Black Legion (1937)

Directors:

Archie Mayo (as Archie L. Mayo), Michael Curtiz (uncredited)

When a hard-working machinist loses a promotion to a Polish-born worker, he is seduced into joining the secretive Black Legion, which intimidates foreigners through violence.

Production

Lobby card for Black Legion

Black Legion went into production in late August 1936. Many of the details about the Legion portrayed in the film, such as the initiation oath and the confessions in the trial scenes, were based on known facts about the historic organization. Because United States libel laws had recently been broadened in scope by court rulings, Warner Bros. underplayed some aspects of the group’s political activities to avoid legal repercussion

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.The Ku Klux Klan sued Warner Bros. for patent infringement for the film’s use of a patented Klan insignia: a white cross on a red background with a black square.A judge threw out the case.

Location shooting took place in private homes in the Hollywood area, the Providencia Ranch in the Hollywood Hills and the Warner Ranch in Calabasas.Executive producer Hal B. Wallis had wanted Edward G. Robinson to play the lead role, but producer Robert Lord thought Robinson was too foreign looking, and wanted a “distinctly American looking actor to play [the] part.”

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Over 60 years old but, sadly, still topical

2 April 2001 | by preppy-3 (United States) – See all my reviews

Frank (Humphrey Bogart), a factory worker, is passed over on a promotion that goes to a Polish man. In anger, he joins the Black Legion (basically the Ku Klux Klan) to punish all foreigners for taking jobs from “true Americans”. The story has been done since, but this one is well-made, quick (82 min.), well-acted (Bogart is great and looks so young!) and still powerful. The film isn’t perfect (I could have lived without the closing sermon) but still worth seeing. It’s also real sad to realize that a film over 60 years old about racism is still relevant.

Graphic Study of Nativist Violence

Author: bkoganbing from Buffalo, New York
13 October 2005

At the time it came out Black Legion came from the B Picture Unit at Warner Brothers. Some of the players in it became A list stars later on. Nevertheless this was playing the second half of double features when first released. But it made a tremendous impact and viewing it almost 70 years later, still makes an impact.

Warner Brothers as the working class studio was the only one who could have made a film like Black Legion. Working class stiff Humphrey Bogart gets passed over for a promotion at a job, losing it to Polish American Henry Brandon. This makes him ripe for the propaganda of a nativist crew of nightriders who call themselves The Black Legion.

Another co-worker Joe Sawyer gets Bogart to join with a whole lot of bad consequences for just about every principal player in the cast.

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Since this film was about ordinary people it had a great message to tell. We’ve had nativist outbreaks in America through out our history. The Twenties and Thirties with groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Legion were particularly bad. Bad economic times usually bring out either the best or the worst in people.

Humphrey Bogart is joined by a whole bunch of people from his film debut in The Petrified Forest. Joe Sawyer, Dick Foran, Paul Harvey, Eddie Acuff, it must have seemed like a reunion film. For me this has always been Joe Sawyer’s career role for the screen. In The Petrified Forest he was one of Bogey’s gang. Here he’s the evil influence on Bogart, a nice reversal. He had a similar part in San Quentin.

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Dick Foran is the Mercutio/Benvolio part here, the good friend to Bogart. He was actually a bigger name than Bogey at the time this was made, as he was starring in a bunch singing cowboy films for Warner Brothers. This was one of the few times he was show he could do more than he was usually given.

Films back then had a whole lot of stern father figures like Lionel Barrymore and Lewis Stone who could deliver lectures like no other. Capping this film is Samuel S. Hinds as a trial judge telling the Black Legion defendants what Americanism and the Bill of Rights is all about. Words to live by still.

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The scapegoats

Author: dbdumonteil
4 March 2007

While Hitler in Germany was doing away with the Jews,there were in other countries small groups whose leaders (the scene when Bogart attends the first meeting is revealing) yell ” America just for the Americans!” Bogart portrays Frank ,a working man, a good husband, a tender father,a jolly good fellow,a nice guy.He’s waiting for his promotion : to become a foreman will be the crowning a hard-working life .But there’s just one problem: the job is given to a Hungarian,a self-made man who spends his days and nights in the books ,for he believes in the American dream.Frank’s hatred will know no bounds.It will not be long till he falls into the hands of a KKK -like secret society,whose scapegoats are those aliens who take the bread out of our mouth,who steal our jobs ,our women and our land…

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Archie Mayo’s film is absorbing and Bogart is extraordinary: little by little,a good guy turning into a monster;but that’s not all.Mayo also puts the blame on the wealthy educated people who work behind the scenes :the scene when they do their books (well how much for the revolvers?)makes your hair stand on end.

But what’s fascinating in Mayo’s movie is that it’s still relevant today,and not only in America.In France ,in 2002,there was a man like THAT in the second ballot of the presidential election:a man who yelled “France only for the French!” and who is still yelling at my time of writing.

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Americanism or Nazism?

