Black Legion (1937)

The United States is a country of 315 million people, people composed of every race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation in the world. Yet these days all Americans seem to be afraid of a foreign other. Every time Democrats lose an election, or a debate on social media, liberals blame Russia. Conservatives want a militarized border with Mexico. The reason is pretty easy to figure out. Upward mobility in the United States is largely a thing of the past. We’re all competing for a few crumbs the one percent leaves on the plate after they’ve eaten most of the pie.

In the 1930s Hollywood actually was liberal. During Franklin Roosevelt’s second Term, major studios like Warner Brothers released a steady stream of movies that for lack of a better term might be called “propaganda for the New Deal.” Sometimes, like John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, they rose to the level of high art. More often, they were competent, workmanlike productions designed to educate the public about the important social issues of the day. Black Legion, which was inspired by the 1935 murder of a 22-year-old WPA (Works Progress Administration) organizer named Charles Poole, is both.

Fascists are not monsters. They’re not even irrelevant “deplorables” who will simply fade away as America, which is “already great,” becomes inevitably more diverse and socially progressive. They’re people just like you and me. In Black Legion, Frank Taylor, played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart in his first starring role, is not only a sympathetic every man. He’s actually likeable. A hard working, machinist in his 30s who has finally landed a steady job after years of unemployment, he’s mature, responsible, and devoted to his beautiful wife and his 10-year-old son. He’s well-liked at the factory. When a position as foreman opens up, all of his coworkers assume that the position is his for the asking, but he’s passed over for a younger man, a bookish twentysomething named Joe Dombrowski, the son of a Polish immigrant.

In spite what the film’s leftist screenwriters want us to believe, it’s not immediately obvious that Dombrowski, who’s a bit of an asskisser with no real connection to his fellow machinists, is the better choice for a management position than Joe Taylor. In fact, by choosing the young, Polish American bookworm over the older, WASP everyman, the upper-level management at the factory makes a socially destructive choice. Does a factory foreman really have to be a college graduate and a future mechanical engineer rather than just a a veteran worker with relevant on the job experience? Indeed, if the factory where Taylor and Dombrowski worked had been unionized, Taylor would have had more seniority, more respect, and would have probably not even wanted the position as foreman. What’s more, while the screenplay tells us that we have to like Dombrowski, who’s played by the 6 foot five inch, ridiculously handsome German American actor Henry Brandon, later to be cast as Scar in John Ford’s classic The Searchers, it’s not entirely clear that he has any natural leadership ability. Taylor has a legitimate grievance. Our sympathies are with the plain, ordinary looking Humphrey Bogart, who was not yet even a leading man, let alone “Bogie,” not the tall, dark, handsome Greek god who reads engineering manuals on his lunch hour.

Soon, however, Frank Taylor snaps, not right away, but slowly, steadily, inevitably. It’s a testament to Bogart’s acting ability that Taylor’s transformation from all American dad to fascist murderer is nothing like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Rather, we just start to notice a dark, angry quality we had always been aware of but didn’t think especially important. When Taylor begins to listen to right-wing radio shows — Father Coughlin was one of many Rush Limbaughs of his time — he doesn’t immediately go from nice guy to maniacal, racist monster. He doesn’t jump up and shout “that’s it. The Jews and immigrants are the enemy. Long live 100% Anglo Saxon American patriotism.” Rather, and Bogart expresses this so well it makes it obvious what a huge star he would eventually become, we see a man, frustrated by life, who’s been forced to confront why he’s stuck in a dead end job with little or no chance at promotion, suddenly find an excuse. I won’t say that he suddenly “finds a reason” because Bogart is such an intelligent actor he’s able to express how Taylor really doesn’t hate foreigners. Xenophobia, like a shot of whiskey or a few tablets of Oxycontin, is just the nearest thing available to dull the pain. So Taylor just nods as he sinks further into himself.

