Black Legion Review
To fully appreciate what Hollywood was up against in its self-censoring via the Production Code, look no further than the films found in Volume 3 of Warner's Gangsters Collection series. Where the initial movies in that set were made before the implementation of the Code and exhibit all the joyous debauchery allowed with those considerable freedoms, the other two entries, Black Legion and Brother Orchid, had to stick closely to the rules. Not very gangster, if you ask me. That's Black Legion in a nutshell, however - a picture that really has no place in this set, but is welcomed for release all the same. It's just nearly impossible to move from the pre-Code movies to Archie Mayo's comparatively safe social drama without noticing the blurred lines at every turn.
Mayo had helmed Humphrey Bogart's breakout turn in The Petrified Forest a year before Black Legion was in cinemas. At the film's 1937 release, Bogart still wasn't the star he'd become after the one-two punch of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon in 1941, but he was big enough for Warner Bros. to trust him with a lead role (though he's billed under the title here). The character he plays in Black Legion is Frank Taylor and the actor gives him an interestingly grey layer of complexity. Frank isn't portrayed as some rabidly jingoistic racist, at all. When the film begins, he's just an average factory worker who feels like he should be promoted to foreman after his boss moves up the ladder. Frank has a pretty wife and a young boy. He could be the 1937 version of any of us. Then he has that hammer moment. The promotion to foreman doesn't go his way, instead given to Dombrowski, who's always reading and studying and hasn't even been with the company as long as Frank has.
The film spends a good amount of time establishing Frank's desire and seeming qualifications for the promotion, even having the character do some preliminary car shopping. His anger at not getting it devolves into resentment, exacerbated by a radio programme decrying the proliferation of (legal) immigrants in the area who've apparently somehow displaced the "Americans" long settled in our country 'tis of thee. The melting pot thus boileth over, new immigrants crowding out old immigrants. It's difficult to ascertain whether Frank is truly outraged at the nation's newcomers or just Dombrowski for taking the position he felt was owed to him. We're never told exactly what ethnicity Dombrowski is, as mandated by the Production Code, so he works as a catch-all for prejudice. A little later in the film when his family farm is burned down, Dombrowski's father is heard speaking with a pronounced accent, but it's a rather generic Eastern European one.
It's pervasive fear that ultimately preys on the weak wills of men like Frank. The radio spot broadcasts the dangers of these people who have names and accents that differ from those with which we're familiar. They must be stopped by any means necessary, so the implication goes. For liberal thinking Americans, it's nearly impossible not to draw some sort of parallel between the words spewing from the radio and our recent history. "He who is not with us, is against us," echoes out of the speakers seven decades before Americans are told the requirements of modern patriotism. This lends Black Legion some credence it hardly could have expected. Frank's reaction is to take what he's been told is his. Casualties abound as a result. Though we don't know exactly what happens to Dombrowski, we do know his job and home are taken away. Frank's not a good enough foreman once he does get the promotion so he too is replaced. Blame his new buddies, the guys who like burning things at night with hoods and sheets covering them from hood to toe.
This is the Black Legion of the title. Without using race or religion, the film portrays these men as keeping the fire of "patriotism" burning in the intolerant night. We find out it's not firmness in their beliefs that keeps this organization running, but money. Yes, the Black Legion is a veil of profit behind which lies wealthy businessmen in hotel rooms. This is only thinly tied to the main plot of the movie, but it's there for the pondering nonetheless. There's also a definite Klan-like influence on the portrayal of the gang, despite the disclaimer before the opening titles that everything we're about to see is completely fictitious and with no basis in reality. The Code obviously restricts just how violent the Black Legion's actions can be, and I can't help but wonder what a studio willing to bounce a villain off a barbed wire fence and into a pig sty in The Mayor of Hell could have done for a bunch of foreigner-hating sheetwearers. Regardless, the climax of the film comes after we've seen these America-lovers cloaked in identity concealer burn down a farm while running citizens out of town, hang a shirtless innocent by his wrists on a tree in a desolate forest, and, finally, drive another man to his certain death before capping him in the back.
