Movie Review: Black Legion (1937)
In an early scene, a bunch of machine-shop guys are hanging outside eating their lunches, wearing dirty overalls and 1930s-era working caps—called whoopee caps, which I think of as Jughead caps—and giving each other shit. Mostly they’re giving shit to Ed Jackson (Dick Foran), a big, beefy sort, who’s nursing a hangover because the night before he drank too much with the wrong dame, Pearl Danvers (Helen Flint). It’s all good-natured fun until Cliff Moore (Joe Sawyer) opens his yap. His target isn’t Ed but Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon), a handsome kid who’s reading a book with a sliderule.
“What do you got there,” he asks. “A honyock backscratcher?”
Honyock—I had to look it up—is an ethnic slur for Eastern Europeans. Most likely a compound of “Hungarian” and “Polack.”
Our hero, Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart), eventually tells Cliff to lay off, and we get this exchange:
Cliff: He’s always got his nose in a book.
Frank: It’s his nose, ain’t it?
Cliff: And a plenty big one at that.
Apparently Dombrowski was originally a Jewish character but got toned down in rewrites. The nose reference is all that’s left of that identity. Like Clementis’ fur hat.
Black Legion, White House
“Black Legion” is one of those Warner Bros. movies that were, as they used to say, “ripped from today’s headlines.” There really was a Black Legion, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, with estimated membership as large as 125,000 in the 1930s. It was the usual mix of all-American nastiness: anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-socialist and anti-black. Malcolm X believed the Black Legion was responsible for the death of his father, while this movie is loosely based on the kidnapping and murder of WPA worker Charles Poole in Detroit in May 1936.
It’s also ripped from our headlines, isn’t it? At one point, Frank hears the following on the radio from a Father Coughlin-type sermonizer. The sentiments would not be out of place in a speech by Pres. Donald Trump today:
... hordes of grasping, pushing foreigners, who are stealing jobs from American workmen and bread from American homes. It is to combat this peril, to preserve and protect standards of living which made American workmen the envy of the world, that we, the challengers, have raised our rallying cry, “America for Americans!”
Think of that. Despite all the progress we‘ve made, an 80-year-old stock Hollywood villain doesn’t sound much different than the current president of the United States.
As a movie, “Black Legion” is a cautionary tale. From that lunch scene above, you’d suspect Ed might get involved in the Legion, maybe via Pearl Danvers, but no. Ed sobers up and proposes to Betty (Ann Sheridan). It’s Frank, our hero, who goes down the wrong path. And stays down it.
A foreman position opens up, everyone thinks he’ll get it, but it goes to Joe Dombrowski. Incensed, Frank hears the above radio broadcast and joins the Black Legion. Together, they burn down Dombrowski’s home, and ride him and his dad out of town on a rail, then celebrate with beers all around. Frank gets the foreman gig but almost immediately loses it again because he’s too busy recruiting for the Legion. This time it goes to Mike Grogan (Clifford Soubier), so they attack him, too. Cause he's Irish? Or because Frank is feeling, as our current media terms it, “economic anxiety”? Your call.
Yes, it’s a bit sanitized. The real Legion attacked Jews and blacks, rather than the Irish and Polish. Even so, what's fascinating about the film is that our hero isn't redeemed. Far from it. His wife and child leave him, he gets drunk with Pearl, then confesses all to Ed Jackson. When Ed demands Frank go to the police or he will, Frank panics, calls in the Legion, and they take Ed to the woods for a flogging. Instead, he’s shot trying to escape (by Frank), and the rest of the hooded Legion scatters.
Initially, at trial, they create a cockamamie story about how Ed Jackson was in love with Pearl, and that's what led to the tragedy. Odder still, they make Frank claim that he was in love with Pearl, too. It almost feels like this is the reason Frank finally breaks down on the stand and tells the truth. It's not the guilt at killing a pal, or the 11th-hour realization that xenophobia is bad; he just couldn’t stand anyone thinking he preferred the uglier woman.
As in the real Charles Poole case, all of them are sentences to life in prison. That's the end. Just that. So don’t join secret hooded hate groups, kids, or you’ll lose everything.
It was a tidy-enough lesson in 1937, but one we have to keep relearning, apparently. Once more from the top.