by Paul Batters
Cinema has always been used as a medium to outline social issues and concerns and bring them to the attention of audiences. Of all the major studios, which produced ‘social message’ films, Warner Bros. perhaps did them best during the classic era and certainly produced some interesting social message films during the 1930s. Films such as Mervyn LeRoy’s I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) were so successful that they became influential in challenging the penal system’s use of chain gangs. Even the gangster genre would step into the realm of the message film, examining the shaping of the mobster and the social ills that created crime in films such as Dead End (1937) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).
What made them successful, particularly during the 1930s, was that the stories were often drawn from real events (or at the very least inspired by real events) that had been reported in the media. More often than not, these films as a result, aesthetically used a realist approach to narrative and even at times felt like a newsreel. These films also had great appeal to the working class, who were grappling with the Great Depression and the complexities of navigating their way through the difficulties they faced each day.
To the credit of Warner Bros, they were quite courageous in making these films. True, they were often programmers that were easy to produce and ran at about 70 to 80 minutes in total. Yet they did not exactly lack in production values and indeed had strong casts with very capable and talented directors, using well-written scripts. Most of all, they tackled subjects which were controversial and Warner Bros. were also perhaps the only studio who were not afraid to openly condemn Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early days of World War Two.
Black Legion (1937) is perhaps one of Warner Bros. best ‘social message’ movies and one that has largely been ‘forgotten’. As a Warner Bros, film, it could be easily dismissed as another programmer but it has pedigree far beyond a typical B-picture. Directed by Archie Mayo (with some of the film directed by an uncredited Michael Curtiz), it was also overseen by the talented Hal B. Wallis and producer Robert Lord. As already mentioned, the story itself, scripted from a Robert Lord story by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines, was drawn from actual events and a contemporary news story, which had shocked the nation at that time.
It is also a film that gave Bogart his first chance major opportunity to showcase his range of abilities and remove himself from the usual role of gangster/tough guy that he had been playing in numerous roles. Bogart certainly seized on this opportunity, shaping a very human and dimensional portrayal of Taylor, which was praised by critics at the time.
Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is a typical American mid-Western factory worker, married to his lovely wife Ruth (Erin O’Brien-Moore). Indeed, the Taylors are what would have been termed at the time, as ‘all-American’ and the un-named town in which they live would have typified the same ideal of America in the mid-west. Hardworking and industrious, the Taylors are also close friends with their neighbours, the Grogans who run a boarding house. Ed Jackson (Dick Foran) who lives there and develops a romantic interest in Betty Grogan (Ann Sheridan) is Frank’s best friend and works with Frank at the same factory. Everything appears idyllic, with the possibility of promotion when the shop floor steward Tommy Smith (John Litel) announces the position.
Frank dreams of better things for himself and his family, so far as to consider purchasing a new car. However, his dreams are shattered when the promotion goes to the hard-working son of a Polish immigrant, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon).
Frank becomes bitter and his disappointment festers into something worse. Ed Jackson tells Frank to let it go and that he can’t begrudge Dombrowski’s success as he’s always working to better himself instead of just drinking beer and listening to the ballgame on the radio. But Frank’s anger and disappointment is seized on and fed by another work colleague, Cliff (Joseph Sawyer) who sells Frank the reason for his losing the promotion – immigrants are taking over America and stealing jobs from good Americans. Frank’s push into the darkness is also assisted by his coming across a radio program, denouncing foreigners and declaring the need to protect American values – ‘America for Americans’ comes the catch-cry.
Before long, Frank accepts Cliff’s invitation to a ‘secret meeting’ and he joins the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan type group who wear hooded garments and use violence against anyone not truly ‘American’. Frank pledges his allegiance to the violent organisation, reciting a terrible oath that by all accounts was an actual word for word recital of the initiation. He is then ordered to purchase a gun and a hooded uniform, which is described as a necessary sacrifice for the cause.
But Frank’s initial apprehension seems to be dispelled in a striking scene, where Frank poses with his newly purchased revolver. It is a chilling and disturbing scene, which foreshadows De Niro as Travis Bickle some 40 years later. Instead of a mirror, the camera focuses on Frank’s shadow, pointing his gun and seeing how it looks. But Bogart is powerful at showing how it feels to hold the gun and it perhaps the most obvious first step into Frank’s collapse and a brilliantly depicted disintegration of someone who was a ‘family man’. In this scene, the sad truth shows a little man trying to be big and the terrible and wholly-mistaken misconception that a gun makes a man, comes to the fore as well as a theme.
Before long, Frank is taking part in the violent and brutal actions that the Black Legion deems protecting American values. They target the Dombrowski farm, burning it to the ground and sending them out of town, satisfying Frank’s violent jealousy. Before long Frank gains the promotion due to Dombrowski’s departure, which initially vindicates Frank’s feelings and actions.
However, Frank’s success is short-term and not only does he lose his promotion but he begins to lose those around him. The great irony in this tragedy is that Frank loses what he has sought to ‘protect’, his family. The desire for the American dream, symbolised by a new car and material objects, results in Frank losing his focus on love for his family. He ignores his son Buddy to listen to a radio program spouting bigotry instead of the usual time spent together listening to serial Speed Foster. He isolates himself from his wife, staying out late with the Legion and even beginning to drink. However, Frank’s demise is far from a clichéd fall from grace – director Archie Mayo is astute enough to establish Frank’s character as already flawed, lacking the work ethic and ambition to better himself yet despising someone that does have those qualities.