(spoilers, sort of)
The kicker is that Bogart's Frank is the one who shoots down his best friend Ed (played by Dick Foran). Ed's drinking problem is well-established, but he's also engaged to marry Ann Sheridan and he becomes the guy ready to take down the Black Legion. The supersecret keepers of the flag cannot accept Ed's actions and his death becomes imminent. When the film's last act jumps to a court room (audiences must've loved legal actions in the '30s), Frank is pressured to keep the Legion completely out of the trial. He pleads self-defense, disgracing his family as well as the Ann Sheridan character, but he breaks down on the stand. We knew Bogie was a good guy, after all! Frank is redeemed in the eye of the Hays Code and, possibly, the audience, but not by the judge. He brings down the Black Legion, many of whom have inexplicably shown up as audience members in the court, and himself. A bleak end to a film that warns of the potentially easy exploitation of man's frailties.
Comparing Black Legion with what might have been, pre-1934, is kind of useless, but nonetheless understandable. Would we have gotten more explication into Frank's motivations or, perhaps, seen the lengths the group might have taken to appease their core tenets? As it is, Mayo's still-relentless version resonates with the modern viewer while also functioning both as an initial star turn by Bogart and a rather interesting exploration of working class frustrations. The slow beginning and the halting end are weaknesses, but the fleshy middle is dynamite. It does seem that Black Legion could have been improved upon by keeping the focus on Bogie and the hoodies, without resorting to prolonged legal hysterics and preaching. It's exceedingly interesting as is, though, and very well played by Bogart, who could have easily gone too far on either side instead of treading that line of sympathy ever so closely.
Encoded for regions 1, 2, 3, and 4, Black Legion is transferred progressively on a dual-layered disc, and presented in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. It is released both individually and as part of the Warner Bros. Gangsters Collection Vol. 3 (with Vol. 2 being newly retitled from its original incarnation as the Tough Guys set). Worth mentioning, the film runs approximately 83 minutes, slightly longer than the 80 minutes indicated on the back of the case.
The transfer is fairly solid, with a bit of grain and dirt specks. Nothing out of the ordinary and in line with the the usual quality of Warner Bros. titles. Detail is adequate. The sharpness improves slightly on the earlier films in the Gangsters Vol. 3 set. There appears to be a touch of brightness boosting and whites can glow a little too much. Overall, the image is very clean and more than acceptable. Audio is also an improvement over the older titles in the box, though a lower hiss and a few crackles can be heard. The single-channel English Dolby Digital mono track gives nothing to really gripe over, however. Volume levels are consistent and suitably strong. Subtitles are white in colour and available for English for the hearing impaired and French.
The commentary on Black Legion is a dual effort from Patricia King Hanson and Anthony Slide. It's always a listenable track, but tends to be more conversational than necessarily stimulating. The two identify names of actors and discuss some of the film's production history. A few lulls do arise, including total silence for a couple of minutes just before the halfway mark in the movie. Still, my biggest concern when making the effort to watch a film again with people talking over it is for that extra time spent to be worthwhile. I don't really think anything of significance or importance is learned here, and the commentary is too lightweight, even dismissive, to enhance one's appreciation of the film. It's probably best recommended for those who'd like a history lesson in minutiae.
Though Black Legion was made in 1936, its release date early the following year means we're in for a selection of short subjects from 1937 in the Warner Night at the Movies feature on this DVD. A trailer for the Errol Flynn romantic comedy The Perfect Specimen (3:38) and a vintage newsreel (1:00) where law enforcement officials throw various pieces of old evidence, including guns, into a body of water (treehuggers be damned!) are pretty standard fillers. We also get a Technicolor short entitled "Under Southern Stars" (17:16) that concerns General Stonewall Jackson and the Battle of Chancellorsville during the Civil War. The real prime cut, though, is the musical short "Hi De Ho" (10:52) starring Cab Calloway. A written disclaimer about the racially insensitive nature of the short is thrown up on the screen by Warner Bros., but the only possibly offensive material would seem to be a stereotypical lack of proper grammar. Otherwise, "Hi De Ho" is a genuine treat featuring Cab Calloway singing and scatting the songs "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "Hi-De-Ho Miracle Man," "Frisco Flo," and "Some of These Days."
Nearly just as fun is the Looney Tune "Porky and Gabby" (7:05). What makes this cartoon special is that it was directed by Ub Iwerks and animated by Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett. With that in mind, it's fascinating to see the three distinctly different styles of these animation legends all in the same cartoon. If perhaps the short doesn't live up to such lofty expectations, there's no doubt that it's still mighty interesting to watch. The rarely seen character Gabby the Goat, who appeared in only three cartoons, makes a nice, grumpy sidekick to the especially rotund Porky Pig as they attempt to go camping. Finishing up the disc's special features is a trailer for Black Legion (1:41).