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June 15, 2010

Black Legion

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Archie L. Mayo - 1937
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

"He who is not for us is against us." Familiar words, and another reason why Black Legion manages to be simultaneously quaint and strikingly still topical. The words are spoken over the radio by an unidentified commentator, possibly inspired by Father Charles Coughlin, in a speech decrying the loss of America to various foreigners who have taken advantage of all the good things offered, only to take jobs and generally ruin things for "the glorious republic". While the version of Black Legion is watered down from an original scripts that was more specific about religion and ethnicity, it still contains a frisson of recognition that elements of a past era are still active in the present tense. The big difference is that not only do we not have Franklin Roosevelt when we really need him, we rarely have current Hollywood films that represent even the sometimes wobbly political convictions of Jack Warner.

In an early top billed role, Humphrey Bogart plays the part of Frank Taylor, a guy who works at a machine shop. Resentful that business acumen of a younger employee trumps his seniority when the shop foreman position is open, Taylor finds an easy target for his anger for the wrong reasons. Pump up by the radio pundit, Taylor gets invited by a coworker to a meeting of a secret society. Taylor finds himself over his head, having committed himself to an organization that does not allow its members to leave, eventually costing himself his job, his family, and presumably his life.

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The first victim of the Black Legion's campaign of terror is the man Taylor feels stole "his" position as the next foreman. Dombrowski is never clearly identified, although the name suggests someone of Eastern European origin, possibly Polish. With his "big nose" constantly reading books while on break, and attending night school when not on the job, there is the unstated assumption that Dombrowski is also Jewish. Taylor temporarily gets the foreman position after Dombrowski disappears after a visit by the Black Legion. Taking a worker off the floor to enlist him in the group, Taylor causes his own job loss when his absence causes serious, and expensive, damage to some equipment. The next victim of the Black Legion is Taylor's neighbor, the man who takes over the foreman job from the now unemployed Taylor. The neighbor, Grogan, is attacked for being unmistakably Irish.

What gives Black Legion a contemporary punch is a scene shot by the uncredited Michael Curtiz. A trio of business men discuss how much money they are making from Black Legion memberships and uniforms. One of them states that they need "bigger, better patriots". Also mentioned is how selling this form of patriotism has been more financially lucrative then an oil company business that was closed for illegalities. In a scene last only a few minutes is a reminder that there is nothing new about corporate funding of Tea Party or fake grassroots organizations, only that the people doing the financing are more sophisticated and the money involved is much bigger.

The description of the political structure of the United States could well be recycled from arguments made by the Texas School Board. While the radio pundit has described the United States as a republic, Samuel Hinds, as the judge who makes a big anti-discrimination speech near the end of the film refers to the U.S. as a democracy. That kind of distinction might put certain people of rigid political persuasions in a tizzy. Otherwise, the only thing black about Black Legion are the robes worn by this mob. In an effort not to cause offense to the kind of people who probably would have been the victims of the real Black Legion, or similar organizations, the Hays office made certain that the film takes place in a world lacking the racial or cultural diversity to be found in an average "Charlie Chan" movie. Politics aside, the generally reliable Warner Brothers house director Archie Mayo keeps things moving at a good clip, with time enough for a cutsie courtship between Dick Foran and Ann Sheridan. And if that isn't enough to convince you to see Black Legion, then consider the what was written by Graham Greene: "It is an intelligent film because the director and the script-writer know where the real horror lies: the real horror is not in the black robes and skull emblems, but in the knowledge that these hide the weak and commonplace faces you have met over the counter and minding the next machine."

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 15, 2010 12:15 AM