After he’s recruited into the Black Legion, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan that was highly active in the Midwest of the 1930s, but which has been largely forgotten by history, Taylor’s inevitable decline from likeable everyman to fascist murderer becomes far more precipitous. We see him at home, playing around with the 38 caliber revolver, which he was required to buy along with the full set of sheets, a man with a new purpose in life, to protect his family from dirty immigrants, the deep connection between anti-immigrant, white supremacist organizations like the KKK and the gun cult obvious in a way that’s since been obscured by NRA propaganda. That night, Taylor, Cliff Moore, the coworker who recruited him into the Black Legion, and a band of black and white-sheeted fascist goons show up at the small farm owned by Dombrowski’s father, burn down their house, kill their chickens, burn their crops, and run the two Polish American immigrants out of town.

Bogart is such a sympathetic actor that in the next scene, when we notice that Taylor has gone on a shopping spree, buying a new car and a vacuum cleaner for his wife, we’re still on his side. Even when we find out that Dombrowski’s death — it’s strongly hinted that he was later murdered — has allowed Taylor to jump into the foreman’s job and get a pay raise, we mainly just breath a sigh of relief that he can now afford the car. Then the film pulls its master stroke. We cut to a group of upper-class man discussing The Black Legion over a few drinks. More specifically, they’re discussing how much money the Black Legion is making. The founders oft the Black Legion, it turns out, aren’t even racists. They’re just grifters. What’s more, the Black Legion, like Amway, is also a pyramid scheme. In order to keep making money, they need to recruit more and more members. So they proclaim a new rule requiring every current Black Legion member to recruit two more. One Hundred Percent Anglo Saxon Americans, it turns out, are not only xenophobic racist assholes. They’re dupes. Soon, Taylor starts to spend so much time at work recruiting new members for the Black Legion that he neglects his job, damages machinery, and gets demoted back down to simple machinist before he’s finally let go.

Joe Taylor’s best friend at the machine shop is a tall, strapping Irish American named Ed Jackson, a newly engaged man who, under the influence of his fiancee, has managed to kick his alcoholism and his taste for loose, slutty woman. Jackson’s life is on an upward trajectory, even was Taylor’s is falling apart. One of the things Black Legion gets right is the relationship of Irish Americans to later immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe as well as older, Anglo Saxon Americans. By the 1930s, Irish Americans had largely been accepted by the WASP majority, and, thus, Jackson and Taylor can still be friends. But Jackson has an innate sense of decency. After his roommate, a first generation Irish American who was given Taylor’s job as foreman after Taylor got fired, is kidnapped and taken out into the woods by the Black Legion for a thinly veiled lynching, Jackson begins to put two and two together, eventually figuring out that his friend had been out all night on the day of Dombrowski’s.

Jackson’s confrontation with the Black Legion is both exhilarating and terrifying. Jackson has little or no fear of the racist thugs, even though they outnumber him ten to one. It’s not that he’s stupid. It’s just that he’s played by Dick Foran, a popular leading man of the day who probably had it in his contract that he’d only play a fearless badass. “What’s the matter,” he says, “afraid to take off your sheets. I guess you’re not the Black Legion but the Yellow Legion.” When he looks at one of the black-sheeted Klansman and says “too bad you can’t put a sheet on your voice Cliff,” we want to stand up and cheer. But Jackson, of course, is doomed, kidnapped and taken into the woods for another thinly veiled lynching. He fights back, runs away, but is gunned down by Taylor, who panics and squeezes off four shots from the 38-caliber revolver we had seen him playing with earlier in the movie. The Chekhov gun, in other words, is fired. Joe Taylor has killed his best friend.

The most astonishing thing about the ending of Black Legion is not that it seems improbable — Taylor takes responsibility for his crimes and brings down the entire organization — but that it’s not fiction. Charles Poole’s murderers eventually did “name names” and bring down the leadership of the Black Legion. Taylor’s decision to defy legal advice, as well as the threats the Black Legion has made against his wife and child, is stagy and over the top — the aesthetics of the film finally can’t keep pace with its message — but it did actually happen in real life. Bogart also manages to redeem whatever credibility to the final scenes lack by his screen presence, delivering his lines with so much passion and authority that in that moment he’s transformed from a miserable racist murderer into an avenging angel of truth. What a great actor he was. Indeed, while Black Legion lacks the romanticism of Casablanca, and while it may have flopped at the box office, sending Bogart back down to supporting roles, it’s by far the better anti-fascist movie. It deserves to be remembered.

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