Black Legion (1937)

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Dey Turk Ur Jerbs!

Today when the issue of immigration is brought up you will likely be shouted down as a racist by many factions. Since there are people who believe white supremacists (an increasingly meaningless buzzword) have actual influence today in the age of Trump, what does 1937’s Black Legion say on the issue of immigration and people who are without a doubt real white supremacists. Black Legion was inspired from true events from an organisation of the same name despite the film’s false opening disclaimer.

In Black Legion Humphrey Bogart plays the role of Frank Taylor, a family man who is a far cry from the likes of Rick Blaine or Phillip Marlowe. However, Bogart being one of the most adaptable actors he never feels out of place in the part not to mention he actually had a boyish look to him in his early films before he became more rugged over the next few years. Bogart isn’t a tough guy here but rather someone who tries to act like a tough guy. This is exemplified in one of the film’s most memorable scenes in which Frank stands in front of a mirror while alone in the living room of his house with a gun in his hand and admiring the way he looks with it. He feels empowered by it and develops a false sense of security as he plays it tough to bolster his lack of confidence as rarely does Frank ever look totally comfortable within in the Black Legion itself.

Frank Taylor is drawn to racial hatred and later to joining the Black Legion after he loses a job promotion of factory foreman to Joe Dombrowski, a foreign-born worker. Dombrowski is an interesting character. When the position of foreman opens up Joe states that he believes Frank will make a great foreman as he has been employed longer than any of the other employees. However, it is Dombrowski who gets the job as he goes to night school, reads many books and is even studying how to design a lathe such as those used in the factory. Although his nationality or ethnicity is never mentioned, the name Dombrowski is Polish and Jewish in origin while the movie also subtly hints at the character being Jewish when his nose is referred to as “a plenty big one at that”. Likewise the comments later given by Ann Sheridan’s character in relation to the idea of the Dombrowski’s setting their own house aflame for an insurance payment in that they are “honourable people” and that “they wouldn’t do a thing like that” gives the impression that they are pillars of the community and that the locals do not look on at them as foreigners.

Essentially the factory in the film operated as a meritocracy and employed the best person for the job (“They will fill it the way they always have, move the best man up”); the essence of the American Dream – study hard and you will be rewarded. Frank, however, is a sore loser and instead of reflecting on himself and seeing where he went wrong he takes the weak minded route out. How would Frank have reacted if the job had been given to one of his American born co-workers?  He would not have been able to put the blame on “immigrants taking our jobs” so would he have come up with another lie in order to feel better about himself?

After Frank loses out on the promotion he comes across a charismatic radio presenter complaining about foreigners stealing American jobs and taking bread from American homes. Like this would have a hope in hell of appearing on any mainstream media today in what would now be referred to as “hate speech”. Likewise the scene in which Frank first attends a secret meeting held by the Black Legion in which a Hitler-esque speaker who overtly finger points gives a riveting yet at the same time ridiculous speech in which he speaks of ethnic nationalism and delves in conspiratorial nonsense on how foreigners “Now enriched with the jobs they have chiselled away from Americans and drunk with the power of their stolen prosperity, they are plotting to seize and control our government”.

With movies such as Black Legion and others from the mid to late 30’s you can’t help but ask would it be better if it were made before the code? Possibly the topic at hand would be presented in a less watered down manner. Look at a pre-code film such as Warner’s Five Star Final which had no problem with using a range of racial slurs whereas the only instance of this in Black Legion is the use of the word honyock. Likewise Black Legion does distinguish itself as an interesting beast of a film in that it feels like it is in between being a B picture and an A picture.

Interspersed between the main story is a love triangle subplot between Ann Sheridan, Helen Flint and Dick Foran. It’s largely a distraction from the main plot until it finally finds its relevance later on and is ultimately the lesser interesting portion of the film. Regardless Ann Sheridan provides some entertaining wise cracks plus Helen Flint plays a character called Mrs Danvers (no relation to the Rebecca character).

Does Black Legion hold much relevance for today? – To an extent yes. While much has changed since the 1930’s in today’s world of uncontrolled immigration, quotas and political correctness, there will always be groups of various political persuasions to pray on the weak minded.

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They Drive By Night (1940)

We’ve Got a Great Big Convoy Running Through the Night!

They Drive By Night captures the seedy and often dangerous world of the truck driver; the lack of sleep, the long distances to travel, the time missed with family, the comradery between truckers. The movie definitely highlights the dangers of trucking from the risk of falling asleep at the wheel, which in part lends itself to one very thrilling action sequence. With Warner Bros being the master of social commentary pictures, I enjoy movies like this which give you an insight into the lives of the lower class at the time; people trying to get by a day at a time with clearly little money to spare.

