This 1937 release has Bogart playing Frank Taylor, a factory work well-liked by his peers. When he loses out on a promotion to foreign-born Joe Dombrowski, who’s been going to night school to better himself, Frank is bitter and begins to direct his anger at Joe. One night on the radio, he hears discussion that “America is for Americans” and eventually gains admission into the Black Legion, a hooded, Ku Klux Klan-type group that promises to rid the world of types they deem threatening to the American way of living.
This taught, well-told story comes from Warner Brothers, a studio that wasn’t afraid to look at blue-collar life and tackle issues that were socially relevant during the 1930s. It’s not that other studios ignored such stories, but Warner Brothers did so on a regular basis. This time the issue is bigotry and white supremacy.
What works is how well the film is told, with story by Robert Lord and screenplay from Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines. It’s not as sensational as “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (thank goodness), although it can be a bit preachy toward the end. But it touches all of the right topics: the irony of this self-important group forcing members to call the leaders “sir,” eerily foreseeing a Hitler-led army of hate; the top level looking at how much money can be made from the Black Legion enterprise; the willing recruits who must profess their total devotion at gunpoint and whose hatred is essential at fueling the Legion’s success; and the ultimate pain inflicted not only on the victims but also on family members of both victims and Legion members.
If the story, which can be shocking and disturbing in its continued timeliness, falls off toward the end with its sermonizing, it’s all held together by Bogart’s strong performance. This was still early in his career. He’d scored a breakthrough hit the year before in “The Petrified Forest.” During these years between “Forest” and “The Maltese Falcon's” release in 1941, Bogart worked hard and developed his craft. It’s clear in “Legion” what a good actor he was becoming. Frank Taylor is a character the audience has to like in order to follow his descent into hatred. Bogart beautifully plays the conflict – the well-liked employee to the swagger of inclusive righteousness to self-loathing at what this has cost him. It’s great character work from a magnetic star, and it’s fascinating to watch him be so good this early in his career.
The solid supporting cast includes another Warners star, Ann Sheridan, early in her career. There’s also a mature musical score by an uncredited Bernhard Kaun.
“Black Legion” remains a potent film from a studio willing to play to its strengths. Warners was never as glossy as MGM or Paramount during this period, but the studio was no less important with films like this. Check it out, because "Legion" is as relevant with its take on hate crimes.
In addition, during this holiday season, check out "Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection," a 13-disc DVD set with 24 Bogart films from the 1930s and 1940s as well as “The Brothers Warner” documentary. It has plenty of commentaries and featurettes, and I like how the movies are also packaged as “a night at the movies” old-school style, complete with shorts and trailers.
All of the major titles from this period are included, from “Maltese Falcon” to “Casablanca” to “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” to his films with wife Lauren Bacall. It makes a great gift for classic movie-lovers.
It also made me realize how many films of Bogart’s I haven’t seen. I’ll start working my way through them and perhaps in 2011 post several of them.
Warner Brothers Online