Eventually, Frank finds himself so deep in trouble that he will even betray the friend who tries to help him and forgets his earlier family-focused principles, starting a relationship with Pearl Davis (Helen Flint), a woman whose morals would be described as ‘loose’ to use the 1930s euphemism. But Mayo is careful to pin Frank’s downfall on Frank’s own weaknesses and failings – and not on some wicked woman who seduces an innocent man from his loving wife and family. Frank has been seduced and allowed himself to fall to the ugliness of bigotry and racism.
The tragedy of the story reaches its’ zenith when Frank finds himself caught up in murder and a courtroom ending, which mirrors the real-life accounts that the story was drawn from. This reviewer will leave readers to discover the outcomes for themselves.
Black Legion is a very-well crafted film which paces well and never loses its’ audience. There are a good number of reasons why it works.
Directors Archie Mayo (and an uncredited Michael Curtiz) make effective use of the 83 minute time frame of the film. Aside from the sub-plot of Ed and Betty’s romance, the story paces well and few scenes are drawn out or over-cooked. Each scene is tailored together perfectly, adding depth and avoiding clichés as the audience watches Frank’s personal collapse. The tragedy that unfolds is all the more believable because there is conviction in what we see on the screen – and sadly, the audience is fully aware that racial violence and bigotry is not in the imagination of film-makers but a real and terrible reality. As a result, Black Legion is more than a morality tale and indeed aims to make us feel uncomfortable and concerned. Mayo does adopt a documentary style suited to the nature of the thematic approach, allowing for the realism that permeated social message films of the period. Patricia King Hanson and Anthony Slide make the point that whilst there are elements of melodrama, the emphasis remains on that very realism mentioned and the characters on the screen are shaped and portrayed in a way, which audiences would have identified with. The regular use of the radio is also a brilliant touch of realism at punctuating dramatic points, and in particular turning points in the film.
Bogart’s performance is outstanding and critics in 1937 felt it was his breakthrough film. Following from his menacing turn as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart took a role that was neither glamorous or heroic or empathetic to an audience. Indeed, Frank Taylor is far from an admirable man and aside from the earlier scenes showing a typified working-man and his family, the truth shows a weak man, looking for excuses for his own failures and missed opportunities. Wallis had wanted E.G Robinson but Bogart fit the story concept of someone who ‘looked American’, which would not only fit the very demographic that the Klan and Legion in real life were aiming for but also typify the emotional experience of that demographic and tap into the psychology of the very individual drawn to the Klan. Bogart exhibits a powerful emotional range in Taylor’s decline and disintegration, exposing a raw reality that such men are inherently weak and racism and bigotry becomes an easy and seductive excuse.
The lovely Erin O’Brien-Moore (whose career was tragically effected by burns from a freak accident) is strong as Frank’s wife. Ann Sheridan is as solid as always in a secondary role, though she doesn’t have much else to do other than act as a romance interest for Dick Foran. Helen Flint is cast as the cheap tart that is always on the prowl for a man and winds up with Taylor near the end of the film. She works as a plot device to highlight how far Frank has fallen but admittedly her performance is a little overdone. Nonetheless, it takes nothing away from the power of the film. Interesting enough, Dick Foran appears to be more interested in drinking and minding his own business yet when the crisis arises with Frank, it is Foran’s character who tries to save him and shows he has deeper principles than first displayed.
Despite the critics hailing the film and its’ nomination for a number of awards, including Best Screenplay at the Oscars for 1937, Black Legion would not make Bogart a star. As A.M Sperber and Eric Lax point out, the harsh reality on the Warner Bros. lot was that Bogart was not going to get a look in before their established stars in Cagney, Robinson and Raft. Additionally, The New York Times, whilst hailing the film as powerful and superb, noted that the film was too hard-hitting and close to the bone to have a lasting impact. Bogart would go back to supporting roles and whilst he didn’t know it at the time, stardom was still four or five years away.
What is particularly scary about Black Legion is that it still hits close to the bone, particularly in this era, as strong as it ever did. The rising ugliness of populism openly espousing racism, bigotry and sexism has become more than evident in the world today, dividing people and polarising society. It warns of the dangers of fascism, which is a message not singular to the period but one very relevant in the 21st century. The radio spouting out ‘America for Americans’ and ‘hordes of…foreigners’ is a terrifying harbinger of what is being heard today. Black Legion taps into a number of interesting asides regarding such demagoguery and what drives racist organisations; the exploitation of the very people – ‘real Americans’ – for financial and political gains. New members are forced to buy a hooded uniform and gun, and Legion leaders higher up the chain makes demands on subordinates to gain more members in order to bring in more profits. The interesting comment being made here is that rich business men are the real power behind such organisations, and the undertones of what drives fascism and is also examined in other films such as Meet John Doe, is certainly a controversial issue. It is incredible that the scene showing the businessmen pushing for more members to gain more funds was even allowed yet placed in the film.
Black Legion deserves far more attention than it has previously had and is usually ignored not only as a social message picture but also one which shows one of Bogart’s finest performances in an unsympathetic role of a weak man. As an Australian and thus an outsider to the experience of Trump’s America, it is still impossible not to make the link between what happens in the film and what is happening in America today. However, the spectre of fascism and bigotry is not to be ignored by anyone in any nation. Black Legion makes this more than evident and is a powerful film that stands up strong in its’ truth and delivery – today as much as it did in 1937.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.