Thursday, June 14, 2012

Black Legion (Warner Bros., 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Black Legion was more melodramatic than I remembered it (director Archie L. Mayo probably told star Humphrey Bogart to give the somewhat overwrought performance he did; I recall Bette Davis saying she had to fight him for the right to underplay a big scene when she felt that was appropriate), but it’s also still powerful and surprisingly relevant to today. The story of Black Legion concerns a secret, Ku Klux Klan-like organization (which actually existed), based in the northern Midwest and focused more on foreign (mostly Eastern European) immigrants than on Blacks, but just as unscrupulous and nasty. Bogart plays a factory worker who joins the Legion after being passed over for a promotion in favor of the son of a Polish immigrant, goes on a series of night rides that terrorize the town where all of this is taking place and finally ends up shooting his best friend (Dick Foran) when Foran, who’s learned the secrets of the Legion from Bogart when he was drunk, threatens to go to the police. A dramatic courtroom finale, probably inspired by Fritz Lang’s Fury, shows a conscience-stricken Bogart breaking down in the middle of the trial when his estranged wife (Erin O’Brien Moore) comes back; he abandons the carefully constructed self-defense scenario the Legion has come up with, confesses his own involvement and names names. In an amusing scene, the organizers of the Legion turn out to be promoters who find selling “patriotism” much more lucrative than the worthless oil stock that was their former source of income. This, I understand, was actually historically true; the Klan of the 1920’s self-destructed over internal feuds, fueled by greed over which faction would get the revenue from “official” Klan uniforms and other merchandise. Black Legion is all too relevant today, when people like Tom Metzger (at least until the court system took care of him) are organizing similar groups, and xenophobia is becoming so powerful a force in American politics a major candidate for Mayor of Los Angeles (Tom Houston) is basing his whole campaign on attacking “illegal” immigrants. It is not at all difficult to imagine a modern remake of this film — the targets of today’s equivalents to the Black Legion are Central and South American immigrants rather than Eastern Europeans, but the hatred is just as ugly and the potential for violence just as great. — 3/3/93


Black Legion was a 1937 Warner Bros. production, one of their “torn from the headlines” specials, and gave Humphrey Bogart his first genuinely good role since he had come to Warners in 1936 to repeat his stage role as the Dillinger-esque outlaw Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest. (When Jack Warner gave him a crappy script and told him it would be his next film, Bogart objected. “You can’t expect every picture you make to be as good as The Petrified Forest or Black Legion,” Warner said. “Why the hell not?” Bogart replied.) The Black Legion was a real outfit, a bunch of Ku Klux Klan wanna-bes who terrorized Michigan and other Midwestern states in the mid-1930’s, and while their official list of targets included the usual suspects — Jews, Roman Catholics and Blacks — their principal targets in practice were white ethnics who supposedly were taking the jobs of “100 percent Americans.” It came to an abrupt end in 1935 when the Legion killed a WPA worker named Charlie Poole and Dean Dayton, the actual shooter, turned state’s evidence at the trial. In the movie, Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is a factory worker (we’re never told what the factory actually makes and the only piece of equipment we see in operation is a drill press) who’s up for the job of foreman, but the management instead promotes a younger worker, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon), because he’s been to college, he’s already worked out a new invention that is saving the company money, and therefore they decided he’s earned the promotion.

Taylor, who lives in decent but financially strained circumstances with his wife Ruth (Erin O’Brien-Moore, who delivers a quiet, finely honed performance that should have marked her for biggers and betters) and their son Buddy (Dickie Jones), is counting on the promotion to buy a new car and do some work on his house, and when Dombrowski gets the job instead of him he goes into a black rage, drinking, screwing up on the job (and getting a smarmy lecture from Dombrowski that he’s too good a workman to be chewing up valuable drill bits by being careless) and generally moping around until one night he hears a voice on the radio (the favorite medium of hatemongers then and now) blaming all America’s ills on “foreigners” and calling for “real Americans” to rise up against them — and do what, the voice never actually quite says (back then there were still broadcast standards enforced even against the Right-wing radio commentariat), but Taylor’s fellow worker Cliff Summers (Joseph Sawyer) hears Taylor sounding off at work and recruits him to the Black Legion. In one of a series of surprisingly Gothic-looking scenes for a film directed by the usually hacky Archie Mayo (there are more Gothic shots in Black Legion than in Bogart’s one out-and-out horror film, The Return of Doctor “X”), Taylor assembles in a wood as a Black Legion initiate and swears an oath to God and the Devil (“one to reward and one to punish”) that turns out not to have been written by the screenwriters (Robert Lord, story; Abem Finkel — Paul Muni’s brother-in-law — and William Wister Haines, script), but by the actual Black Legion. I remember how stunned I was when I saw a book from the 1930’s on then-current Right-wing movements in the U.S., read the real Black Legion oath — and recognized it from the movie.

