Thursday, January 21, 2010

Black Legion (Mayo 1937)

Why is it that seemingly decent people can descend into vicious, racist hate? The answers suggested to that question by Archie L. Mayo’s 1937 social drama Black Legion are surprising not because of their complexity and thoughtfulness, but because they shockingly speak to the modern state of Western society as a whole. While the film overtly tackles the issues of racism and hate crimes as its subject matter, the greater target in the film is Capitalism as an ideology and backbone of American life. Black Legion attacks Capitalism as a corrupting force which thrives on the fears of many, undermining the values of community, family and ultimately the individual itself.

Black Legion follows Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart in his first ever lead role), a seemingly hard working and family oriented factory worker passed up for a promotion in favor of a young, intelligent man who happens to come from a family of immigrants. Hurt, angry and feeling humiliated, Frank finds himself seduced into joining the Black Legion, a white supremacy group which claims to be protecting the families and jobs of “real” Americans. Engaging in brutal beatings and acts of terror, and enjoying it all the while, Frank’s life starts to unravel after a seeming upswing the further he becomes involved with the group and its activities, before finally crashing when a friend attempts to intervene and save Frank from himself.

While Black Legion is a highly predictable film, its raw power comes from just how dedicated it is to telling its tale without sugar coating it or preaching, at least until the end (more on that later). Frank is a fully realized character rather than caricature, and the viewer is invited early on to both like and feel sympathy for Frank at the start of the film, heightening the horror at his fall into bigotry. While it isn’t Bogart’s greatest performance, his turn as Frank Taylor is perhaps Bogart at his most vulnerable: Frank is a well meaning but not particularly bright or amazing individual, and they manner in which Bogart plays the role reveals that Frank is more than aware of his own limitations, even if he won’t openly admit it. The viewer is not only invited to feel horror, but disappointment at Frank’s decisions before finally arriving at disgust with Frank. All the while though, Bogart is able to keep giving viewers fleeting glimpses of possible conflict in Frank over what he does, even at his worst.

The rest of the characters are nowhere near as well developed as Frank, but seeing as the film is Bogart’s show, it doesn’t harm the film too much. Perhaps the best developed character other than Bogart’s Frank is Ed Jackson, played by Dick Foran. The character is pivotal to the film in many ways I won’t spoil, but one of his key scenes is a moment in which he tries to intervene in Frank’s descent and help turn his life around. While the writing during the scene is a bit too on the nose and preachy, the scene works because of how Ed himself has been set up as far from a saint. Established as a drinker and womanizer early on, Ed slowly transforms into a strong moral center over the course of the film. He holds authority precisely because we know that he isn’t preaching from a moral high ground. Ed is a flawed man trying to do better, and is demanding better from a man he once respected. Foran provides a solid performance that, while not as great as Bogart’s work, never the less remains memorable.

As noted earlier though, the real surprise is the way in which the film addresses the role of Capitalism in the horrors that take place. Frank not only buys into the capitalist ideology, it becomes blended in his mind with his concept of masculinity. When the promotion is first announced in the film and Frank believes that he has a chance at the job, his first thoughts are of the things he can buy for his family, and when he begins to listen to the racist rants, it is over the radio after angrily telling a car salesman he cannot afford the car he had hoped to buy. While the scenes between Frank and his son are among the worst in the film given the absurdly “boyish” writing and presentation of the son character, the conversations further expand on Frank’s feelings of failing masculine identity, as his son desires not only to show up another kid through Frank’s success, but also because the son identifies with the super heroics of a radio adventurer. It is no coincidence that Frank first listens to the racist rants after rejecting the son’s idea of listening to his favorite radio action hero: the empowered hero of fiction will not help Frank regain his supposed sense of agency.

Where the film really takes Capitalism to task though is with the Black Legion itself, which openly uses fear tactics and ideas to exploit money from its members. When Frank first attends a Black Legion meeting, it is held in the back of a store where the owner refuses to lower his prices; after being sworn in, Frank is informed and agrees to the cost of buying both his cloak and gun from the organization itself. The most explicit scene is one in which the highest up members of the Black Legion discuss the need to turn a larger profit and demand that each member recruit two more, leading to a scene in which Frank tries to sell a co-worker on joining the group, only for an accident caused by this sales pitch to cost him his promotion instead. While there is no question that many of these scenes are heavy handed, the inclusion of the material complicates the issues, extending them beyond the boarders of the film proper. While the film’s narrative comes to a conclusion, its political complexities require the efforts of the viewer to grapple with the disturbing notion that one of the cornerstones of American society is inexplicably tied to the hate and violence depicted in the film.

Where the film falters is in its final moments. While I won’t spoil what happens, I will say it involves a long speech which attempts to suggest that elements such as the Black Legion are alien to American society, aberrations rather than elements that come from within American society itself. The whole ending feels like it was tacked on, and it most likely was at the behest of the Hayes Office. Luckily the genius of the film preceding the ending is strong enough to overcome the false conclusion, but one cannot help but feel a more appropriate, cynical ending existed at some point and time, at least in script form. While I won’t go so far as to suggest the film be remade, as it doesn’t need to be, I could easily see a more open version of the story being crafted now, under the right conditions.

The direction from Mayo is solid work, through reportedly Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame did shoot some material for the finished film, so I am not sure who to credit with some of the more striking moments. Whoever the filmmakers are, many scenes are strikingly staged and photographed, particularly the acts of violence on the part of the Black Legion, which manage to disturb without going into the use of excessive violence. The filmmakers also manage to make particularly great use of Bogart’s face, utilizing a series of close ups over the film that always manage to capture a different side to the character throughout.

In all, I highly recommend Black Legion for everyone to see, and more importantly, to discuss in light of the current economic situation. You might be just as frightened as I have been at how easy such events and hatred could come about again, if not already in the extreme edges of Western society.

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