Release Date: January 17th, 1937 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Archie Mayo, Michael Curtiz (uncredited)
Written by: Robert Lord, Abem Finkel, William Wister Haines
Music by: W. Franke Harling, Howard Jackson, Bernhard Kaun
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Ann Sheridan
Warner Bros., 83 Minutes
“So, you’re afraid! Maybe they better change the name of your outfit from the Black Legion to the Yellow Legion.” – Ed Jackson
I was talking about Humphrey Bogart, my favorite actor, with a friend of mine when he asked, “Did you see that one where he was in the KKK?” I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I looked it up and found this film, which Bogart did really early in his career, before reaching superstardom. Also, it’s not the actual KKK but it is a group based on them called “the Black Legion”.
This film is rather short but it’s definitely got a lot packed into a small package. It’s a true thriller and very noir-esque before film-noir was a thing.
The gist of the story surrounds a hard working man that is looked over for a promotion that he was pretty sure he was going to get. It weighs heavily on him and eventually, some bad seeds take advantage of that and influence him into joining their cause. That cause, sees them dressing up in black hoods, similar to the KKK’s white hoods, where they go out at night in an effort to chase off the foreigners who are coming in and taking their jobs. So the Klan (or “Black Legion”) in this isn’t so much racist, as they are xenophobic.
In his heart, Bogart’s Frank Taylor was opposed to the madness he found himself entangled in but he was already in over his head and couldn’t leave the group for fear of what they might do to him and his family. It all comes crashing down when Frank murders his best friend that was trying his damnedest to save him. Regretful and remorseful, will Frank work to bring down the Black Legion or is the fear of his family’s safety too great?
The film is intense and it moves swiftly. It was hard for me to turn away from it and the acting of Bogart, as well as his best bud, Dick Foran, was superb and kept me glued to the screen.
While this isn’t Bogart or Foran’s best picture or performance, it really goes to show that both men were definitely capable of something greater. Luckily, for us, both men would have busy careers, especially in the noir style of the ’40s and ’50s.
Black Legion is certainly worth a watch. While most movie sites don’t list this as a thriller, it definitely is… and a pretty effective one from start to finish.
Pairs well with: other Bogart films before he became a big star: High Sierra, They Drive by Night and Crime School.