Black Legion (1936)

 

 

 

Director:    Archie Mayo

Starring:     Humphrey Bogart (Frank Taylor),  Dick Foran (Ed Jackson),  Erin O'Brien-Moore (Ruth Taylor),  Ann Sheridan (Betty Grogan),  Helen Flint (Pearl Danvers),  Joe Sawyer (Cliff Summers),  Clifford Soubier (Mike Grogan),  Alonzo Price (Alf Hargrave),  Paul Harvey (Billings),  Dickie Jones (Buddy Taylor),  Samuel S. Hinds (Judge),  Addison Richards (Prosecuting Attorney),  Eddie Acuff (Metcalf),  Dorothy Vaughan (Mrs. Grogan). 

Good story (still relevant today unfortunately) of Bogart as a factory worker who, after failing to get a desired promotion and it goes to a guy named Dombrowski instead, decides to join a KKK type group.  

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

Frank Taylor teases Ed Jackson about his hangover.  At lunchtime Mike Grogan also teases Frank.  Cliff Summers starts riding a young man named Joe Dombrowski about studying at lunch.  Dombrowski is designing a lathe.  Frank and Ed tell Cliff to stop riding the fellow.  The foreman Tommy comes over to read the guys a letter to him: "Effective July 12th, you'll report to Division Superintendent James to assume your new duties as assistant general shop foreman."   The guys all congratulate him.  But they want to know who is going to take Tommy's place?  He says the job's still open and they will probably promote the best man from the group.  Frank seems to think he's the best man.  Tommy says yeah, Frank is the one who wrote those books that Dombrowski is always studying. 

Frank is bothered by the remark, but Ed tells him he is bound to get the job because he's been here the longest and he can run this shop as easily as he can run the drill press.  Frank is still not sure.  He gets busy at his drill press. 

Mrs. Ruth Taylor is talking with Mrs. Grogan in the latter's kitchen.  Also in the kitchen is Betty Grogan who likes Ed Jackson.  The two married women says that Betty should try to push Ed into making a proposal of marriage to her.  Betty resists the idea.  The men come home from work, so Ruth goes back to her house.  She greets Frank.  Just before dinner Franks tells his young son that he thinks he's going to get the foreman job at work.  His son his happy and excited about it. 

Over at the Grogan house Ed is eating dinner with the Grogans.  He gets a call from Mrs. Danvers and Betty doesn't like it.  Mrs. Danvers wants to set up a date with him, but he keeps saying he's busy. 

At work at lunchtime Frank talks to a car salesman about getting a new car.  When he returns to the guys, Joe Dombrowski is being congratulated on becoming the new foreman.  Frank is crushed.  At night Betty and Ed come over to try to cheer Frank up.  But it's a hopeless cause.  Frank is really down.  He wants to know why management thinks Dombrowski is so hot?  Ed says that Dombrowski invented that oiling system they are using now.  Ed tells Frank not to be a sorehead, but Frank says he has a right to be just that.  Frank gets a call from the car salesman and has to tell him that he can't afford the car. 

Ruth is worried about her husband.  Franks hears a political tirade against all the foreigners stealing jobs from American workmen, as well as stealilng the bread from American homes.  Their rallying cry is:  "America for Americans."  His son wants to listen to his favorite radio program, but dad tells him to listen to this guy on the radio because he's talking sense.  The announcer says that the real, hundred percent American must stop and think. 

Betty and Ed finish with the movie.  After the film they go to the soda fountain for a drink.  Betty maneuvers Ed into acting out how he would propose to a girl.  When he asks Betty to marry him, she says yes.  Ed laughs and says he guesses they are engaged.  As they leave the soda fountain Ed runs into Mrs. Danvers.  He has to tell her he is engaged now and his girl wouldn't like him going out with her. 

At work Frank deliberately burns up four drills.  Ed tells Frank to get back to work and quit knocking Joe.  Joe hears the commotion.  He goes over to investigate and tells Franks he has to be more careful with the drills.  Cliff sees that Frank is very angry, so he goes over to him and asks him: "How's it feel being pushed around by a honyock?"  Franks says he ain't gonna stand for it no more.  Cliff tells him to wise up.  There are lots of Americans who feel like Frank and he.  These guys know how to protect themselves.  Cliff wants to know if Franks would like to meet these guys?  Sure. 

Franks runs into Mrs. Danvers at the local pharmacy.  She wants Frank to stop Eddie from marrying that Grogan gal.  Frank isn't interested.  He's in the store to make contact with the nativist organization Cliff told him about.  He follows the clerk to the back of the store and then into the basement.  In the basement there is a large group of men listening to hate speech against immigrants.  The speaker urges the men to unite together under the banner of the Black Legion and they will become invincible.  He promotes the idea of a "united nation of free, white, 100 percent Americans."  Frank goes up to get his application form. 

