Black Legion (1937)

black legion film review

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there has been an explosive rise in the number of hate groups in America since 1999. The numbers declined between the years 2011 and 2014 but rose by 14% in 2015 and though statistics for 2016 are not yet available it’s most likely that they’ve continued to rise as interest in white supremacist groups swelled thanks to the Trump campaign. Though Trump doesn’t belong to nor endorse any such group his comments on Muslims and other minority groups have energized hate groups.

The situation was similar in the 1930s. White supremacists in America encouraged by the rise of fascist and racist leaders in Europe and embittered by the dire economic situation in which competition for jobs was fierce flocked to hate groups like the KKK, the Silver Legion, the German American Bund, the Christian Front, and the group depicted in this film, a splinter group of the KKK, known as the Black Legion.  Some historians say that at its peak there were 60,000 to 100,000 members most of whom resided in Michigan and Ohio. Members included a former mayor, a city councilman, a chief of police, along with scores of native-born Protestant white men, many of whom had migrated from the South. Even anti-Semitic, union-hating Henry Ford is rumored to have been a secret supporter.  The Legion’s targets were immigrants, Catholics, Jews, blacks, nontraditional Protestant faiths, labor unions, farm cooperatives, various fraternal groups, and anyone deemed un-American by whomever was in charge of a local chapter.

Despite the disclaimer at the beginning of the film, the story is based on real events. In May of 1936 members of the Legion kidnapped and killed Charles Poole, a Catholic WPA organizer, for supposedly beating his Protestant wife. A group of twelve men were arrested and prosecuted. One of them, Dayton Dean, pleaded guilty and testified against other members thereby exposing what had been a secret organization which led to more arrests and the eventual demise of the group.

The film features Humphrey Bogart in his first lead role. It’s probably the only time he played a regular Joe with a wife and kid and probably the only time you will see him break down and cry in a role. After Frank Taylor (Bogart) loses a promotion at work to the son of an immigrant he gets involved with the Black Legion who, along with Frank, run the immigrant and his son out of town. Frank ends up getting the promotion but his nocturnal activities with the Legion begin interfering with his job and marriage. Frank Taylor starts out as a likable but easily misled character and Bogart manages to make him empathetic even when he is the most despicable. Many critics praised his performance and predicted his rise to stardom. Jack Warner, however, didn’t consider Bogart star material and didn’t cast him very often and the parts he did get were usually as a villain opposite James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. In fact, Robinson was considered for the role of Frank Taylor but deemed too foreign looking by Warner Brother executives. Of course Bogart eventually became a star after his breakthrough with High Sierra (1941).

Black Legion is one of several films from the 1930s that dealt with the issues of fascism and racism. Columbia Pictures’ Legion of Terror released in 1936 is based on the same story. Warner Brothers, which had been very successful with a string of gritty gangsters films beginning with Little Caesar (1931), was forced to produce more moralistic films when the Hays Code began to be enforced in 1935. So if you find the film too preachy or the message too blatant don’t blame the writers, blame Joe Breen! The Hays Code also didn’t allow the film to identify persons of any specific nationalities, ethnicities, nor religious affiliations as victims of the Legion which is one of the reasons there are no black people in the film, though they were certainly victimized by the group. The writers got around this as best they could by naming Frank’s competitor Joe Dombrowski, implying he was Polish and including a remark about his big nose hinting he was Jewish. Despite the efforts of the Breen Office the film still managed to offend some viewers and was banned in Austria, Switzerland, Cyprus, Finland, Trinidad, and France while the British and Australian releases were heavily censored. The KKK filed suit against Warner Brothers for using their insignia in the film but the case was thrown out of court.

The film ends with a speech given by the judge presiding over the trial of Frank Taylor and his cohorts. He ends his speech with a quote from an Abraham Lincoln speech which is as relevant now as it ever was: “Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.  The next two sentences from that speech were not included in the film but are especially relevant today: “Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage, and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of those around you, you have lost the genius of your own independence, and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises.”

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Black Legion at imdb.com

As of January, 2017, Black Legion is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.com.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

bitter tea of general yen film review

“I know it didn’t make money, but it has more real movie in it than any other I did.”

Frank Capra, who in the early 30’s desperately wanted to win an Oscar, realized that the commercial romantic comedies he had been making would never be considered by the Academy and chose to make, in Columbia studio head Harry Cohn’s words, “arty junk” that usually wins awards. Despite his cynicism, Cohn allotted a million dollars to the project, the biggest budget so far for Columbia which was still considered a Poverty Row studio.

The story of unrequited love may also have had an appeal for Capra due to the fact that he had been rejected by Barbara Stanwyck, who is the star of The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and whom he fell in love and began an affair with during the shooting of their first film together, Ladies of Leisure (1930).

