Black Legion, 1937. 8/10

In this social commentary on nativism, Humphrey Bogart (as Frank Taylor) loses a promotion to a bookish immigrant, and, frustrated, joins a hate group (thus the title). Eventually, Frank’s and his Black Legion guys run the immigrant Dombrowski (Henry Brandon) out of town.

That’s just the beginning of the complications though, as Frank gets in deeper. Ruth (Erin O’Brien) is his wife. His co-workers and buddies are Ed, Cliff, Billings, and Metcalf (Dick Foran, Joe Sawyer, Paul Harvey, and Eddie Arcuff, respectively). Since there’s a trial, we’ve got a judge (Samuel S. Hinds). In addition, Mike’s daughter Betty (Anne Sheridan) is Ed’s fiancee, and Pearl (Helen Flint) is the rather blowsy “blond hussy” ex of his.

The stage is set well: Dombrowski is presented as an acknowledged sharp guy; and fair-minded enough to say that it’s Frank who deserves the promotion. But it doesn’t take long–as soon as the “greaseball” gets the promotion that Frank felt should’ve been his–the guys at the plant are with Frank. The lead up on all this is a bit tedious; we do get to see that Dombrowski indeed is more mature. Ed, in particular, is an alcoholic, and tips his hand, if not his hat to Pearl just as he’s proposed to the sweet Betty.

After “giving this a lot of thought” he’s ready to go to a nativist meeting. Next thing we know, there’s a full-dress hood and robes conclave with a load of ritual (fittingly, Frank has a hard time pronouncing the relatively obscure oath). He’s got second thoughts about having to get a gun; the muckity-mucks are fairly intimidating “you want to protect your home and family, dontcha?”

It’s odd to see a Bogart character uncomfortable with a gun. But, partly because of his youth, he shows a believable Everyman quality. Oh, boy, he’s going ‘night-riding’ or whatever they call it. The way he explains it to Ruth, it sounds like he’s dreaming up an excuse to go drinking with the boys (kinda the same thing).

The devastating raid on Dombrowski’s place, and his abduction, is truly horrifyingly. They indeed go out drinking later “how do you like the way we do things!” Yuck, yuck. At home, Ruth and Betty discuss the Dombrowski tragedy. Now, Frank’s trying to drag Ed into the group. And how did he come up with the dough to finance a new convertible sedan?

Well, now he’s got Dombrowski’s job. More night-riding terrorism mayhem. “Turn that sap off!” says the legion’s big boys, hearing a radio show decrying the violence. The problem is, the leaders have an insatiable appetite–putting in motion a recruiting drive with the obvious intent of lining their pockets. Frank recruits Ted Metcalf; meanwhile, the chat costs a piece of machinery that was left untended.

Consequently, he loses the job to Mike. Ed and Mike talk it over with Betty. That night, it’s Mike that’s tortured (he’s Irish, therefore one of ‘those people’, uppity as well). Ed questions Ruth about Frank’s “new friends” (Cliff for example). She calls her husband out “only a bunch of dirty contemptible cowards would do things [night-riding] like that!.” She takes the kid and splits.

Ed has his own problems–the old flame who won’t give up. Cliff notices that Frank “might be trying to crawl out on us.” The barfly Pearl, “the shameless woman” picks up on him–it takes about two beers for Frank to get stupid. Ed actually kicks her out of Frank’s place. Ed’s a good friend: “you’ve been running around all night with a bunch of rotten thugs!” Correct.

Ed threatens to go to the cops: Frank’s much more afraid of the Legion. He gets Cliff to come over, and, stupidly, he confesses that he told Ed about Dombrowski; now, it’s Ed that’s in the hot seat (apparently, he’s being labelled a wife-beater). The plan to rough him up backfires, as he’s shot dead trying to escape.

Frank’s left alone with his friend’s body–ironically, it’s Frank who killed him. Hearing a passing freight, Frank ditches the robes, and disappears. Then, emerging at a roadside diner, he’s made by two motor cops. The media is a good guy in this treatment, the voice of reason, tolerance and justice; plus, the narration advances the plot.

“The guy don’t feel like talking,” until he’s left in a room at police HQ, with Ruth. A guy insinuates himself in, obviously a Legion plant, and he’s nervy enough to threaten Frank’s family. Unless, that is, he cooks up a self-defense alibi. Pearl, naturally, backs up the bad guys by posing as a witness.

Onto the courtroom. Pearl weaves a bunch of wife-beater and alcoholic innuendos about Ed; especially by claiming that Ed was only using Betty to make her jealous. Then she impugns Frank by insinuating that he wanted to marry her. The rest of her story is equally absurd–as though Ed and Frank would fight over her.

The correct bit, however, is the fact that Frank indeed killed his friend. Now Frank takes the stand; here’s the crux of the matter. He comes right out and fingers the Legion for absolutely everything–including his reason for killing Ed. Suddenly, it’s the “hooded terrors” who are in the dock.

And it’s time for the judge to give these fools a good speech. Rather incredibly, they’re summarily all convicted and sentenced to life for the murder(s). Ruth takes a last, very beseeching look at Frank. It’s as to say; how awful for you, my husband, but at least they’re getting their’s too. The end.

The only stray note in Black Legion is the rather leisurely opening. In such a short movie we could have this exposition come by a flashback–once Frank’s already involved with the nuts, or just tighten it up a little. We don’t need to see every beer that Ed drinks, etc.

Other than Cliff, an out-and-out creep, Pearl is pretty much the worst bad guy. Strange how it takes a vixenish ‘no-good-woman’ stereotype to build up and enable a enthnocentric stereotype. One interesting scene is early-on; at the soda fountain. It’s important for more than one reason–that’s the most romantic scene (where he proposed to Betty), which is offset by Pearl’s untoward appearance.

But the zesty proprietor is also an obvious immigrant type, Nick Strumpas (played by Pat C. Flick). I’m not sure what his role is intended to exemplify. Like Dombrowski, Nick’s the ‘good’ immigrant, but with his thick accent (Greek, apparently), he’s just not as assimilated as Dombrowski.

Mike’s position is surprising; even Irish are still considered not ‘real’ (Anglo-) Americans. What might’ve given the movie another layer would be to show some not-so-wholesome but stereotypical immigrants, mafia-types, that is. That would’ve taken taken this more in a noir direction; what this movie takes on is exactly that mindset that gives us so many movies with gangsters who are obviously unassimilated immigrant types (usually Italians).

Everything fits here: the performances are uniformly great–especially Sheridan, as a wonderful, but heartbroken fiancee, and Bogart–showing an earnest vulnerability–before he became locked into being ‘Bogart.’ Flint had a very difficult role as a loose cannon, and was superb.

After looking at the opening scenes, up to the time of Cliff’s recruitment of Frank, I see the relevance of it all. The movie really shifts gears with the Legion theme, though; the following two-thirds of the plot almost seems to be from another movie. I suppose the tone shift mirrors the slide into the Legion’s violent world, but it also seems that Frank’s transition is a bit abrupt. He’s a little too maleable.

Black Legion makes it’s point very well; particularly by showing that civilization can be roughly-handled given the right mix of fear and encouragement. 8/10.

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