In the early 1930s, Warner Brothers worked up a line of ‘social problem’ movies like I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang or Wild Boys of the Road – the film equivalent of a newspaper exposé, stirring a lot of sensationalism and human interest into well-researched accounts of contemporary injustices. Even a few of Warners’ gangster films (The Public Enemy, Little Caesar) slot into this genre, though the studio eventually shifted to more purely sensationalist (and, it has to be said, entertaining) rat-tat-tat rhythm in vehicles for tough guys like Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Warners never quite lost their knack for realism and a gritty, urban edge remained in their films which was quite different from the stylisation found at MGM or Paramount – even Warners’ musicals (Dames, 42nd St) and horror films (Dr X, The Walking Dead) were hardboiled, ‘street’ stuff. Throughout the 1930s and into the war years, Warners would occasionally return to the form – at a time when many (if not most) Americans were disinclined to get into World War Two, Warners released the Confessions of a Nazi Spy, for instance.
In 1936, a man named Charles Poole was kidnapped off the streets of Detroit by a gang of robed and hooded vigilantes and shot to death – purportedly for beating his wife, but actually because he worked for the Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. The subsequent arrest and trial of Dayton Dean, Poole’s murderer, brought to light the existence of the Black Legion, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan who were more concerned with targeting Jews and Catholics than the Klan’s traditional hatred of black folks. Partially inspired by the fascist movements of Italy, Spain and Germany, the Legion also fought a determined rearguard action against FDR’s New Deal reforms. A year later, WB had Black Legion in theatres – a loose dramatisation of the Poole-Dean case which, despite a few preachy pro-democracy speeches emphasising that court officials and regular churches aren’t in favour of such tactics, remains a fairly stinging attack on cornfed fascism. It’s not among the studio’s best-remembered films, perhaps because solid professional director Archie Mayo has never really accrued much of a rep – but also because, in the 1950s, the Warner Brothers were given a hard time by McCarthyists for supposed ‘premature anti-fascism’ and thereafter tended to downplay any of their back catalogue which could be seen as anti-American. They were much happier to have backed Yankee Doodle Dandy than Black Legion.
The real strength of the film is in its central performance. Casting Black Legion must have been a challenge for the studio – their obvious first choices for the lead were ruled out on ethnic grounds, since the Black Legion could never have included characters played by the Jewish Robinson (who often played Italian) or the Irish Cagney. So the all-American Humphrey DeForest Bogart landed the role of family man factory worker Frank Taylor, passed over for promotion to foreman in favour of Hungarian Dumbrowski (Henry Brandon) and drawn into the ranks of the robed Legion, who initiate him by making him swear an absurdly elaborate oath on his knees at gunpoint before selling him his robes and gun (the higher-ups in the Legion are running it as a profitable racket). Bogart had mostly been used at the studio in second banana gangster roles (and had stood out as the Dillinger type of Mayo’s film of The Petrified Forest) and would graduate to tough guy hero and romantic roles in the 1940s. But, arguably, he was never better as an actor than when cast as a paranoid little man (Treasure of the Sierra Madre, In a Dark Place, The Caine Mutiny) and Frank Taylor is the first of these great performances.
The script is schematic as an easygoing guy, who listens to trashy radio serials with his baseball-playing son Buddy (Dickie Jones) while Dumbrowski has his nose in a book and fiddles with a slide-rule, goes from disappointment when he can’t buy a new car because the promotion falls through to bitter resentment. But Bogart sells the whole package: Robinson could never have passed for a slacker family man, and Cagney wouldn’t have been as terrified in the ridiculous initiation; and only Bogart could handle the film’s most potent scene (echoed all the way down to Taxi Driver) as Taylor gets his first gun and admires himself in the mirror, sticking the pistol into his waistband and snarling, a little man (Bogart was small of stature) puffed up by packing a rod, as if (as some said of the actor after a few drinks) he thought he was Humphrey Bogart. The mob, which includes a matey bigot (Joe Sawyer) and a stereotypical weasel (Charles Halton), runs Dumbrowksi and his chicken father farmer out of town so Taylor gets his promotion – but his initial sense of empowerment sours as he alienates his wife and best friend (Dick Foran, playing a character based on Charles Poole) and his arrogance loses him his job, then lets him slide into the clutches of the town tramp (Helen Flint). Eventually, he spills his guts about the Legion to his former friend, and finds himself on trial for murder after an attempt to shut up the witness has gone too far. The finish is typically Hollywood, with Taylor breaking down on the stand and indicting his fellow legionnaires, but other studios would have found a way to make the protagonist not guilty of murder, whereas WB end with the partially-redeemed Taylor still hauled off to life in prison.