Black Legion (1937): Archie Mayo’s Fact-Inspired Crime Drama, Starring Bogart in his Best Performance to Date

From Our Vaults:

Archie Mayo directed Black Legion, a crime drama, based on a fact-inspired script by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines, from an original story by producer Robert Lord.

Black Legion
Black Legion.jpg

Theatrical poster

The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O’Brien-Moore and Ann Sheridan.

The tale is a fictionalized chronicle of the historic Black Legion of the 1930s in Michigan, a white vigilante group whose many members lived in Detroit, a center of the Ku Klux Klan.

The plot is based on the May 1935 kidnapping and murder in Detroit of Charles A. Poole, a Works Progress Administration organizer. Twelve men were tried and 11 convicted of murder; all were sentenced to life. Authorities prosecuted another 37 men for related crimes; they were also convicted and sentenced to prison, breaking up the Legion.

Columbia Pictures had made the film Legion of Terror (1936), which was based on the same case.

Black Legion was praised by critics for its dramatization of a grim but significant phenomenon. It was one of several films that protested the existence of fascist and racist organizations.

Released after Bogart’s breakthrough in The Petrified Forest (1936), some speculated his performance in Black Legion would make him a major star. Stardom would come to him in 1941, with two films, High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon.

Warner did not give the film any special treatment, however, promoting it and Bogart in their standard mode.

When passed over for promotion in favor of the foreign-born Frank Taylor, a midwestern factory worker, joins the anti-immigrant Black Legion, a secret white vigilante organization. (The real Black Legion split off of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s.).

Dressed in black robes and hoods, Taylor and the Legion mount torchlight raid and burn down the friend’s chicken farm, driving him out of town, so that Taylor can get the job.

Soon, however, Taylor’s recruiting activities get in the way of his work, and he is demoted in favor of Irish neighbor Mike Grogan. The Legion takes action again, attacking Grogan.

Under the Legion’s influence, Taylor becomes a brutal racist, and alienates his wife. He starts drinking heavily and takes up with other women. When his friend Ed Jackson tries to counsel him, a drunken Taylor tells him about his Legion activities.

Taylor reports the conversation to Cliff, a co-worker and fellow member of the Legion, who initiates false rumor that Jackson is a woman-beater. On the pretext of punishing him for that offense, the Legion kidnaps Jackson. Jackson tries to escape, and while running away, Taylor shoots and kills him; breaking down afterward with guilt and remorse, he exclaims, “I didn’t mean to shoot!”

Taylor is arrested for murder, and the Legion threatens his wife and son to prevent him from implicating the secret group. Taylor finally tells the truth, resulting in the conviction and life in prison sentences for members of the Black.

Black Legion went into production in late August 1936. Some of the details in the film, such as the initiation oath and the confessions in the trial scenes, were based on facts about the historic organization.

The U.S. libel laws had recently been broadened in scope by court rulings, and so Warner underplayed aspects of the group’s political activities to avoid legal repercussion. The Ku Klux Klan sued Warner for patent infringement for the film’s use of a patented Klan insignia: a white cross on a red background with a black square, but a judge threw out the case.

Location shooting took place in private homes in Hollywood, 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 “more distinctly American looking.”

Writing for “Night and Day,” Graham Greene praised the film, characterizing it as “an intelligent and exciting, if rather earnest film,” noted for the director’s attention to moments of horror.

Oscar Context:

Robert Lord’s original screenplay received an Oscar nomination, but lost to William Wellman and Robert Carson’s text for A Star Is Born.

The National Board of Review named Black Legion as the best film of 1937, and Humphrey Bogart as the best actor.

It was one of a series of anti-fascist films that addressed the dangers to society from groups that opposed immigrants (especially Jews) and blacks, showing that fascism and racism resulted in similar “crimes against humanity.”

Cast
Humphrey Bogart as Frank Taylor
Dick Foran as Ed Jackson
Erin O’Brien-Moore as Ruth Taylor
Ann Sheridan as Betty Grogan
Helen Flint as Pearl Danvers
Joseph Sawyer as Cliff Moore
Clifford Soubier as Mike Grogan
Alonzo Price as Alf Hargrave
Paul Harvey as Billings
Dickie Jones as Buddy Taylor
Samuel Hinds as Judge
Addison Richards as Prosecuting Attorney
Eddie Acuff as Metcalf
Dorothy Vaughan as Mrs. Grogan
John Litel as Tommy Smith
Henry Brandon as Joe Dombrowski
Charles Halton as Osgood
Pat C. Flick as Nick Strumpas
Francis Sayles as Charlie
Paul Stanton as Barham
Harry Hayden as Jones
Egon Brecher as Old Man Dombrowski (credited as Dombrowski, Sr.)
Robert Homans as Motorcycle Cop (uncredited)

Credits:

Directed by Archie Mayo; Michael Curtiz (uncredited)
Written by Story: Robert Lord
Screenplay: Abem Finkel, William Wister Haines
Produced by Robert Lord
Cinematography George Barnes
Edited by Owen Marks
Music by W. Franke Harling, Howard Jackson, Bernhard Kaun

Production and distribution: Warner

Release date: January 17, 1937 (NYC); January 30, 1937 (US)

Running time: 83 minutes
Budget $235,000