It’s a magnificent display of craft, as are his defeated shamble toward the lady and his collapse to his knees before her and his tear-soaked breakdown of remorse.  This, too, is a scene that could easily have been played over the top, but Bogart plays it to perfection.

When all is said and done, the script lays the blueprint for Taylor’s awful metamorphosis; Humphrey Bogart sells it.

Though there are a few moments that drag a little, overall, one can’t deny that Black Legion is a very good film.  (It was even named Best Picture by the National Board of Review.)  It’s also a very powerful film, and crosses more boundaries than one would normally expect from a picture of its era.  But there’s also no denying that it is a dark film, and not something one watches for its entertainment value.  History, relevance, craft, yes; but if you want your spirit lifted, move on.

Bottom line, Black Legion is a social justice picture which – unfortunately – has lost none of its power and relevance after 75 years.  Humphrey Bogart takes it to the next level, and makes the message resonate with an even wider audience.  While it’s few people’s idea of fun, if social conscience flicks are your thing or if you want to see Humphrey Bogart give an extraordinary performance, Black Legion is worth checking out.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, June, 2012


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