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 Breaking Point (1950)

the breaking point film review

Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not has been adapted to film several times. The first, and most famous, is the Howard Hawks film To Have and Have Not (1944) with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It has little in common with Hemingway’s novel other than the title, the name of the protagonist, and his occupation. The third cinematic adaptation was The Gun Runners  (1958), directed by Don Siegel with Audie Murphy in the lead role. The Breaking Point is most faithful to the novel and of all the film versions of his novels this was Hemingway’s favorite. The original setting in Florida during the Great Depression has been changed to California after WWII. Central character Harry Morgan (John Garfield) was a PT boat captain in the war who’s having a hard time fitting into the postwar prosperity bubble like many returning servicemen. He charters his boat for sport fishing but can’t seem to keep up on the payments on his boat and support his wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and two kids. Whereas the Hawks film transformed Hemingway’s novel into a tale of patriotism, The Breaking Point  is mostly about the post-war crisis of masculinity.

After a disastrous charter trip to Mexico Harry tells his wife Lucy to lay off him because he’s had a rough three weeks:

Lucy: Don’t give me that purple heart routine. You’ve got a wife and two kids to think about. Keeping us together, getting us enough to eat, clothes for our backs. That’s the biggest war there is and you better realize it.

Harry: It’s war all right and I’m scared.

It’s on that trip to Mexico that Harry meets Leona Charles (Patricia Neal), a good-time girl who tries hard to seduce Harry who truly loves his wife. Some reviewers felt the Leona character existed only to give the film some sex appeal but I disagree. When her attempts to seduce Harry are unsuccessful she has her own crisis of identity that mirrors Harry’s.  Her line, “I don’t like to think I’m not exciting, haven’t got much else” is echoed later by Harry’s: “All I got left to peddle is guts.” Their relationship is just as important to the film as Harry’s relationship to his wife.

Director Michael Curtiz who is best known for Casablanca (1942) also helmed Four Daughters (1938) which was Garfield’s screen debut that catapulted him to stardom. Garfield, born of poor Jewish immigrants, grew up in the Lower East Side of New York City and was a gang leader until he was introduced to acting in reform school. Lawrence Swindell writes in his biography: “”Garfield’s work was spontaneous, non-actory; it had abandon. He didn’t recite dialogue, he attacked it until it lost the quality of talk and took on the nature of speech.” He is considered a predecessor to Method actors like Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift. Garfield’s liberal political views caused him to be investigated by the HUAC to whom he refused to name names which put an end to his film career. Due to  a childhood case of scarlet fever, he had a weak heart and died aged 39 in 1951. Some say the investigation hastened his death. Ironically, after his death, the committee cleared him of any wrongdoing.

Warner Brothers did little to promote the film upon its release owing perhaps to the investigation. Due to a legal dispute the film wasn’t aired or released on DVD until 2011.  Perhaps now it will gain the wider appreciation that it deserves.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

The Breaking Point at imdb

As of March, 2016 The Breaking Point is available to buy on DVD or stream at Amazon.com.

Crisis (1950)

crisis film review Based on the short story The Doubters by George Tabori, Crisis marks the directorial debut of Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood). Spencer Tracy was to play the part of an American neurosurgeon vacationing in an unnamed Latin American country with his ten year old daughter but the suits at MGM thought a little romance would help at the box office and so Cary Grant was cast along with Paula Raymond as his wife. Raymond’s role is superfluous for the most part and as the character’s function is mostly that of a pawn in a political struggle I think the original idea of a daughter would’ve have been better because it’s easier to accept the presence of a thinly drawn character when it’s a child. The film belongs to Grant and José Ferrer, who plays the dictator, Raoul Ferrago,  of that unnamed Latin American country (parallels to Argentina and Juan Perón are fairly obvious).  Ferrago detains Ferguson (Grant) because he is suffering from a life-threatening brain tumor and doesn’t want to leave the country nor even his presidential palace fearing his government will be overthrown by revolutionaries in his absence. Ferguson resents being held prisoner but feels compelled as a doctor to perform surgery however he risks provoking the ire of the populace if he saves the hated tyrant’s life. Grant, who rarely got a chance to play dramatic roles, does quite well here but judging by the film’s box office performance the public preferred him in his usual lighter roles.  It may not be the most suspenseful political thriller you’ll ever see nor is it a must-see film but I don’t regret the time spent watching it. ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10) Crisis at imdb. As of July, 2015 the Warner Archive DVD of Crisis is available to rent from Classicflix.com.