Bogart joins the Klan: BLACK LEGION (1937)

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Wm. Charles Morrow

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Bogart joins the Klan: BLACK LEGION (1937)

PostWed Oct 04, 2017 8:36 pm

In the early 1970s I attended weekly film society screenings at a local library. Selections were usually Hollywood classics from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and in pre-VCR days this was the best way to see these movies, in good 16mm prints without commercial interruptions. Needless to add, it was also fun to see them with fellow buffs. One week they showed Black Legion (1937), starring Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, and Ann Sheridan. It’s a very dark melodrama, based loosely on a then-current news story, in that classic Warner Bros. ripped-from-the-headlines tradition.

This is the story of a factory worker in an unnamed (but Detroit-like) Midwestern city. Frank Taylor has a wife and a son, and a good job as a machinist; we learn that he landed this position after a rough patch of unemployment. When we first meet Frank he’s confident he’s a shoo-in for a promotion, and is planning to buy a new car and other items his family needs. But the job goes to a co-worker named Joe Dombrowski, who is younger and brighter than Frank, as well as more ambitious, always studying to better himself. He’s also more articulate, despite being a second generation immigrant. Frank, bitter at being passed over, turns moody and starts listening to radio orators who denounce foreign labor and tout “100% Americanism.”

A co-worker tells Frank about a secret society of like-minded citizens. This turns out to be the Black Legion, a gang of hooded thugs who terrorize foreign-born workers. Frank joins, and gets involved in several raids, including one on Joe Dombrowski’s farm, where the attackers set the barn and house afire. Joe and his father are beaten, trussed up, and thrown onto a freight train heading out of town. Meanwhile Frank’s marriage deteriorates. He loses his job, and his wife leaves him, taking their son. But it’s made clear to Frank and the other group members that any attempt to break from the group or tell outsiders about their activities would go badly for them. The situation worsens, and Frank winds up killing an abducted victim—his best friend. In the end, in an attempt to partially redeem himself, Frank betrays his fellow members of the Black Legion to the law, and helps destroy the organization.

As a teenager I found this intriguing and admired the movie over all, but also felt that the filmmakers pulled their punches. I’d already heard about the Production Code, so to some extent I was aware of the pressures the studio moguls faced to avoid tackling material like this, but even so it struck me as a glaring omission that the screenwriters avoided mentioning Jews or anti-Semitism, which was obviously a major factor behind the formation of the Klan-like group.

Okay, fast-forward forty years. I hadn’t seen Black Legion since that first viewing, although I remembered it well. (Or thought I did.) Last week it was shown at Film Forum as part of their current Warner Bros. series, Tough Guys, Tough Dames, Tough Pictures, and this time, a beautifully restored 35mm print. So I saw it again, and was unexpectedly gobsmacked. Throughout, especially in the second half, I just kept marveling that this film was made at all. And whatever the compromises or deletions forced by the Breen Office, it’s pretty strong stuff.

For starters, it’s perfectly clear—and certainly would have been clear to viewers in 1937—that Joe Dombroski is a Jew. Early on, one of the factory workers remarks that he’s always got his nose in a book, and another adds that it’s quite a big nose, too. Later on, after Joe becomes foreman of the shop and criticizes Frank for sloppy work, a colleague (the same one who made the ‘big nose’ remark) sidles over and asks him: “How do ya like being pushed around by a greaseball?” And while Joe speaks impeccable English, his father speaks with a thick Eastern European accent. (I noticed that Bogart speaks with a distinct ‘working man’ accent, complete with dese and dem.) As a teenager, and one who was accustomed to the frank movies and TV shows of the time, I felt all the ugly details about the Black Legion thugs and their beliefs should be explicitly spelled out, and faulted the filmmakers for not doing so. As a grownup, however, I appreciate understatement, and came away from the screening last week impressed with the boldness of the Warner Bros. brass who okay'd this project.

How ironic that this movie is being shown as part of a series called Tough Guys, etc. Bogie isn’t a tough guy here, he isn’t even “Bogie” yet. He’s comparatively young and fresh-faced, and not tough at all. His Frank Taylor is a weak, shallow, frightened little man. At first he seems fairly likable, but as his prejudices take over and start driving his actions all our sympathy for him seeps away. He reveals himself to be a scoundrel and a coward, and his 11th hour decision to inform on his fellow legionnaires is the only indication we’re given that he hasn’t become entirely despicable. Speaking of boldness, it was brave of Bogart to take on such an unsympathetic role, especially so early in his career; it points the way to the great unsympathetic roles of his peak years: Fred C. Dobbs and Captain Queeg.

