Black Legion (1937)

“What this country needs is bigger and better patriots!”

Synopsis:
A factory worker (Humphrey Bogart) upset that an anticipated promotion has gone to his bookish co-worker (Henry Brandon) is recruited by a colleague (Joe Sawyer) to join an undercover society called the Black Legion, and soon finds himself involved in increasingly violent hate crimes. When his wife (Erin O’Brien-Moore) and son (Dickie Jones) leave him, he is consoled by the former girlfriend (Helen Flint) of his friend Ed (Dick Foran), who is now engaged to the sympathetic daughter (Ann Sheridan) of an older colleague (Clifford Soubier).

Genres:

Review:
This chilling social drama provides an invaluable if white-washed look at an Ohio-based, KKK-inspired hyper-“patriotic” secret organization which at one time may have had a membership as high as 135,000. According to Wikipedia’s article, the Black Legion was “largely made up of native-born, working-class, Protestant white men in the Midwest [who] feared the rapid social changes underway and resented competition with immigrants such as Italians and Jews and migrants in the industrial economy of major cities such as Detroit.” (Their enemies list “included all immigrants, Catholics, Jews and blacks, nontraditional Protestant faiths, labor unions, farm cooperatives and various fraternal groups”.) As in Storm Warning (1951) — based on a Broadway play about the KKK — no specific mention is made about anti-black racism; DVD Savant adds that:

The avoidance of the race issue puts the movie in the same category as the late-40s social protest movie Crossfire, which was compelled to substitute a Jew for its homosexual victim. Standing up for the rights of blacks was something that movies just didn’t do in the middle of the 1930s. Yet both movies were successful in that they opened the door to public discussion about civil rights and civil liberties.

It’s highly disconcerting to see a would-be protagonist like Bogart so easily caught up in murderous, cowardly behavior — which I suppose is exactly the point. We’re meant to be shocked and horrified by what we see carried out here, and we are.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Humphrey Bogart as Frank Taylor
  • Some powerfully disturbing imagery and themes

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.

Links:

One Response to “Black Legion (1937)”

  1. A once-must, for its historical significance and for subject matter that remains relevant.

    As we all know, when it comes to biopics or films on historical events, a whitewash is most likely to be expected. But the degree of the whitewash can always vary; sometimes it’s minor (i.e., names are changed).* My understanding of this particular film is that the facts were rather adhered to.

    If so, the film seems to bear that out – in the sense that the drama *feels* real and not so Hollywoodized.

    This is a scary film, overall – mainly because we still see groups like ‘The Black Legion’ in the US today. And there’s surprisingly little that’s new or different in the way they operate. So this film is particularly instructive.

    *I recall reading recently that an expert on such matters recognized the 2019 film ‘Official Secrets’ (a terrific film) as being about as close to the truth of the actual events as possible. That’s a refreshing statement. It would be nice if more films of real stories would simply follow suit.

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