09 June 2011

Black Legion (1937)

Bad times have a way of bringing out the worst in otherwise normal people, and the Great Depression was certainly no exception. In 1935, a WPA worker in Detroit was killed by members of an organization known as the Black Legion, a northern offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan which was later revealed to have a significant membership across Michigan and Ohio. The sensational headlines that arose in the wake of the incident made great fodder for Hollywood screenwriters -- Warner Bros. adapted the story into a feature film aptly entitled Black Legion, which was released in January of 1937.

Black Legion tells the story of Frank Taylor, a factory worker who aspires to be the next foreman of the shop. Frank is more than a little frustrated, however, when he is passed over for the promotion in favor of Joe Dombrowski, a Polish immigrant with an apparent knack for machinery. Picking up on Frank's resentment, a fellow worker invites him to join the Black Legion, a shadowy organization purportedly out to defend the interests of "real Americans" from foreign infiltration and subversion. Under cover of darkness, Frank and the other legionaries put the torch to the Dombrowski farm and forcibly expel Joe and his aged father from the town. With Joe conveniently out of the picture, Frank is made the new foreman of the shop.

For a while at least, things appear to be going well for Frank -- he finally gets that new car he's been coveting, and his wife Ruth gets a much-needed new vacuum cleaner. Before long, however, Frank's involvement with the Legion begins to interfere with his life at home and at work. The Legion's nocturnal raids keep Frank away from his wife and son, and pressure to recruit new legionaries distract him from his work as shop foreman -- a costly accident occurs while Frank is attempting to enlist a worker into the ranks of the Legion, which leads to Frank being demoted from the position. Mike Grogan -- Frank's Irish neighbor -- replaces him as foreman. Once more, the Legion intervenes on Frank's behalf -- Grogan is dragged from his house in the middle of the night and flogged to within an inch of his life.

Suspecting both foul play and Frank's involvement therein, Ruth takes their son and goes to live with her parents. Despondent, Frank takes to drink and accidentally spills the beans about the Legion's activities to his friend Ed Jackson, who had been concerned about Frank's suspicious behavior for some time. Ed threatens to go to the police, prompting Frank to report him to the Legion. Ed is seized by the legionaries, who intend to beat him into silence. When Ed attempts to escape, Frank guns him down. Frank is overcome with remorse and flees into the night, only to run into the police, who arrest him for Ed's murder.

With Frank about to stand trial and the incident drawing much unwanted attention from the press, a lawyer in the covert employ of the Legion provides Frank with an alibi of self-defense -- and tells him that he'd better stick to it if he ever wants to see his wife and son again. The legionaries even attend the trial to ensure that Frank doesn't lose his nerve. Frank's conscience gets the better of him, however, leading him to confess to Ed's murder and turn in the other members of the Legion. For their crimes, Frank and the rest of the Black Legion are sentenced to life in prison.

Though Black Legion rightly condemns the xenophobia and bigotry it depicts, it does so in a thoughtful manner. Most significantly, the film illustrates quite credibly just how Frank Taylor -- an otherwise perfectly decent guy -- can succumb to the allure of extreme rhetoric, especially when times are tough. While Frank may not be an especially sympathetic character, he is most certainly a believable one. His family life, his professional ambitions and his workplace frustrations are remarkably true-to-life, particularly for post-production code Hollywood. Moreover, Frank's shortcomings ultimately serve to amplify the believability of his character -- most notably, his petty jealousy of Joe Dombrowski's success is the tragic flaw which leads him to join the Legion in the first place. Studio heads initially planned to offer the role to Edward G. Robinson, but for a variety of reasons -- among them the fact that the Jewish Robinson looked a bit too ethnic to really fit the role of a middle-American average Joe -- the role was eventually given to a lesser-known player named Humphrey Bogart. Bogie handles the part of Frank Taylor superbly, demonstrating in this early role the sort of acumen which would eventually land him among Hollywood's foremost stars.

In many ways, Black Legion feels quite similar to others the numerous, gritty "message pictures" for which Warner Bros. became known (it helps that director had many such pictures under his belt after several years at the studio). What sets the film apart from the other message pictures of the day, however, is that while bootlegging and speakeasies are largely relics of the past, the issues which Black Legion addresses continue to be problematic in American society. In one particularly memorable scene, the judge explains to the condemned legionaries that to engage in violent repression against a given group of people in the name of America is an utter perversion of the democratic principles upon which the nation was founded. It's actually one of the better patriotic monologues I've yet heard -- second only perhaps to Jimmy Stewart's impassioned speech before congress in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- and its message is one that bears repeating in the face of the current political climate.

Although not one of classic Hollywood's most renowned pictures, Black Legion is nevertheless a very good one. Its direction is solid, its acting is top-notch (especially where Humphrey Bogart is concerned) and its social themes are as pertinent today as they were in 1937. As fascinating as it is entertaining, Black Legion is definitely a must.

[Image Sauce]