Sunday, April 8, 2012

Black Fury

I've recommended a number of the social commentary movies from the ootput that Warner Bros. had in the 1930s. If you haven't seen enough of them, you could do worse than to watch Black Fury, which is airing tomorrow morning at 6:30 AM on TCM.

This time, the setting is the coal-mining country of Pennsylvania. Paul Muni, who had previously appeared in 38547075419843257984 of Warner Bros. social commentary movies, give or take a few, playd Joe Radek, an immigrant complete with accent who works in the coal mine. The mining company is typically nasty for one of these movies; they've set up a company town where everybody lives in squalor, kept in check by a police force which is also in the employ of the company. There is a union, but it believe more in the softly-softly approach than the strident fighting for labor's rights. That might not be such a bad thing, because the company is portrayed as being bad on union agitators.

In fact, it's this badness that's about to drive the action of the movie. Joe's good friend Mike (played by John Qualen, who was constantly playing immigrant roles) gets drunk one night, and starts speaking a bit too ill of the company. Mike's punishment is getting murdered by McGee, one of the company policemen (Barton MacLane), which the company police promptly declare an accident. Joe winds up in the hospital as a result of the fight, and when he gets out, he decides to take revenge. This revenge comes in the form of infiltrating the mine carrying a bunch of dynamite, threatening to blow the whole thing up. Yikes. The company sends McGee down the mine shaft to get Joe, and after another fight, Joe takes McGee hostage, and treats McGee as brutally as the company has been treating the workers: Joe ties McGee up and keeps a bunch of food just out of McGee's reach.

I don't know quite how realistic all of this is. My understanding of American history is that there certainly was a good deal of industrial conflict back in the 1930s, but that it's a bit difficult to figure out just how much each side is bad because the current (disproportionately government-sector) union descendants of the old industrial unions have a vested interest in romanticizing the conflict into the unions being unambiguously virtuous and the companies unambiguously evil. But back in the 1930s, the fact that there was a depression going on with a large pool of excess labor would have meant that the companies would have had the upper hand in industrial relations. I'm sure the movie has some reality, but also some exaggeration. When it comes to social commentary movies, you need a story that can override the political point you're trying to make. Black Fury is entertaining enough to accomplish that mission. As for the acting, Paul Muni is about as understated as ever, which is to say not much. Still, I think a lot of these social commentary movies are the sort of things that need a protagonist with a forceful character of the sort that Muni could play well.

Black Fury has received a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

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