Black Legion (1937) Archie Mayo

Only Warner Brothers, who ripped the stories from the day’s headlines, would have the guts to have put out a gutsy uncompromising perceptive film like “Black Legion.”  Released in 1937, the film traces the story of Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart), a machinist who gets passed over for a promotion in favor for a more qualified “foreigner,” Polish-American co-worker, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon).  Frank, prior to being passed over, was a swell guy, a good family man, liked by everyone at work for his eagerness to do a good job. That all changes after the studious Dombrowski is anointed with the Supervisor position Frank thought he had in the bag. After all, he had many years of service and he was a real American. 

Director Archie Mayo paints a brutally ugly picture of bigotry, cowardice and senseless brutality hiding behind a mob mentality of flag waving patriotism. The film’s screenplay, written by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines, was based on a story by Robert Lord, who wrote a fictionalized version of the secret society known as the Black Legion, a group based in the nation’s heartland who modeled themselves on the Klu Klux Klan. Like the fictional organization in the film, the real Black Legion had a common purpose, keeping America pure for “real” Americans.  During their reign there were daily news reports of kidnappings, floggings, hangings, and were responsible for at least two murders, including the death of Workers Progress Administration organizer, Charles Poole. The Black Legion swore to fight against the Catholic Church, Judaism, Communism, “and all the ism’s our forefathers came to this country to avoid.” That is except for racism which they embraced.

Bogart’s Frank Taylor is ripe for the organizations’ pickings. A fellow co-worker, Cliff Moore (Joe Sawyer) eggs Frank on about losing out ‘his’ promotion to a foreigner, telling Frank how he belongs to an organization that would fight for guys like them. Frank’s bitterness grows, his work suffers and soon he is being initiated into the secret society’s inner circle surrounded by other men from the community in hooded uniforms swearing allegiance under the pains of death.

 With Frank now part of the group, the Black Legion go on a rampage, first setting fire to the Dombroski farm, dragging Joe and his father out of the house and forcing them to get out of town by riding the rails. Irishman Mike Grogan (Clifford Soubier) is taken from his home in the middle of the night and whipped to near death. Finally, Ed Jackson (Dick Foran), Frank’s close friend, co-worker, and fiancé to Betty Grogan (Ann Sheridan), who threatened to go to the police is taken from his home and out into the woods to be flogged. When he attempts to break loose from the gang, there’s a shout to stop him. Frank, with gun in hand, shoots Ed dead. The rest of the Legion members quickly run off except for Frank who remains motionless and alone. He pulls his hood off and falls to his knees in front of his dead friend, at first anguished, then in panic he begin to crawl away, finally running off in fear.

Frank’s descent from the nice wholesome family man, to a hate mongering, alcoholic who turns against everyone in his life is one man’s personal journey into hell, even losing his wife (Erin O’Brien-Moore) and young kid (Dickie Jones). Bogart in his first leading role, and what he hoped would be his breakout role, smoothly transitions from a good guy to demonic hate monger.

Other chilling scenes that run through the film include Frank’s initiation ritual into the group where his swears to an oath of obedience under the pains of an avenging God and an unmerciful devil. Additionally, there is a scene in Frank’s home where he is listening to a racist radio talk show host rant about pushy foreigners stealing our jobs and how we must protect our home and land. “America for Americans” the talk show host squawks. When his young son asks him why they can’t listen to the radio series “Flash Tyler”, Frank jumps on the kid telling him to, “Listen to this guy! He’s talkin’ sense!”   

For Bogart, he hoped this film was his chance to break into the big time. Even after his breakout performance in “The Petrified Forest,” he remained in the second tier of the Warner Brothers stable behind Cagney, O’Brien and Robinson, still portraying mostly cheap one dimensional hoods with names like “Turkey,” “Red” or “Bugs.” But while the film made a profit and critics praised the film for its boldness (The New York Times said, “the unforgettable, the horrible thing about Black Legion, is…it did happen here”), and for Bogart’s performance, (The New York Morning Telegraph called his work “powerful…establishes Humphrey Bogart as a star”), it was not the big hit and audience pleaser needed to propel Bogie into the top ranks of Warner’s stars.  

Today with all the political rhetoric and illegal alien issues that are constantly in the headlines one has to wonder have we come very far? There is still too much talk of “real” Americans and “love it or leave it” and not enough about the true meaning of America as the judge states at the end of the film. The speech he gives is a bit preachy but he does hit at the heart of the issue, what America stands for or at least, what it idealistically should be.   

