Michael Curtiz (uncredited)
|Produced by||Robert Lord|
William Wister Haines
W. Franke Harling|
|Editing by||Owen Marks|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
January 17, 1937 (NYC)|
January 30, 1937 (US)
|Running time||83 minutes|
Black Legion is a 1937 melodrama film, directed by Archie Mayo, with a script by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines based on an original story by producer Robert Lord. The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O'Brien-Moore and Ann Sheridan and is a fictionalized story about the real-life Black Legion of the 1930s. It was inspired by the May 1935 murder in Michigan of Charles Poole, a Works Progress Administration worker. Columbia Pictures had previously made Legion of Terror in 1936 based on the same case.
Many of the details about the Legion portrayed in Black Legion, such as the initiation oath and the confessions in the trial scenes, were based on known facts about the actual organization, but because American libel laws had recently been broadened in scope by court rulings, Warner Bros. was forced to underplay some aspects of the group's political activities to avoid legal repercussion. Nevertheless, 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. Fortunately for Warners, a judge threw out the case.
Black Legion drew praise from critics for its dramatization of a dark social phenomenon, and a number of reviewers commented that Bogart's performance should lead to his becoming a major star. Warners, however, did not give the film any special treatment, promoting it, and Bogart, in their standard fashion. Bogart's breakthrough would have to wait for High Sierra in 1941.
When he is passed over for promotion in favor of a foreign-born friend, Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart), a midwestern factory worker, joins the anti-immigrant Black Legion, a secret white supremecist organization portrayed as a northern chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Dressed in black robes, Taylor and the Legion mount a torchlight raid and burn down the friend's chicken farm, driving him out of town, so that Taylor can take the job he believed was his. Soon, however, Taylor's recruiting activities with the Legion get in the way of his work, and he is demoted in favor of Mike Grogan (Clifford Soubier), Taylor's neighbor. Once again, the Legion takes action, attacking Grogan.
Under the continued influence of the Legion, Taylor becomes a brutal racist, and alienates his wife (Erin O'Brien-Moore). He starts drinking heavily and takes up with a loose woman (Helen Flint). Taylor's friend, Ed Jackson (Dick Foran), tries to counsel him, and a drunken Taylor winds up confessing about his Legion activities. When he reports this to the leadership of the Legion, they order that Jackson be kidnapped. The Legion plans to flog Jackson but he tries to escape by punching one of the men restraining him and causing a ruckus. As he is running away he is shot by Taylor. Taylor breaks down and exclaims "I didn't mean to shoot!".
Taylor is arrested for the murder, and the Legion threatens his wife and son to stop him from implicating the Legion in the crime, but, ultimately, Frank breaks down and tells the truth, resulting in the entire Black Legion being convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
- Cast notes
- Before he turned to acting, Clifford Soubier was a broadcaster for NBC in Chicago. Black Legion was his film debut, and he went on to appear in five others.
Black Legion went into production in late August 1936, and 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."
Awards and honors
Robert Lord's original story received an Academy Award nomination in 1937, but lost to William Wellman and Robert Carson's story for A Star Is Born. However the National Board of Review named Black Legion as the best film of 1937, and Humprey Bogart as the best actor for his work in the film.