Black Legion is a 1937 American crime drama film, directed by Archie Mayo, with a script by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines based on an original story by producer Robert Lord. The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O'Brien-Moore and Ann Sheridan. It is a fictionalized treatment of the historic Black Legion of the 1930s in Michigan, a white vigilante group. A third of its members lived in Detroit, which had also been a center of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
The plot is based on the May 1935 kidnapping and murder in Detroit of Charles A. Poole, a Works Progress Administration organizer. Twelve men were tried and 11 convicted of his murder; all were sentenced to life. Authorities prosecuted another 37 men for related crimes; they were also convicted and sentenced to prison, breaking up the Legion. Columbia Pictures had made Legion of Terror (1936) based on the same case.
Black Legion was praised by critics for its dramatization of a dark social phenomenon. It was one of several films of this period relating anti-fascism to opposition to fascist and racist organizations. A number of reviewers commented that Bogart's performance should lead to his becoming a major star. Warners did not give the film any special treatment, promoting it and Bogart in their standard fashion. Bogart's breakthrough would come in High Sierra in 1941.
When passed over for promotion at work in favor of a foreign-born friend, Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart), a midwestern factory worker, joins the anti-immigrant Black Legion, a secret white vigilante organization portrayed as related to the Ku Klux Klan. Dressed in black robes and hoods, Taylor and the Legion mount a torchlight raid and burn down the friend's chicken farm, driving him out of town, so that Taylor can gain the job he believed was his. Soon, however, Taylor's recruiting activities with the Legion get in the way of his work, and he is demoted in favor of neighbor Mike Grogan (Clifford Soubier). The Legion takes action again, attacking Grogan.
Under the continued influence of the Legion, Taylor becomes a brutal racist, and alienates his wife (Erin O'Brien-Moore). He starts drinking heavily and takes up with a loose woman (Helen Flint). When his friend Ed Jackson (Dick Foran) tries to counsel him, a drunken Taylor tells about his Legion activities. Taylor reports the conversation to Cliff, a co-worker and fellow member of the Legion, who initiates a false rumor that Jackson is a woman-beater. On the pretext of punishing him for that offense, the Legion kidnaps Jackson, planning to flog him. Jackson tries to escape. As he is running away, Taylor shoots and kills him; breaking down afterward with guilt and remorse, he exclaims, "I didn't mean to shoot!"
Taylor is arrested for the murder, and the Legion threatens his wife and son to prevent him from implicating the secret group in the crime. Taylor finally tells the truth, resulting in all the members of the Black Legion being convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.Cast notes
Before he turned to acting, Clifford Soubier was a broadcaster for NBC in Chicago. Black Legion was his film debut, and he went on to appear in five others.
Black Legion went into production in late August 1936. Many of the details about the Legion portrayed in the film, such as the initiation oath and the confessions in the trial scenes, were based on known facts about the historic organization. Because United States libel laws had recently been broadened in scope by court rulings, Warner Bros. underplayed some aspects of the group's political activities to avoid legal repercussion. The Ku Klux Klan sued Warner Bros. for patent infringement for the film's use of a patented Klan insignia: a white cross on a red background with a black square. A judge threw out the case.
Location shooting took place in private homes in the Hollywood area, the Providencia Ranch in the Hollywood Hills and the Warner Ranch in Calabasas. Executive producer Hal B. Wallis had wanted Edward G. Robinson to play the lead role, but producer Robert Lord thought Robinson was too foreign looking, and wanted a "distinctly American looking actor to play [the] part."
The film was generally praised, and reviewers especially noted Humphrey Bogart's performance. They suggested he was on the verge of becoming a major star.
Robert Lord's original screenplay received an Academy Award nomination in 1937, but lost to William Wellman and Robert Carson's work for A Star Is Born. The National Board of Review named Black Legion as the best film of 1937, and Humprey Bogart as the best actor for his work in the film. It was one of a series of anti-fascist films in this period that addressed the dangers to society from groups that opposed immigrants (especially Catholics and Jews) and blacks, showing that fascism and racism resulted in similar "crimes against humanity."