10/10
Author: gullwing592003 from United States
18 February 2004

Very grim & powerful tale of white supremacy, bigotry & racial hatred, violence, tragedy & social injustice. Still relevant today & probably always will be with these international terrorist groups & the Ku Klux Klan. Too many cultural differences for us to accept & understand one another. Also a rare opportunity to see a very young Humphrey Bogart in an outstanding leading role. The Black Legion’s terrorist activities are barbaric & uncivilized but very justifiable in Depression Era America when jobs were virtually impossible to find, when there was work you would go to any extremes to keep & protect your job. The Legion at times resembles Hitler & the Nazis. An excellent thought provoking drama with a bold message that still resonates today. Unquestionably Bogart’s best role of the 1930’s. The National Board Of Review named Humphrey Bogart as best actor & voted “Black Legion” as their favorite movie of 1937.

Bogart had 2 screen persona’s, first the gangsters that made him famous in films like Dead End & The Roaring Twenties & then the anti-hero that made him a star in The Maltese Falcon & Casablanca. By the late 1940’s Bogart also proved to be a very capable actor as well in films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (perhaps his greatest role)& in the 1950’s with The African Queen & The Caine Mutiny. However Bogart’s first successful “acting” role dates back to 1936 when he was given a very demanding leading role of Frank Taylor in Black Legion.

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Rarely was Bogie given quality leading roles in the 30’s for in 1936 the only credentials he had of notable significance was his enormously sensational stage & screen role of Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest. His first major success. Bogie was chosen for the lead in Black Legion because Warner Bros needed an actor that looked “American” due to it’s controversial subject matter. Edward G.Robinson & Paul Muni looked too ethnic & foreign & James Cagney & Spencer Tracy looked too Irish so the studio had no other choice but to give the role to Humphrey Bogart for which he turned in a magnificent performance. Bogie looked very American.

Black Legion attracted enormous public & media attention in 1937. Both the film & Bogart received tremendous critical acclaim. One critic wrote “Bogart is absolutely exhilarating to watch”. Another critic wrote “Bogart should be considered for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind”. Critics believed Black Legion would catapult Bogie to stardom & this movie was also in the top 10 list of best films of 1937. Black Legion received an academy award nomination for best original screenplay. But despite all the excitement this movie generated in 1937 it did not elevate Bogart to stardom, despite the success of Black Legion the major stars would outgross him every time. It would be 5 more years until Bogie hit pay dirt again with High Sierra.

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Perhaps the reason for the ongoing Bogart mystique & phenomenon is that he was already famous before he became a “movie star”. Black Legion is as good as any film Bogie did later if not better. The most chilling scene is the initiation ceremony ritual showing Bogart on his knees joining the Black Legion while a hooded member points a gun to his head. When Black Legion was first being sold the studio promoted the film by saying “there is no Robinson or a Muni in the film but there is Humphrey Bogart”. This movie will blow you away!! Highly recommended !

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Bogart Plays a Bigot

7/10
Author: utgard14 from USA
28 February 2014

Very unusual movie for Humphrey Bogart, made a few years before he would become a headline star for WB. He plays a machine shop worker who takes for granted that he will become his shop’s new foreman because of his seniority. But when they give it to an educated young Polish-American instead, Bogie becomes resentful and angry. This leads him to joining up with a hate group known as the Black Legion, which is basically the KKK. The Black Legion has a pledge that has to be heard to be believed, so make sure you pay attention to it.

Strong performance from Bogie, as well as a great supporting cast that includes Ann Sheridan, Dick Foran, Joe Sawyer, John Litel, Samuel S. Hinds, and more. A lot of people seem to pick on the movie for not being strong enough in its message, despite the fact that they can’t point to any other movies from the period that were even brave enough to try this much. They did what they could do. It’s a powerful movie, even if it seems watered down by today’s standards. But today we aren’t exactly living in the age of subtlety, are we?

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A very strong message.

8/10
Author: planktonrules from Bradenton, Florida
19 October 2012

“Black Legion” was a very unusual role for Humphrey Bogart, but I think he got it because he was not yet an established star and Warner Brothers put him in many different sorts of parts. So, if you are looking for the tough and assertive sort of Bogart, this is NOT the film for you! No, Bogie plays a despicable sort of jerk–and a cowardly one at that.

The film begins at a machine shop. It seems that someone is going to be promoted to foreman and Bogart is sure it will be him. However, a Polish-American worker gets the job instead. While this man DID deserve it, Bogie is sullen and angry–and soon jumps at an opportunity to join a local hate club. The Black Legion is sort of like the KKK with its trappings but is more anti-foreigner in focus. So, to get back at the foreman, Bogart sicks his new ‘friends’ on them and he soon gets the job promotion. Where does all this new power lead him? See this powerful film and find out for yourself.

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While I wish the film had taken a stronger and clearer stand against the Klan, it is a very powerful film for 1937, as many folks would have supported groups like the Legion. Groups like the American Bund and the popularity of antisemitic celebrities like Charles Lindburgh and Henry Ford (who wrote books espousing hatred of Jews, foreigners and the like) during this time could not be denied. In other words, this film might have alienated many potential viewers and the studio chose to take a deliberate stand for what is right. And, it’s a strong film with a very good performance by Bogart in a VERY different sort of role. Well worth seeing–and probably a bit stronger in its message than the studio’s “Storm Warning”–another anti-hate group film that was made a dozen years later.

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