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20 comments on “Black Legion (1937) Archie Mayo

  1. Haven’t thought of this one in years. Definitely like to revisit.

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  2. Hadn’t even come across this before. Yet another review that has inspired me to hunt something down. The studio’s actually had a fair record of exploring some tricky issues, back in the 30’s, even if a little crassly at times (thinking also of Jimmy Cagney’s The Picture Snatcher). Just a quick note, at the start of the fifth paragraph it reads ‘decent’ rather than ‘descent’. I’ve posted this to my FB profile and look forward to the next review.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks again for the catch. The film is available on DVD and pops up on TCM every so often. Warners was especially good for exploring social issues (I Was a Fugitve For a Chain Gang, They Won;t Forget) but MGM did some too (Fury).

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  3. The Lady Eve says:

    I’m not familiar with “Black Legion” at all, but it definitely seems worth watching. Bogart’s character, Frank, sounds like a bit of a forerunner to Dobbs in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a regular guy whose resentments and suspicions destroy him.

    Though films on social issues sometimes tend to hit one over the head with a message or get preachy. I don’t mind if the message is a good one and the film well-made.

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    • John Greco says:

      Did not think of the correlation to Sierra Madre but you are right, it is a similar type of journey Bogart’s character travels. I love films with social issues. Could not agree with you more Eve on your laststatement. Hope you get a chance to see it.

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  4. ClassicBecky says:

    John, a Bogie movie I have not seen! And it sounds so fascinating, not at all a typical one. I’m going to try to find it. Your article was so intriguing, and description of the movie makes me want to see it all the more. Kudos on a really good article!

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Becky and you’re right, this is not a typical Bogart role, it starts off light and it turns very, very dark. Bogart gives a powerful performance that is not easily forgotten. Thanks again!

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  5. Judy says:

    Great review, John – this is such a powerful performance by Bogart. The scene that sticks in my mind the most is possibly the one where he has to say that incredibly long and melodramatic initiation speech and sounds increasingly bewildered, stumbling over the words – I’ve read that this was the real initiation speech for new recruits to the Ku Klux Klan.

    I also really like Erin O’Brien-Moore as his wife – if I remember rightly, she was later injured in a fire which harmed her looks and so never really had the career she should have had, but in this she is excellent. It’s a pity that no black people are seen in the movie, but its indictment of racism and hatred is still unmistakable and I’m sure you are right that Warner is the only studio which would have touched it.This doesn’t really follow on, but I remember being struck by how unmistakeable a figure Bogart is even in a hood and in the dark – you can spot him a mile off.

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    • John Greco says:

      Judy – The initiation scene in the woods is strong stuff. It must have been powerful stuff for the audiences of the day. O’Brien_Moore is very good as Bogie’s wife. I am not familiar with her but I just looked her up on IMDB and you’re right she was seriously burned in a fire and it took years for her to recover. She did have a role THE LIFE OF EMIL ZOLA but as you mention her career sadly got off track after the fire accident.

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  6. John, Black Legion is powerful and tragic. The final scene is pretty devastating, the more so for its lack of violence and the sense it gives of what the Bogart character is losing. It’s pretty good proof that Warners could cope with Code enforcement without losing its characteristic social conscience. But it doesn’t surprise me that it didn’t put Bogart over; his character ends up too much a loser rather than a triumphant hero or a truly charismatic villain — but that’s the virtue of the film and his work in it.

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  7. John Greco says:

    Samuel – Bogart’s character travels a road that just spirals downward with no hope of recovery. I agree, he’s no king of triumphant hero at the end. He seeks some kind of redemption but its too late to even care what happens to him. The ending certainly works from a story persecptive even if he did not help Bogie’s career.

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  8. Sam Juliano says:

    It’s powerful stuff for sure, and your delineating of the pertinent themes rings loudly. Through the years there are been a number of films with the mob-lynching mentality (one always thinks of THE OX-BOW INCIDENT and BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK) but it’s the lesser-known works like these that sometimes explore the more subtle angles. As always, wonderful review here John.

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam – thanks again for stopping by. I love both of the other two films you mention and have recently seen THE OX_BOW INCINENT for what must be the fourth of fifth time. CONINCIDENTLY, BAD DAY on is on my DVR and will soon be giving that another look soon. Fritz Lang’s FURY is of course another film that deals with the topic of mob metality.

      What I love about this film is watching Bogart life’s transform from that of a ‘nice’ guy to a bitter man whose worst traits rise to the surface.

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  9. Rick29 says:

    John, I’ve only seen BLACK LEGION once–as a teen–and it made quite an impact. In fact, I think it’s one of Bogart’s best films and deserves to be better known. So glad that you chose to review it and did such a fine job. By the way, I had no idea that there was a real Black Legion.

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  10. Jerry Kovar says:

    What did BLACK LEGION double bill with when it was re-released in the late 50s?

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    • John Greco says:

      Jerry, I am sorry, but I do not have an answer for you on this. If I run across it, I will let you know. If someone else knows please share.

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      • Jerry Kovar says:

        Thanks, John. I saw Black Legion as an 8 year old, or so, and wondered what other movie lead me to seeing BL which left an impression on me even at that early age. I’m thinking it was The Oklahoma Kid.

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