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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The Petrified Forest (1936)

This Is How The World Ends, Not With a Bang But With a Whimper

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

When I first watched The Petrified Forest I was at an unsure time in my life; fearful of the future and with my own sense of individualism and artistic ambitions. Watching Leslie Howard as Alan Squier, a failed artist who eventually takes his own life so a young girl could be the artist he never was made me fearful and depressed of what my own future held in store for me. I felt for this character to the point that it hurt because I was worried that someday I could become that character, perhaps not to that extreme but destined to a similar fate. Gabrielle (Bette Davis) on the other hand is stuck in a rut and dreams of going to France. No one in The Petrified Forest has much to look forward to; even the old man played by Charlie Grapewin gets very excited by the prospect of gangsters being nearby. Anything to create some excitement in the middle of the desert, excitement which doesn’t wain when he’s being held hostage by them. At the time when I watched this film and I was dealing with the uncertainty of if I would ever leave my hometown or would I always be stuck here. Few other films have ever had characters which spoke so directly to me.

The atmosphere in The Petrified Forest is intense enough that I can forgive the not so seamless transitions between real-life locations and the sets. With little to no use of non-diegetic music, the sound of a windstorm is more than enough to emphasize the prison of which the characters reside. I also highly recommend checking out Heat Lightning from 1934 which contains many similarities to The Petrified Forest in its setting and atmosphere as well as characters and plot points.

The Petrified Forest’s most notable contribution to cinema is the breakthrough role of Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee, a role in which he has never been more terrifying. I generally don’t think of Bogart as an actor who is scary but here he is a guy I would not want to be stuck in an elevator with, even with that distinct walk with his slouch and his arms bent in that manner as the dangle. – In most cases this would look ridiculous by Bogart makes it work. Bogart’s acting career had been marred with failure up until this point with this likely being his final chance to make it in Hollywood and no doubt must have fueled his performance. I know a film is good when I have to think and contemplate which actor (Howard or Bogart) gave the better performance.

How often do you get to see gangsters and intellectuals involved in such profound conversations? Howard and Bogart play characters whom are worlds apart yet develop a mutual respect for each other as they discover they share a bond with their individualism (also look out for Bogart’s head being framed over a moose head so it looks like he has antlers). Fascinating characters (all with such unique dynamics between each other) in a fascinating story is already one of the most important things I could ask for from a movie, even better when they affect me on a personal level.