Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Black Legion

TCM's look at the "Immigrant Experience in America" as portrayed by Hollywood films continues this week with an interesting movie that's really about the anti-immigrant experience: Black Legion, at 10:45 PM.

Humphrey Bogart, not long after he began to move up the ranks on the Warner Bros. lot with The Petrified Forest but still a good four years away from High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, stars as Frank Taylor, an everyman in Anytown USA who works at the local machine shop. He's good at what he does, and since he has seniority, a lot of the workers expect that he's going to get the promotion that's coming up at the plant, which also means a more stable financial future for him and his wife (Erin O'Brien-Moore). However, it turns out that Dombrowski (Henry Brandon), a worker of Polish descent, came up with something that will save the company time and money, so the bosses give him the promotion instead of Frank. Now, the 1930s were a time when eastern Europeans were one of the immigrants that were the feared ones. First we had the Anglo-Saxon Protestants fearing the Catholic Irish; then all of those feared the Italians and Jews; then the WASPs, Irish, and Italians feared the folks from the East; and now everybody fears the Mexicans.

Well, that's an exaggeration, of course, but it shows that as long as we have immigration, we're going to have people playing the "They took our jobs!" angle. In this case, one of Frank's fellow workers, Cliff (Joe Sawyer), sees what losing out on the promotion has done to Frank, and suggests an organization called the Black Legion. It's the sort of group that ostensibly calls for "American jobs for Americans", but in reality is a terrorist racket. Anybody who gets in its way is marked for death, and it's also out to make money for itself by selling the robes and other paraphernalia that goes with the uniform. The Legion scares the Dombrowskis into leaving town, but that's not enough: the next guy who takes what should "rightfully" be Frank's job get's it too, and that guy's son-in-law (Dick Foran) nearly gets it when he threatens to go to the police.

Black Legion is the sort of social commentary movie that I've mentioned Warner Bros. doing a lot of in the 1930s, and doing much better than any of the other studios. To be honest, I womder if the violence here wasn't overdone, at least in the sense of making the Legion look too much like thugs. After all, if all they looked like was thugs, how successful would they be in getting new members? (Compare this to Michael Powell's portrayal of the Nazis in 49th Parallel.) Humphrey Bogart, however, is a very good choice for the role of Frank Taylor. There's something about Bogart that suggests a darker side than does most of the other actors of the 1930s. Sure, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were both great at playing gangsters, but Robinson would have looked too old for the role, and Cagney's 1930s characters, even when they were gangsters, were just too likeable.

Black Legion got a DVD release as part of a Warner Gangsters box set along with a couple of other really fun movies from the early 1930s that I've recommended before, such as Picture Snatcher.

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