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Tuesday 8 December 2009

Black Legion (1937)

Director: Archie Mayo
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O'Brien-Moore and Ann Sheridan
TCM's star of the month for Dec 2009 is Humphrey Bogart, to celebrate what would have been his 110th birthday on 25 Dec, at least according to Warner Brothers.
The machine shop that Frank Taylor works at seems like a pretty happy place. He and his colleagues are good at their jobs, they get on with their foreman and nobody's upset about Joe Dombrowski keeping his nose inside books so that he can design lathes instead of just working them. Then that foreman gets promoted and Joe gets his job, even though Taylor wants it and everyone, including Joe, would have been happy with that concept. It rankles with Taylor though and his sore head is boosted by a speech he hears on the radio, something that wouldn't be too out of place on the AM dial nowadays, something that makes him forget about Speed Forster, the action hero he listens to with his son Freddie.

It's what you might expect, all about preserving the purity of the red, white and blue and how to protect yourself against the foreigners who are planning to seize the reins of the republic. It's stirring stuff and it comes at just the right time. Next thing you know, a colleague called Cliff Summers brings him into the Black Legion, an organisation made up of red blooded Americans who are dedicated to a free, white, 100% American country. Of course they look just like the Klan with their hoods and gowns, with a tinge of the Spanish Inquisition in there too. The skulls and crossbones are authentic, as the Black Legion was real.

They were prominent in Michigan and Ohio in the thirties until they kidnapped and murdered a man called Charles Poole in southwestern Detroit in 1936, prompting authorities to crack down at which point they promptly fell apart. Hollywood quickly followed up with this film a year later and radio was on the case too, with episodes of True Detective Mysteries and The Shadow playing Black Legion stories as well, the latter with no less a name than Orson Welles in charge. Incidentally, The Shadow gave them a name change to the White Legion, which makes a lot more sense given their racial background. You have to love those unfortunate ironies! At least the Black Legion sounds a lot more cool than the Ku Klux Klan.

Taylor has second thoughts about the whole affair when he's on his knees to read his oath of allegiance with a gun against his head. After all, it's a pretty overblown oath with lots of rhetoric about having your heart ripped out and burning in eternal flame if you betray a comrade. It's too late by that point, of course. The man in charge, Alf Hargrave, welcomes him heartily afterwards with details of what he has to buy to belong, from the $6.50 outfit to the $14 revolver. No ifs, ands or buts, that's an order. And don't forget that when you talk to a superior, you call him sir.

Taylor soon comes round when the Black Legion take him out on his first night ride. Of course it's the chicken farm run by Dombrowski's father that this bunch hit first, kidnapping them to throw onto a freight train out of town, letting their chickens loose and burning the whole place to the ground. Life is good and he's back in as foreman, with the money to buy a new car and a vacuum cleaner and a Louisville slugger for Freddie. Of course you know a story like this isn't going to end well though, however much Bogie later obtained the clout to play the villain as well as the hero, and I'm sure I don't have to throw out spoilers for you to work out what's going to happen.

It's all pretty routine as such things go but Warner Brothers were a highly capable studio during the thirties who could turn things like this out in their sleep and still have them worth watching, but on occasion it almost seems like they did. This one is capable but it's utterly routine, the morals of the piece obvious from moment one and played up with more than a little melodrama, especially at the end. There are surprisingly few names in here, Dick Foran and Ann Sheridan being the most prominent after Bogie, who was still no star himself at this point, with much further down the cast list, people like Eddie Acuff and John Litel.

Bogie isn't bad here but he's hardly the star he'd become. When he tries to look suspicious he looks more like one of Chevy Chase's characters from Fletch and he's not too good weeping over a corpse either, but then that's hardly tough guy stuff. Otherwise he's not bad, giving an excellent courtroom scene at the end of the film. Dick Foran is fine as his friend Ed Jackson, a far less complex character but one that he plays well. Joe Sawyer and Alonzo Price are appropriately sleazy as members of the secret Black Legion. Generally though there's not much opportunity to shine here and not many people really trying too hard at it. It's worth a watch but not a lot more. The posters are the best thing about it.

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