This may be Capra’s and frequent collaborator, cinematographer Joseph Walker’s most visually striking film. Its bold lighting and compositions often dominated by darkness seems closer in style to Josef von Sternberg than most of Capra’s other films.

The screenplay is based on a novel by Grace Zaring Stone in which a young American missionary, Megan, confronts her own racial prejudices and notions of white supremacy when she travels to China to wed her childhood sweetheart, also a missionary. As the film opens, a group of missionaries prepare for the marriage oblivious to the pain and suffering all around them. The story is set in Shanghai in the late 20’s during the Chinese Civil War. The missionaries make condescending and derogatory remarks about the Chinese for whom they’ve come to convert to their so-called superior way of life and values. Probably a large percentage of Western film audiences in 1933 were in agreement with the sentiments of the missionary characters and though it may seem at first that the film is reinforcing racial stereotypes its real mission is to shatter those stereotypes and show that the Chinese are human beings just like everyone else.

Before the marriage can take place, Megan and her fiancé rush off the save some orphans that are in danger. In the chaos of the war they’re separated and she’s knocked unconscious. When she awakes she finds she’s been rescued/kidnapped by General Yen, a Chinese warlord. Yen is ruthless when it comes to dealing with his enemies but he behaves with Megan like a perfect gentleman. Though she rebuffs his attempts to seduce her, a dream sequence reveals that she harbors a sexual desire for the General. He manages to reveal Megan’s hypocrisy more than once. On one occasion after she states that “we’re all of one flesh and blood”, he puts his hand on hers but she quickly withdraws it.

This miscegenous aspect of the story was probably the main reason it failed at the box office. It probably couldn’t even have been made after the Hays Code went into effect the following year. In 1950 when Columbia tried to reissue the film the Production Code Administration found that the subject matter was “very questionable” and it wasn’t rereleased.

Besides the interracial love affair they also objected to the characterizations of Americans in the film. Yen’s financial advisor is an American war profiteer who is the personification of American imperialism which has always used the pretext of spreading liberty while pursuing hidden agendas. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that at the time even Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was thought to be communist propaganda by the FBI and the HUAC due to the fact that it portrayed a banker in an unfavorable light.

Capra managed to win Oscars and help Columbia on its way to becoming a major studio the following year with, ironically enough, the romantic comedy It Happened One Night. He would return to the theme of east meets west in Lost Horizon (1937) where once again the perceived superiority of the Western way of life is called into question.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen at imdb.com

As of October, 2016 The Bitter Tea of General Yen  is available to rent on DVD from ClassicFlix.com.

Men Without Women (1930)

men without women film review

The sound version of this early talkie by John Ford has been lost. What survives is the International Sound Version which means that most of the dialogue is conveyed via subtitles but the score, songs, and sound effects from the sound version remain. The subtitles would then be translated to various other languages which was cheaper than re-shooting the entire film with a cast that was fluent in the appropriate language, known as a Foreign Language Version. Despite the unevenness due to the clunky transitions from the soundtrack to subtitles, this is a pretty good story about a submarine crew struggling to survive after an accident leaves them trapped in their sub on the ocean floor. Ford’s signature visual style isn’t very apparent here. Keep an eye out for John Wayne in an uncredited appearance as a radio operator on one of the rescue ships.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

Men Without Women at imdb

As of June, 2016 Men Without Women is available on DVD from Amazon.com

Journey’s End (1930)

journey's end film review

R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 drama Journey’s End was based on his own experiences as an officer in WWI. It opened in London at the Apollo Theatre with James Whale directing and Laurence Olivier in the lead role. After two nights the production moved to another theatre though Colin Clive replaced Olivier who had taken a role in another play. By the end of 1929 the play was being produced around the world in English and 17 other languages. The film is James Whale’s debut as a film director and Colin Clive’s first screen appearance. Though a British production, it was filmed in Hollywood in order to take advantage of the new sound stages. The film’s theatrical origin is rather apparent as most of it takes place in an officer’s dugout and is mainly dialogue-driven. Colin’s performance as an alcoholic officer on the verge of a breakdown is somewhat overwrought. After this film both Whale and Clive remained in Hollywood and teamed up again the following year for Frankenstein. Like the character he plays in this film, Clive was a chronic alcoholic and died from complications of tuberculosis at age 37.