The turnout at Film Forum for this screening was modest, not robust. I’m sure they drew more viewers with better known—and surely, not so dark—Warner Bros. flicks. But while Black Legion is no joyride, it’s a powerful film and deserves to be better known. It is also, unhappily for us all, still pertinent.
-- Charlie Morrow
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Re: Bogart joins the Klan: BLACK LEGION (1937)

PostSat Oct 07, 2017 11:30 am

One of the nice perks of working at the Performing Arts Library is that, when I see a movie or a play that interests me, I can visit the clipping files we maintain in the stacks and dig up contemporary reviews, trade ads, magazine articles, etc. The day after I saw Black Legion at Film Forum, I took a look at the library’s file on it. I found a number of reviews, almost entirely positive, often in effusive terms. This release was greeted with the kind of phrases studios love to use for PR pull quotes: “a tremendously impressive screen document,” “a shocking, challenging and grimly realistic social commentary,” “a daring and vastly important screen event,” “a photoplay of power and distinction,” “a revealing study of contemporary mores,” “singularly forthright and courageous,” and “one of the most courageous, forthright and bitter editorials the screen has written.” Not bad, for what was essentially a B-picture!

Perhaps I should add that I don’t know whether any of these phrases were actually used as pull quotes, as I found very little advertising material for the film.

However, I did find an article which reports that Black Legion was granted an unusual honor: a committee representing the National Board of Review voted that the film was “an outstanding example of how significant the screen can be in upholding American and human standards of racial and religious tolerance.” The brief news piece says nothing about any sort of certificate or trophy signifying the honor, but does report that a telegram of congratulations was sent by the board to Harry Warner, informing him, among other things, that the board “believes Black Legion to be a most important work in terms of American motion picture art.”

And I also found a brief, jaw-dropping article which verifies a trivia note that can be found on the film’s IMDb page: believe it or not, the Ku Klux Klan filed suit against both Warner Bros and Vitagraph Inc. [why both entities?] on grounds that the KKK insignia, a design which was patented in 1925, was used in the film without the group’s permission, and thus infringed on their copyright. This is a reference to the logo on the robes worn by members of the Black Legion, a white cross on a red background within a black square. And if you look at stills from the film and compare them to real Klansmen of the era, yes, the insignias look similar. I guess the folks at Warner Bros. never thought the KKK would have the brass to file suit, or be stupid enough to give their movie additional free publicity in this fashion. In any event, the case was thrown out of court.

Above, I mentioned that most of the reviews I saw were positive. (Admittedly, there are no published criticisms in our file from any city south of the Mason-Dixon line.) One I found that was negative, even downright snarky, came from an unexpected source, the Times of London. The anonymous critic begins with what I suppose was meant to be a joke: “This film is not alone in suggesting that many an American producer has a life-long work in front of him in the exposure of social evils. Almost every other week there seems to be another evil, and, provided it is new, it matters little what it is. It is, indeed, possible to imagine a film epic on the evil of small boys stealing apples from orchards. This film is more serious; it links up the activities of the Ku Klux Klan with those of the present day ‘Black Legion,’ who rely on terrorism to achieve their brutally idealistic and muddled ends.”

Um, yeah, good call Mr. Anonymous. You’re right, that is rather more serious than the evil of small boys stealing apples from orchards. (Pardon me, but WTF?)

At any rate, this unnamed critic goes on to dismiss the item in hand thusly: “Had the film succeeded in conveying the feeling that it had an intensely national and emotional drive behind it, it would still have been horrifying, but it would have been curiously impressive. As it is the floggings of men and the burning of houses appear to be the work of a few isolated groups, but without first-hand knowledge it would be unfair to say whether the director is right in minimizing the authority of the society or whether he is distorting the truth.” I’ve been trying to make sense of the critic’s reasoning here, with only partial success. The best I can manage would be to suggest that, while the critic is admittedly ignorant of just how widespread or popular Klan-style violence was in the U.S. at the time, he or she feels the filmmakers didn’t convey the truth; that is, he (or she) faults the director for implying that the Black Legion’s campaign of violence represents a viewpoint of an aggrieved minority as opposed to a commonly shared American bigotry. But in the same breath, the critic admits that he (or she) would be unfair to say so, not having all the pertinent information. Either way, however, the film is a failure. Did I read that right? If not, someone please enlighten me.

For the record, the director of Black Legion was the versatile Archie Mayo. The NY Herald Tribune’s Howard Barnes—and y'know, I respect a guy who signs his reviews—singles him out for praise, saying: “Mr. Mayo is to be congratulated, incidentally, on refusing to indulge in showy direction. He has fashioned the body of the work with such direct power that when he turns to striking symbols in recording the night riders on the move, these sequences take on added impact.”

One last observation: considering the period when the film was made, I thought it was interesting that, in the reviews and articles I found, the hoodlums of the Black Legion were roundly condemned for their terrorist activities. No one was the least bit equivocal about that, or even hinted that there were good people on “both sides.” How times have changed.
-- Charlie Morrow

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