Tue 22 Jul 2014
BLACK LEGION. Warner Bros., 1937. Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Ann Sheridan, Helen Flint, Joe Sawyer. Director: Archie Mayo.
Black Legion is a 1937 crime drama/proto-film noir directed by Archie Mayo and starring Humphrey Bogart. The movie is both a good suspense tale and a morality play, an attempt to categorize anti-immigrant vigilantism as distinctly anti-American. Overall, it’s a very good film, rich on atmospherics and with excellent acting by Bogart. Still, it comes across as just a bit too predictable, replete with a lumbering, albeit well-intentioned, political sermon at the very end.
The plot follows factory worker and dedicated family man Frank Taylor (Bogart) as he spirals ever downward into a self-destructive morass of alcoholism, rage, and political violence.
After being passed over for a promotion, with the position going instead to a man of Polish heritage, an aggrieved Taylor joins the Black Legion, a Midwest offshoot of the virulently racist Ku Klux Klan. (As an historical aside, it’s interesting to note that the studio considered, but ultimately rejected, the Romanian-Jewish born Edward G. Robinson to portray Taylor).
For a time at least, Taylor (Bogart) ends up believing the nativist slop served up on the airwaves by the Black Legion. This shortsightedness will be his downfall. His political activities will end up costing him his marriage to his wife, Ruth, (Erin O’Brien Moore) and his friendship with neighbor and work colleague, Ed Jackson (Dick Foran). Ann Sheridan portrays Jackson’s girlfriend, Betty Grogan.
Along for the ride is Joe Sawyer, portraying the oafish, brute Cliff Summers, a factory worker who introduces him to the Legion and their nefarious activities. While it is Cliff who is responsible for getting Taylor to attend a secret, subterranean Black Legion meeting, it is ultimately Taylor and Taylor alone who is responsible for nearly everything bad that happens next.
Similar to how the KKK is portrayed in the excellent film, Storm Warning, also a Warner Brothers film which I reviewed here, Black Legion portrays the organization as much as a scam as a nativist organization. The film goes to great lengths to show the audience that the Black Legion’s leadership consists of con men primarily interested in money and profits. They’re selling nativism and a bunch of gullible fools are buying.
Black Legion isn’t remotely a happy film. Indeed, there is something very noir about both the film and its protagonist. You don’t exactly feel sorry for Taylor at the end when he’s being carted off to prison for his role in the shockingly unnecessary death of his friend, Ed (Foran), who had threatened to expose the Legion’s activities to law enforcement.
All told, Black Legion remains a very good movie, one that has a powerful, if clumsily delivered message. Unlike many other Bogart films which more than stand the test of time, it just comes across as somewhat dated.