Frank attends a KKK-like ceremony where the men are dressed like the KKK.  Cliff introduces Frank Taylor as a candidate for membership.  Taylor takes the oath of allegiance on his knees.  They give him a piece of paper with the oath printed on it.  While being covered by a man with a pistol barrel about six inches from Frank's head, Frank reads the oath. After the ceremony, the men take off their hoods and they congratulate Frank and others on becoming members.  Now all Franks has to do is buy the Black Legion uniform and a Black Legion special pistol. 

In front of a mirror Frank practices handling his pistol.  Buddy comes in and sees the pistol.  He is all excited about it and asks his father if he can shoot it sometime?  Dad says yes.  Ruth also sees the pistol.  She's not so enthused as Buddy is.  She asks why he bought the pistol and he says it's for protecting his home and family. Frank gets a call from Cliff and has to go out.  He has to lie to get past Ruth without her becoming suspicious.  It doesn't really seem to work as she looks worried and suspicious. 

They go over to the Dombrowski's farm where they sell eggs and poultry.  The men are dressed in their uniforms.  Father Dombrowski opens the door.  The nativists says that they have determined that Joe is an undesirable alien and he's leaving town right now.   When old man Dombrowski objects, Cliff knocks him out.  Joe tries to intervene but he is knocked on the head with a pistol butt.  The men set fire to the house and the chicken coop.  The two captives are rushed into a car and the caravan speeds away. 

Frank celebrates with the boys at a tavern.  They laugh about sticking the Dombrowskis on the train heading out of town   He gets home late.  Ruth is worried about him, but he rudely tells her to mind her own business. 

Ruth talks with Betty.  They talk about the terrible thing done to the Dombrowskis.  Ruth says that she hopes the police catch the guys who did it. 

Frank tries to recruit Ed for the Black Legion, but Ed isn't interested.  They arrive home and Frank shows Ruth his new car.  And he has bought that vacuum cleaner she wanted.  He says he has been made the new foreman of the shop. 

The Black Legion strikes again.  They attack the rival pharmacy store of one of their nativist pharmacists.  They use a whip to lash a man.  And they burn a store.  A radio announcer asks:  "Are we in for another reign of terror by a new Ku Klux Klan?"   He asks:  "Who are these new marauders?" 

General Moffat's brigade of the Black Legion now has 7,163 members.  Total income from all brigades to the organization is about $5,891.00 dollars.  The leaders are presented as cynical businessmen who are making a great profit from "patriotism".  The leaders want to go national, so they demand that each member enlist two new recruits within the next 10 days.  Frank tries to recruit one of his workers named Ted.  The new foreman uses the threat to the man's job as a weapon to force the man into the Black Legion.  Franks gives his anti-foreigner speech to the man.  He tells Ted that he knows a bunch of fellows who know how to protect their jobs from foreigners. 

While Frank is talking politics, one of the machines goes haywire.  The boss is furious when he can't find Frank on the floor.  He finds Frank and tells him that while he was in the bathroom talking to Ted his helper stripped off every gear on his machine.  Frank asks the boss to cover up for him, just this once.  The boss is not so sure he can. 

Michael P. Grogan is now made the new Foreman of the Drill Press Shop.  Grogan wants the job but is upset that it came at Frank's expense.  They put Frank back on his machine.  Grogan says he tried to talk to Frank about it, but it seemed Franks was sore at him. 

The Black Legion pays a visit to poor Mr. Grogan at night.  They take him out, tie his hands to a tree limb and then whip him.  One of the men says that ought to give the Irish something to remember them by.  The paper carries the story of the flogging of the 48-year-old mechanic, Michael F. Grogan. 

Ed is getting suspicious of Frank and his "lodge".  He asks Ruth if he went to the lodge last night?  Yes, she says.  Ruth gets the feeling that Ed knows something.  She asks him what is he thinking and he tells her that Frank has been acting very strange these days.  He has been hanging around the wrong guys like Cliff Summers.  Ruth realizes that Ed thinks that Frank is involved with the men doing the beatings recently. 

Ruth has to go home to get Frank something to eat.  He is in an irritable mood.  Ruth tells him she is worried about him.  She tells him frankly that he did have something to do with all those terrible things that have been happening.  She says only dirty, contemptible cowards would do things like that.  Frank slaps her.  Ruth runs out of the room.  She takes her boy and they go to visit grandpa in the country. 

Cliff stops his car on the street to ask Frank why he hasn't seen him at the meetings recently?  Frank says he has been having trouble at home.  He tells Cliff that he needs some time to get himself straightened out.  Cliff threatens him with some "real trouble".  Mrs. Danvers learns that Frank has been left by his wife, so she takes him back to his place.  There she promptly gets drunk.  Betty, Ed and Mrs. Grogan can hear the two of them drunkenly singing "I've been working on the railroad".   The women are scandalized.  Ed tells them he's going over there to see what Frank is up to. 

