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Casual fans of Humphrey Bogart probably know that he often played bad guys in his earlier film roles. But they may not be prepared for the hard-hitting ugliness of Black Legion (1937), a Warner Bros. crime melodrama that pulls few punches as it tells the story of a real life white supremacist organization.
Bogart plays Frank Taylor, an auto worker and family man who becomes enraged when he's passed over for a promotion in favor of an industrious Polish immigrant named Dombrowski (Henry Brandon). Embittered by the experience, Taylor is recruited by the Black Legion, which promotes hatred of foreigners and other races. Taylor's transformation into a brutal racist is a shocking thing to see, because it's genuinely unnerving, and, probably more importantly, because you see it happening to Humphrey Bogart. The character's downfall is eventually all-encompassing, and the studio, much to its credit, didn't tack on an unconvincing happy ending. Considering the era, it was not your typical escapist film fare.
Warner Bros. was, of course, famous for its "ripped from the headlines" brand of filmmaking, and Black Legion was a prime example of the studio's ability to strike while the iron was hot. As already stated, there actually was a white supremacist organization called the Black Legion that had been making headlines throughout 1937, and its story was exceptionally sordid - everything from kidnapping to lynching and murder, with a variety of other atrocities thrown in for good measure. If you read the papers that year, you had heard of the Black Legion.
Still, Warner Bros. knew it could be asking for trouble by releasing a film about the infamous group. One of those much-read newspaper stories included the revelation that the district attorney of Detroit was involved in some of the Legion's activities. And he was still re-elected to office after the news broke. In addition, U.S. courts had recently broadened the scope of what could be viewed as libel, and Warner Bros. had no choice but to tone down the particulars of how the Legion made its money. In Black Legion, instead of getting mixed up with upper echelon politicians, the subversive group simply run guns and swindle their members out of money but much of what's in the picture is still accurate. There's a word-perfect version of the Legion's initiation oath, and the final trial sequence is a re-creation of the confession delivered by the actual person who inspired Bogart's character.
Even after taking a little bit of care to protect themselves, however, Warner Bros. nearly found itself in legal trouble for the bizarre charge of infringing on a KKK copyright! While researching a variety of distasteful organizations, the studio stumbled upon a logo that it felt would look good on the Black Legion's hooded outfits. Unfortunately, the logo they used turned out to be the Ku Klux Klan's official trademark, as covered by United States design patent 68219. Luckily for the studio, a judge threw the case out of court the next year.
Several critics felt that Black Legion would finally turn Bogart into a major star, and said so in their reviews. The role of Frank Taylor was certainly a major step up from his usual job of playing generic heavies, and he attacked it with charismatic gusto. But Warner Bros. was too busy cranking out down-and-dirty genre films to concern itself with promoting another possible star. (Career management was never the studio's strong suit, as evidenced by its legendary mishandling of Bette Davis and James Cagney who were continually given inferior material after proving their star power). Unfortunately, Black Legion, despite its dramatic impact, critical acclaim and Bogart's standout performance, was promoted no differently than any other Warner Bros. assembly line feature. Bogart wouldn't ascend to superstardom until several years later, when he appeared in Raoul Walsh's High Sierra (1941), and, 66 years later, he remains an American icon.
Director: Archie Mayo
Producer: Robert Lord
Screenplay: Abem Finkel, William Wister Haines (based on a story by Robert Lord)
Editor: Owen Marks
Cinematographer: George Barnes
Music: Bernhard Kaun
Costumes Design: Milo Anderson
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Frank Taylor), Dick Foran (Ed Jackson), Erin O'Brien-Moore (Ruth Taylor), Ann Sheridan (Betty Grogan), Robert Barrat (Brown), Helen Flint (Pearl Davis), Joe Sawyer (Cliff Moore), Henry Brandon (Joe Dombrowski).
by Paul Tatara