Thirty minutes into the picture we meet Ida Lupino, in my view possibly the epitome of the tough dame. Talk about a star-making performance, she owns the show as soon as she enters the picture. Every time she is in frame it’s hard to take your eyes off her as struts, poses and applies makeup to herself, even when her comedic foil of a husband Alan Hale is in frame acting like a buffoon. Her most notable scene in the film is one of the greatest, most gloriously over the top on-screen breakdowns ever committed to film. Charles Manson blamed The Beatles, Ida Lupino blamed the doors. Seeing Bogart as a family man is odd at first, the total opposite of his persona he would have in films such as those with Lauren Bacall. But he fits comfortably into the role, showing how adaptable an actor he was. George Raft is the weakest player out of the four stars, I’ve never seen Raft as much of an actor, but playing alongside these heavyweights manages to bring out the best in him.

What is the overall plot of They Drive By Night? There isn’t one; there’s no three-act structure. It’s almost like getting two movies for the price of one, with the first half focusing on trucking and the second half focusing on a murder. Comparing the two you wouldn’t think this is the same movie, but the odd combination works and makes for a unique viewing experience.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels With Filthy Souls

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

One of the things I love most about Angels with Dirty Faces is that proposes the age-old idea of a person’s entire destiny being defined by one single event. The fact that Jerry (Pat O’Brien) could run faster than his childhood friend Rocky (James Cagney) while being chased by the police for a petty crime would determine the paths they would take in life. If only Rocky could climb over that fence, things would have been so much different.

I’m a huge fan of the Warner Bros gangster movies of the 1930’s and Angels with Dirty Faces is probably the most classic of these movies In that it gets referenced and spoofed most in popular culture. These films deal with social issues, many of which are still relevant today. When I hear current news stories about crime and social issues, I often find myself thinking “They dealt with that in an old 30’s crime/gangster film”. Angels with Dirty Faces is no exception. Rocky Sullivan was never truly a criminal but his stay at a reformatory for his petty crime turned him into one. However, Pat O’Brien’s role of Father Jerry Connolly presents an incredibly stark contrast with today’s commonplace media reports of priests molesting boys. I find it fascinating to see a movie in which a member of the clergy is presented as someone who is treated with the utmost respect and entirely trustworthy, of course, this being an attempt to appease the Legion of Decency.

Even with the religious overtones, the movie still provides one of the most intriguing moral dilemmas ever presented in a movie; Rocky making the ultimate sacrifice. Before his execution, Father Connolly asks him to pretend going yellow and show people he was a coward by begging for mercy before being sent to the chair. The only thing Rocky has left is his reputation and he is being asked to throw that away so kids won’t look up to him and his lifestyle. Rocky does just this at the last moment, a complete rejection of the gangster way of life.

While nothing can top the pure electricity that is Cagey in White Heat, Angels With Dirty Faces gets my spot as the next most interesting performance in his career. The Dead End Kids give Cagney an element to his performance few other actors would rarely get the chance to express, likewise his real-life friendship with Pat O’Brien is easily apparent on screen with their interactions. Humphrey Bogart also appears in a pre-stardom supporting role. Despite only appearing in several scenes he nearly succeeds in upstages Cagney with his enigmatic screen presence. Plus that kid playing a young Cagney at the beginning of the film is very eerily like him.

Socially conscience pictures such as this which came from Warner Bros really give an insight into the lives of the common folk of the time. A moment which always stuck out to me in Angels With Dirty Faces is the basketball game because it’s the only classic-era film which comes to mind which features a basketball game thus showing an activity from the 1930’s which is still popular today. Likewise, the movie also acts as a historical document for the lingo among inner-city youths of the time. The performances given by The Dead End Kids feels like an early example of method acting; no surprise when watching this that it was once referred to as Italian street acting.

Michael Curtiz is undoubtedly one of the greatest craftsmen of Hollywood’s golden age (after all, in this same year he directed one of the most perfect things ever created, The Adventures of Robin Hood). The movie immediately flaunts it’s very handsome production values right from the opening shot. The execution finale of Angels with Dirty Faces alone is a masterpiece of cinematography with its prominent use of shadows, bright lighting and tilted camera angles. Here Curtiz creates a criminal underworld which is hard not to get sucked into. We might not want to emulate gangsters but we can’t help but be fascinated by them.