Wednesday, March 26, 2008

BLACK LEGION (Warner Bros. 1937) Warner Home Video

In the tradition of Warner Bros. hard-hitting melodramas, Archie L. Mayo’s Black Legion (1937) must go on record as one of the studio’s most controversially engrossing and thoroughly compelling indictments of unlawful activity ever put on film. The screenplay by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines (based on a story by Robert Lord) is a thinly veiled fiction based on the actual events that gave rise to the real Black Legion - an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan – and ultimately brought about the organization’s ultimate demise.

At the height of its popularity the real Black Legion – based out of Detroit Michigan - numbered some 30,000 misguided individuals who committed bodily torture and arson on the person and homes of unsuspecting foreigners in the name of their particularly warped brand of ‘Americanism.’ Infamous for their night raids, the Black Legion gained notoriety for the murder of Charles Poole in 1936.

The film stars Humphrey Bogart, not yet on the cusp of becoming everyone’s favorite war time romantic hero, as machine shop operator, Frank Taylor. When the shop’s foreman is promoted to a supervisory post Frank naturally assumes he will be next in line for the foreman’s job. Unhappy circumstance that fellow worker – and bright newcomer - Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon) is awarded the coveted post instead. Frank resents Dombrowksi’s appointment, more so because he had earlier promised his loyal and devoted wife, Ruth (Erin O’Brien-Moore) and son, Buddy (Dickie Jones) a new life with expensive trappings.

In Frank’s bitter resentment fellow shop worker, Cliff Summer (Joseph Sawyer) senses a kindred angry spirit. Cliff taps into Frank’s seething rage and encourages him to join the local chapter of the Black Legion. Under the tyrannical command of the group’s leader, Alf Hargrave (Alonzo Price), Frank takes an oath of loyalty to the organization and thereafter revels in exacting his revenge on the Dombrowskis. Father (Egon Brecher) and Joe are severely beaten. Their chicken farm is burned to the ground.

Meanwhile, next door neighbors to the Taylors; Michael (Clifford Soubier) and Mrs. Grogan (Dorothy Vaughan) are pressing for the marriage of their daughter, Ruth (Ann Sheridan) to Frank’s good buddy, Ed Jackson (Dick Foran). Ed had previously taken up with the notorious mantrap, Pearl Danvers (Helen Flint), though in recent months he’s given every indication of settling down with Ruth instead. After proposing marriage to Ruth over sodas at the local drug store, Ed returns to Frank’s home to find him elated at Dombrowski’s sudden ‘disappearance’.

Furthermore, Frank is promoted to foreman not long after – a post he proves unable to hang on to when, in his recruitment of a new addition to the Legion, he neglects his shop floor duties and is fired. Thereafter, Frank partakes in a litany of illegal activities for the Legion; destroying property and intimidating families judged as ‘undesirable’ under the organization’s racist code. When Michael Grogen is appointed the new shop foreman, the Legion reacts with a kidnapping and flogging that sends Ed on a quest to learn the truth about Frank’s nightly activities.

Ed is kidnapped, beaten and dragged into the forest by the Legion members. Attempting escape, Ed is shot dead by Frank in a moment of panic. The Legion’s members flee from the scene, leaving Frank to lump it on his own back to town. He is apprehended by local authorities at a nearby truck stop and tried for the murder of his one time best friend. In the resulting trial, a man pretending to be Frank’s attorney gains access to his jail cell to set Frank up to lie on the witness stand along with Pearl Danvers in order to prove a trumped up charge of ‘self defense’ instead of murder.

Danvers plays her part to the hilt, incriminating Frank and the memory of Ed as two hotheads in an illicit lover’s triangle gone wrong. However, in the end, Frank comes to his senses. He exposes all the members of the Legion to the Judge (Samuel Hinds); thereby bringing about an end to the Legion’s supremacy.

Black Legion is sobering entertainment. The screenplay is about as unsympathetic and shocking as any ever put into production by a major studio during this vintage. Bogart is magnificent as the loyal husband and father, easily swayed to commit unspeakable acts in the name of patriotism. As a one time member of the studio’s affectionately named ‘murderer’s row’ this is perhaps Bogart’s finest hour on the screen. The rest of the cast play out their parts with genuine conviction – seemingly unrehearsed and fairly without embellishment. In the final analysis, Black Legion is powerful stuff. A must see classic that reveals the unglamorous grit of the American dream turned topsy-turvy.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is above average, though hardly exemplary. The B&W image can exhibit a nicely balanced gray scale with minimal film grain and digital artifacts, though on occasion both are glaringly present. For the most part, tonality is smooth and satisfying, though in the final few scenes there appears to be some considerable fading of the original elements, resulting in a sudden loss of fine detail. The audio is mono but presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include ‘Warner Night At The Movies’ minus the usual intro by Leonard Maltin, an fascinating audio commentary from Patricia King Hanson and Anthony Slide and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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