★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ (5/10)

Journey’s End at imdb

As of January, 2016, Journey’s End is available on YouTube:

Lāčplēsis (1930)

Lāčplēsis film review

Latvia is a European country on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Estonia. This film was made to commemorate the Latvian victory over the German-White Russian army on November 11, 1919. To this day Latvians celebrate November 11th as Lāčplēsis Day. The film begins with a dramatization of Lāčplēsis, a Latvian epic poem written in the 19th Century based on local legends depicting the struggle of the hero Lāčplēsis to free heroine Laimdota from the evil Black Knight. In the poem both the hero and villain drown in a river and it is said they would continue to  fight one another until Lāčplēsis defeats the Black Knight at which time Latvia will be a free nation.  The film then jumps to the 20th Century and Latvia’s struggle against occupying Russian and German forces from 1905 to 1919. The same actors who played the characters in opening section also play their character’s reincarnations in the modern story. For instance, the Black Knight becomes an evil German officer. A struggle over the possession of a magical brooch that began in the medieval story also plays a part in the modern story. Interestingly, the brooch is decorated with swastikas though this had nothing to do with Nazism as it is a symbol used by many ancient cultures. The film is silent and utilizes lighting techniques from German Expressionist cinema and editing techniques from Eisenstein. The fluid camera work and artistic compositions make this film much more visually appealing than most early sound films. However, the extreme vilification of Germans and glorification of Latvians lends a somewhat cartoonish aspect.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

Lāčplēsis at imdb

As of December, 2015, Lāčplēsis is available on YouTube but there are no English subtitles. However, a good synopsis of the plot is available at LatvianHistory.com. I found the score rather annoying and ended up turning it off and listening to other music.

Cities and Years (1930)

cities and years film review

Most of Russian director Yevgeni Chervyakov’s films from the twenties have been lost and his surviving films from the thirties have given him a reputation as a minor figure in Soviet cinema. Yet his contemporaries, including Aleksandr Dovzhenko, had high praise for his directorial efforts in the twenties. In 2008 his film Moy Syn (1928) was found and is considered his masterpiece. The film is shown at festivals but is not yet available on DVD as far as I know. Cities and Years (Russian title: Goroda i gody) is another hard to find film though I was able to find a copy which has a red, white, and blue Россия K logo displayed in the upper right corner throughout the film and includes a fine orchestral score. It’s the story of a Russian painter in Berlin enjoying the patronage of a German officer. When WWI erupts and Russia declares war on Germany, a bloodthirsty mob of patriotic Germans try to get their hands on the painter but he is saved by his patron. Later, the German is captured by the Russians but after the revolution he manages to assume leadership of a royalist battalion and fight the Red Army by whom he is defeated once again but is allowed to escape by the painter. The film reminds me of Eisenstein’s films about the revolution, not only in its portrayals of capitalist societies and outright propaganda but also in its use of the montage technique. It’s a silent film and unfortunately the copy I found has no English subtitles but I was able to follow the story and enjoy the cinematography and editing. Worth a look if you can find it.  Chervyakov died in 1942 fighting the Germans in Leningrad.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

Cities and Years at imdb.

As of September, 2016 Cities and Years is available on YouTube:

Cyankali (1930)

cyankali film review

Cyankali is German for cyanide, which was sometimes used to terminate unwanted pregnancies in Germany’s Weimar Republic (1918 – 1933). It’s a social issue film that brings up the number of women who died from illegal abortions every year a few times over the course of the film. Besides illegal abortions the film also deals with other social issues like poverty, workers’ rights, and class distinction.  Overall it seems the purpose of the film was to raise awareness of the plight impoverished women faced during these difficult times in Germany: they were barely able to feed themselves so keeping the child was out of the question but because abortions were illegal they were forced to seek the services of illegal abortionists. A silent film for the most part though there is some spoken dialogue towards the end. It also has a score which vanishes for a while in the middle and returns toward the end. The folks at rarefilmsandmore.com who distribute the DVD and translated the German subtitles to English had some fun with the translation using phrases like “shit hits the fan” which I doubt had a German equivalent in 1930. The film is something along the lines of ‘Reefer Madness’ (1936) though it is never funny, not even unintentionally.  The writers tried to make this PSA into an entertaining story but the characters aren’t fleshed out, the acting is passable at best, and the overall production is clunky and amateurish. It comes as no surprise that the film hasn’t been restored by the likes of Criterion or Kino but may be of interest to completists interested in films on abortion, early sound films, or early German Cinema.

★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ (4/10)

After ordering this and a collection of Segundo de Chomón  films from rarefilmsandmore.com I’ve pretty much decided to stop buying DVDs from them and other companies like Grapevine Video and Alpha Video. Sure, sometimes they have films on DVD that no one else has but so far it’s because the films are subpar.  And their prices seem out of proportion when you consider that they haven’t invested in any restoration efforts or commissioned new scores.

Cyankali at imdb.com

Cyankali is available to buy on DVD at rarefilmsandmore.com