Entertainment Magazine

Black Legion

Posted on the 16 May 2021 by Christopher Saunders
Black LegionIt says something about Black Legion's (1937) reputation that it's rarely mentioned except as a footnote in Humphrey Bogart's career. Many reviewers, unfamiliar with the film's background, assume that the titular Legion is a lawyer-friendly version of the Ku Klux Klan rather than a distinct terrorist organization. Considering America's recent dalliance with fascism, however, it's worth revisiting as a prescient drama about the appeals and dangers of political extremism. 

Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is a factory worker who dreams of providing his wife (Erin O'Brien-Moore) and son (Dickie Jones) with a better life. He's embittered when his boss passes him over for promotion, giving the job instead to a foreign-born colleague (Henry Brandon). Taylor joins the Black Legion, a secret society sworn to uphold "100 percent patriotism" against immigrants and subversives. They do more than talk, going on nighttime murder raids targeting their enemies. Taylor's life becomes absorbed by the Legion, to the point where it endangers his family, friends, job - and, after he's mixed up in a murder, his own life.

Directed by frequent Bogart collaborator Archie Mayo (The Petrified Forest), Black Legion is one of those '30s Warner Bros. message films that tackled controversial subjects. The real Black Legion was a hyperviolent spinoff of the KKK, located primarily in the Midwest; its main targets were Jews, Catholics and union organizers. They killed at least 50 people in Detroit alone, including the father of Malcolm X, before the murder of a WPA worker brought down Federal heat. The subject of lurid and sensational headlines, the Legion inspired several quickie films and this respectable drama.

By no means a subtle film, Black Legion nonetheless provides a realistic look at one man's radicalization. Frank is a benign Everyman with the simple ambition of providing for his family. Blocked from advancement, he decides not to gripe about capitalism or even his boss's unfairness but targets an enemy nearer to hand. The mummery of the Legion (wearing piratical black robes and swearing fealty on a personally marked bullet) fascinates Frank, as does its camaraderie and sense of revenge. Frank's identity becomes interwoven with the Legion; he loses his job for trying to recruit a foreman, drives away his wife and earns the suspicion of his best friend (Dick Moran). Which, in turn, fuels his resentment: a cycle of violence and revenge that denies either personal responsibility or broader injustices in favor of the conniving Other. 

Mayo and scenarists Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines ably sketch how society that breeds hatred. Frank is radicalized by a talk radio broadcast (!) which convinces him that fascism offers an opportunity for revenge. Grousing about a lousy day at work turns into venomous talk about the foreigners coming to destroy us. Local businessmen cynically fund the Legion to advance corporate interests (in real life, General Motors and DuPont employed the Legion as strikebreakers) and local politicians use it to Make America Great Again. The movie is remarkably bleak, showing how not only one man but an entire culture can be perverted by appeals to our darkest instincts. 

Mayo's direction is effective, if largely functional. Black Legion casts its violent set pieces - kidnappings, floggings, bombings - in crisp and effective montages, preferring to focus on the human elements of the story. It effectively builds a day of everyday horror, making the Legion seem more than an abstract threat. Villains plot in dark rooms like gangsters in a film noir, sometimes with friends and sweethearts waiting on the other side of the door. Legionnaires retire from murder raids to bars like they're celebrating a ballgame. Friendly neighbors are seen with their families, moments before they're snatched away by hooded thugs.

Humphrey Bogart was languishing in gangster films at this point, and hoped Legion would be his ticket to bigger things. It took a few more years of dues-paying before Bogart catapulted to stardom. This is definitely his most effective early performance, avoiding the mannered acting of Forest for a more naturalistic style. His performance is harried, physical and deeply felt, charting Frank's descent into hatred and violence; there's a particularly unnerving scene where fools around with a gun before a mirror, Travis Bickle style. The supporting cast is game enough (Dick Foran as Frank's straightlaced pal, Ann Sheridan as a romantic foil, Clifford Soubier as a particularly pathetic victim) but Bogart dominates Legion. 

If Black Legion ever seemed like a musty curio, it certainly doesn't now. More than most modern movies, it shows how hatred corrupts individuals and stains society indelibly; the result is as effective as any fictional police state. The scenes of intimidation and hatred, of good men turned by politics into hardened killers, seem if anything tame compared to the violent mayhem and chanting Nazi mobs of 21st Century. Who among us doesn't know a Frank Taylor, waiting for an excuse to tip from idle bitterness to ideological bloodshed?  

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