Black Fury (1935): Curtiz’s Labor Union (Message) Film, Starring Paul Muni

Directed by prolific and versatile filmmaker Michael Curtiz, Black Fury is a socially-conscious film, based on a factual historic incident during a Pennsylvania walk-out in 1929, in which striking coal miner John Barkowsk was beaten to death by private company police.

The script is adapted by Abem Finkel and Carl Erickson from the short story “Jan Volkanik” by Judge Michael A. Musmanno and the play Bohunk by Harry R. Irving.

The film tells the story of Joe Radek (Paul Muni), a miner of Slavic background. Upset after an argument with girlfriend Anna Novak (Karen Morley), he attends a union meeting, where he acts as a catalyst to splitting the union members into radical and moderate factions.

The radical miners decide to walk out and strike, while the others, led by Radek’s best friend Mike Shemanski (John Qualen) stay at work.  The company then brings in a private police force cobbled out of thugs.

When some drunk company cops try to violate Shemanski’s daughter, both friends reunite in defending her. During the fight, Shemanski is killed by McGee (Barton MacLane), and Radek is injured.

While he is recovering, the strike ends with no results and Shemanski’s murder remains unpunished. Radek, angry, collects dynamite and provision and decides to start his own underground protest by hiding in the mine at daytime and blowing up company property at night.

Soon his exploits are reported by the national media. When corrupt company cops try to catch with Radek in the mine, he fights back with dynamite sticks.  Accidentally, he seals himself and Shemanski’s murderer McGee in a mine tunnel.

After a fight, Radek emerges from the mine, and subdued company policeman deliver him to justice.  In due time, he is able to influence more favorable union contract for the miners, and also reconcile with his girlfriend.

Pennsylvania state legislator and former coal miner Michael Musmanno acted to ban the private Coal and Iron Police after the murder of miner John Barkoski in Imperial, Pennsylvania, in 1929. Later he wrote a short story about the incident changing the name of the miner to “Jan Volkanik.” Musmanno’s story and the play Bohunk by Harry R. Irving were adapted for the film, which John Barkoski is fictionalized as Mike Shemanski. In 1966, Musmanno published a novel version of the script, also named Black Fury.

This stirring tale of industrial war in the coal fields was considered the boldest film made since King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, in 1934. As a result, the film was banned in some states for fear of inciting real social conflicts.

Oscar Alert

Paul Muni was not officially nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, but he came in second on the basis of write-in votes, which were allowed that year by the Academy.


Production company: Warner Bros.
Release date: May 18, 1935
Running time: 94 minutes


Paul Muni as Joe Radek
Karen Morley as Anna Novak
William Gargan as Slim Johnson
Barton MacLane as McGee
John Qualen as Mike Shemanski
J. Carrol Naish as Steve Croner
Vince Barnett as Kubanda
Tully Marshall as Tommy Poole
Henry O’Neill as John W. Hendricks
Joseph Crehan as Johnny Farrell
Mae Marsh as Mrs. Mary Novak
Egon Brecher as Alec Novak
G. Pat Collins as Lefty, a Company Policeman
Ward Bond as Mac, a Company Policeman
Akim Tamiroff as Sokolsky
Purnell Pratt as Henry B. Jenkins
Eddie Shubert as Butch