Cinema Slueth: Black Legion

For review of all movies starring Humphrey Bogart, go here.

Stars: 5 / 5
Recommendation: It’s a powerful socially conscious crime drama; a graphic study of meaningless violence. The movie certainly sends a strong message that pertains to any era this world lives in. A very hard-hitting drama.

Black Legion is the 1937 American crime drama film directed by Archie Mayo; produced by Robert Lord; and released by Warner Bros. The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O’Brien-Moore and Ann Sheridan. The screenplay was written by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines based on an original story by producer Robert Lord.

The plot fictionalizes the 1930s historic Black Legion, a white vigilante group in Michigan. And is also based on the May 1935 kidnapping and murder in Detroit of Charles A. Poole, a Works Progress Administration organizer.

Frank Taylor (portrayed by Humphrey Bogart) is an autoworker who has been passed over for his promotion in favor of an immigrant, joins the Black Legion in frustration to get rid of the immigrants. Eventually he drives away the immigrant and his family; but Black Legion want him to continue to recruit new members. Thus leads into a life of debauchery, drinking, illegal activities, murder and finally prison sentence leading to disbandment of the Black Legion.

This is by far the most shocking role I had seen Humphrey Bogart play ever. Years later critics now consider that this is one of the breakthrough role for Bogart. However, at the time of the release Warner Bros. failed to promote Bogart or cash in on his breakthrough. Bogart’s Taylor shows the audience that how a simple ordinary person can be brainwashed and changed due to ideologies that aren’t healthy.

The film won an Academy Award nomination for Robert Lord’s original screenplay in 1937. This was the only non-Best Picture movie to be nominated that year for Best Story (Original Screenplay).

Checkout the scene where Humphrey Bogart’s Taylor gets his first gun and he practices holding it in front of the mirror. A similar scene was replicated by Robert De Niro in his 1976 American neo-noir psychological drama thriller film Taxi Driver

From this movie:

From Taxi Driver:

It may have been one of those films in that era that addressed dangers to society from groups that opposed immigrants, organizations who encourage xenophobia and racism. But this movie still makes perfect sense in this day and age when the dangers haven’t reduced at all – in fact they have increased ten fold.

It’s a powerful socially conscious crime drama; a graphic study of meaningless violence. The movie certainly sends a strong message that pertains to any era this world lives in. A 360 degree change one sees in the excellent performance by Bogart. A very hard-hitting drama.

Spoiler Alerts:

Movie Trivia:

  1. In 1936 Columbia Pictures released an American drama / action film Legion of Terror based on the same case.
  2. Warner Bros. made a similar movie in 1951 – American film noir thriller Storm Warning, although this time they based it on Ku Klux Klan. This included some big names in the film field as the lead cast – Ronald Raegan; Doris Day; Ginger Rogers.
  3. This film was banned to be released in several countries at that time. Even though the ban was lifted a few years later, it was a heavily redacted release.
  4. Frank Nelson had an uncredited role of Radio announcer, his film debut.

5. Ed and Betty coming out of the theater pass by posters of several films which are actual Warner Bros. pictures – the 1936 American drama film Bengal Tiger; 1936 American film noir crime mystery drama film Jailbreak; 1936 American crime film Public Enemy’s Wife; and 1936 American romantic-comedy crime film The Big Noise. Dick Foran who is in this film as Ed Jackson also starred in Public Enemy’s Wife.

Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

  1. When Bogart goes to his first black legion meeting he asks the drug store owner if Cliff Summers is there. The character’s name is Cliff Moore according to credits. He is called as Cliff Summers more than once in the film.
  2. The inter-office letter refers to Clifford Soubier’s character as Michael P. Grogan. However the newspaper article prints his name as Michael F. Grogan.

3. The front door of Bogies house changes from a wooden one with glass panels to a screen door when his friend is thrown out.

4. The movie end credits list the name of the character played by Helen Flint as “Pearl Davis” but throughout the movie – particularly during her courtroom testimony – her character is referred to as “Pearl Danvers.”

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