Ed marches into the place and tells Mrs. Danvers to get out.  Franks tries to stop him, but Ed pushes him over to the couch where he flops down.  Ed grabs Mrs. Danvers in his arms, takes her outside and drops her on her butt on the lawn.  He goes back inside to try to straighten Frank out.  Frank tells him he better watch what he says about his boys.  They are not "thugs" and if he doesn't knock it off he may end up getting what the Domborwskis got. 

Ed asks Franks what did the Dombrowskis get?  Plenty, says Frank.  He even mentions the Black Legion.  Ed tells Frank that the cops are going to be glad to hear about this and urges Frank to tell him some more.  Now Frank gets scared.  He says the Black Legion will kill Ed and then they will kill him for telling Ed.   Franks says he tried to get out of the gang, but they won't let him out.  He says he swore a secret oath to the organization.  Now Ed threatens Frank.  He either straightens himself out and behaves like someone decent or he's going to the cops with the whole story.  Franks says sure.  But he's very scared of what might happen to him.

Frank calls Cliff and tells him what happened.  Cliff says he will be right over.  Cliff arrives to talk with Frank.  Mrs. Danvers comes in saying that Ed beat her up.  This gives Cliff an idea.  He says the boys won't let any man beat up a woman.  The men grab Ed and take him out into the woods.  Getting out of the car Edf soon decks two of the guys and takes off running.  One of the guys shoots him a couple of times in the back. He's dead.  The men all get frightened, jump into their cars and leave.  Only Frank stays back.  He apologizes for shooting and killing Ed, saying that he tried to tell him that the Black Legion doesn't fool around.  He takes off his costume and runs through the woods. 

The radio reports the story of the missing Ed Jackson.  Frank goes into a filling station/restaurant and gets some water to drink.  Two police officer ride up and stop at the filling station to get something to drink.  The radio reports that Ed Jackson has been found dead in Cobb's Woods.  Frank reacts so violently to hearing the news that the cops get suspicious.  He tries to run for it and they grab him.  They find Frank's gun and discover that four slugs have been used up.  Now the news of the Black Legion hits the front pages of the newspapers.  The radio puts on a program about the Black Legion and Frank Taylor. 

Ruth comes to visit Frank.  Frank drops to his knees in front of her, grabs her around the waist and cries.  A guy posing as Frank's lawyer gets in to speak with Frank.  Frank tells the man to get out, but the man threatens that something unfortunate might happen to his wife and child if he doesn't cooperate.  Frank says he will cooperate.  The visitor tells Frank to tell everyone that he killed Ed Jackson in self-defense. 

Frank tells his lawyer that he was with Mrs. Danvers and she will substantiate his claim of self-defense.  On the stand, Mrs. Danvers says she broke off her engagement to Mr. Jackson when she found out he was a drunk.  She says when Mr. Jackson found out that Mr. Taylor wanted to marry her, he threatened her.  Ed Jackson caught the two of them together, threatened them both and grabbed Mr. Taylor's gun.  The two men fought over the gun and Mr. Taylor got the gun and shot Mr. Jackson. 

Frank Taylor now takes the stand.  He starts to tale a bunch of lies about his wife, but he breaks down and can't do it.  He jumps up and tells the judge it's all a bunch of lies.  He belongs to the Black Legion just like a lot of the guys in the courtroom.  They threatened to kill his wife and kid if he didn't go along with their desire to get a favorable verdict in this case.   He says he killed Ed Jackson because he found out too much about the Black Legion and was trying to make him get out of the organization.

The headlines says that the Black Legion Killers are found Guilty.  The judge reads them the riot act when sentencing them.  He explains why such nativist terrorist groups cannot be permitted in a nation prizing liberty.  They are all given sentences of life in prison.  Ruthie is very distraught at seeing her husband being taken away to jail for life. 

 

Damn good movie and one of the few early movies denouncing nativist terrorist organizations.   The film couldn't be more appropriate for today's headline in late 2009.  We have nativist hate speech on the radio and cable television all the time now.  There is a great deal of anti-immigrant and anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric that smacks of  hate speech and racism.    In the film the Black Legion is such a nativist organization.  Guys who feel they have been left behind by life and success blame helpless minorities with different colored skins and take their frustrations out on them.  They claim the country is being absolutely ruined by all the foreigners in the country.  The USA has a long history of hate speech, so one shouldn't become over-worried, but groups of the extreme right should be closely monitored.  Bogart was terrific in the movie.  Dick Foran did a good job as Bogart's friend.  I enjoyed the whole film and have only praise for it. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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