He gets issued a Black Legion robe and hood, and also a Black Legion special .38 revolver — both of which he has to pay for out of his already meager earnings, since (as an exposition scene soon tells us) the founders of the Black Legion are a gang of con artists who previously sold worthless oil stock and couldn’t care less about racism or foreigners allegedly taking over America. What they’re after are the money they can make from membership dues and Black Legion merchandise — something that turned out to be true of the real Black Legion’s organizers as well (we’ve come a long way from the radical Right being financed by hucksters trying to make a buck to today’s radical Right being financed by the already mega-rich who want to remake society so they can be even mega-richer) when they were finally rounded up and put on trial. Taylor’s first action as a Legion member is a nighttime raid on the chicken farm owned by Joe Dombrowski’s father; they trash the place, the Dombrowskis leave town and the foreman job opens up at last — only Taylor loses it again when, in response to a demand from the Legion to increase their recruitment efforts, he pulls a worker off a machine to talk to him in the restroom and the inexperienced person he leaves in charge of it ends up making a mistake that wrecks the machine completely. The foreman job goes instead to Mike Grogan (Clifford Soubier), whose daughter Betty (Ann Sheridan) is Ruth Taylor’s best friend. Betty’s fiancé, Ed Jackson (Dick Foran, who was usually a decent-looking but pretty empty screen presence but actually rises quite well to the challenge of playing the voice of reason in this film), gets suspicious when the Black Legion stages an attack on Grogan that involves tying him to two adjacent trees and whipping him (maybe Abem Finkel wrote this scene with the inspiration of his brother-in-law’s sequence as a whipping victim in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang — though we don’t see the flogger land on Grogan’s flesh, the scene is still quite terrifying explicit for a “post-Code” movie), and after Taylor’s drunk his way out of his job, his wife and child have left him, and he’s taken up with Ed’s slutty ex-girlfriend Pearl Danvers (Helen Flint), he spills the Black Legion’s secrets to Ed while “in his cups.”

Ed immediately threatens to go to the police (a script hole in a lot of 1930’s movies; instead of saying he’s going to go to the police and thereby alerting the bad guys that they’d better shut him up pronto, why doesn’t he keep his mouth shut and just go?) and the Legion kidnaps him, takes him out to those marvelously Gothic woods (the Warner ranch in Calabasas) and Frank Taylor shoots his former friend when he tries to get away. He makes it as far as a roadhouse, ditching his Black Legion uniform on the way (but keeping the gun!), and two cops just happen to show up there, notice his nervousness and arrest him. The Black Legion concocts a cover story that Taylor shot Ed in self-defense after Ed started threatening him with a gun over their rivalry for Pearl Danvers, and Pearl herself testifies in the trial according to the Legion’s script — but Taylor balks at the last minute because, with his wife and son in the courthouse, he can’t lie and say he was planning to dump the good woman, especially not for such a wretched scrap of female humanity as Pearl. Taylor agrees to name names and the judge (Samuel S. Hinds) orders the courtroom sealed so all the Black Legionnaires in attendance can be arrested, and eventually they’re convicted and sentenced to life. Black Legion remains a tough, uncompromising and brilliant movie, partly because of its no-nonsense script, partly because of Bogart’s performance (he’s completely convincing as a proletarian, and he believably depicts his bitterness and rage that gets channeled into violence by the Legion, even though his character arc — a basically good but limited man drawn into evil, who repents only when it’s too late — is essentially the reverse of the one he later played in his star-making vehicles, a world-weary cynic whose good instincts are roused into the service of a cause greater than himself) and partly because the kinds of people who ran the Black Legion are still very much around and, indeed, have far more power today than they did in the 1930’s.

One could easily imagine the basic story being remade today — even though one irony is that it’s people with names like Dombrowski and Grogan, the targets of 1930’s nativists like the Black Legionnaires, that today swell the ranks of the Tea Party and make similar noises against people of color and Queers. The modern version would likely start with a factory worker passed over for promotion by an affirmative-action hire (the stories I’ve read about people joining the militia movement, the White Aryan Resistance and other violent far-Right fringe groups of today almost always begin with a reference to them having become embittered and led to racist hate groups by losing a job, or perceiving themselves as having lost a job, to affirmative action), then joining a Tea Party and finally getting into a militia movement or something more serious and violent. The passions that motivated the Black Legion both in life and on film are, if anything, more widespread and influential now than they were in 1937 — then radical-Right speakers had to thread the needle of a deliberately apolitical mass-media structure to get on the air (even the most popular of them, Father Charles Coughlin, ultimately was cancelled by CBS and, since he was a Roman Catholic priest, he was also subject to the authority of the Vatican, who basically put brakes on him); now they have their own media in talk radio and Fox News, and the kind of Right-wing chatter that occasionally made it onto the airwaves in 1937 can now be heard 24/7 everywhere in the U.S. (Indeed, in most of the U.S. it’s the only sort of political opinion that can be heard on the air.) Black Legion is very much a movie of its time, but in some senses it’s timeless — and the ending is particularly moving in that the one thing that snaps Frank Taylor to his senses, the one good thing that’s withstood all the bad he’s become, is his love for his family and his final unwillingness to betray them. — 6/14/12