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Black Legion (1936) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

frank film hate humphrey

Principal social themes: hate groups, immigration

Warner Brothers. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Ann Sheridan, Robert Barrat, Helen Flint, Joseph Sawyer, Addison Richards, Eddie Acuff, Paul Harvey, Samuel S. Hinds, John Litel, Alonzo Price, Henry Brandon, Egon Brecher, Dorothy Vaughan, Pat C. Flick, Harry Hayden, Dickie Jones, Emmett Vogan, Paul Stanton. Written by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines. Cinematography by George Barnes. Edited by Owen Marks. Music by Bernhard Kaun. Produced by Robert Lord. Directed by Archie Mayo. B&W. 83 minutes.


Black Legion was loosely based on a Michigan kidnap-murder case involving a local hate group known as the Black Legion. Warner Brothers studio received numerous threats while preparing the film. The screenwriters used the Ku Klux Klan as the model for their film depiction, and the script followed Klan rituals precisely, even reproducing their oath of allegiance word for word. In fact, after the film was released, the KKK actually sued the studio for copyright violation since the costumes worn by the legion included the Klan symbol, which they had registered in the 1920s with the U.S. Patent Office. The case was dismissed as frivolous. Black Legion was regarded as Humphrey Bogart’s breakthrough film, the first one in which he was billed as the headline star.


At the opening of the film, Frank Taylor is presented as a typical American, married to Ruth and with a son, Buddy. Frank earns a decent living as a factory worker, but he is ambitious and wants better things for his family. When a foreman’s job opens in his division, Frank feels certain he will get it, since he is the worker with the most seniority and he readily admits he is the best at what he does. However, when the job is given to a bright younger worker named Joe Dombrowski, who had invented a system that saved the company a lot of money, Frank becomes embittered. He starts to listen to radio broadcasts denouncing foreign workers who displace Americans at the workplace. A coworker recruits Frank to join the Black Legion, a group of hooded vigilantes, and he swears allegiance to the secret society. The Black Legion conducts a raid on the Dombrowski farm, burning it to the ground and running Joe and his father out of town. Frank now inherits the foreman job. He attempts to get his best friend, Ed Jackson, interested in the legion, but is rebuffed. Frank loses his position after an accident, which happens while he is busy trying to recruit another worker for the Black Legion. When Ruth criticizes her husband for spending all his time with the hate group, he strikes her. She takes Buddy and leaves. While drunk, Frank tells Ed a bit too much about the legion, and his friend threatens to go to the police. Frank warns the legion, and they kidnap Ed, who is killed while trying to escape. When Frank is arrested for his murder, the Black Legion concocts an alibi for him with a phony witness, a former girlfriend of Ed’s. Frank breaks down at his trial and incriminates the legion and its members for their criminal reign of terror. Despite his confession and cooperation, Frank is given a life sentence along with the members of the Black Legion who kidnapped Ed. As he is led away from the courtroom, Frank appears to be forgiven by a sorrowful Ruth.


Black Legion is a tough, uncompromising portrait of American hate groups, although it avoids any actual mention of the Ku Klux Klan itself. Nevertheless, no member of the audience was unaware of the target. The film depicts the tactics and rituals of the KKK in a cohesive and convincing fashion, although one must note that the actual Black Legion was disbanded in 1937 and the KKK itself found the North less than fertile territory. In the South, the hate group was far better established, its tentacles often controlling the local authorities to an extent far unlike the community portrayed in Black Legion . Although the script hits hard on the topics of immigrant-baiting and racism, the focus of the legion’s hatred are also Catholics. The film might have had an even sharper edge if several blacks or Jews were included among their targets in the plot. The emphasis of the film is not society, but instead the impact of the Black Legion on one family. In those terms, the transformation of Humphrey Bogart from a decent, well-meaning citizen to a vicious hatemonger is both chilling and credible. Undoubtedly, Black Legion is one of the most powerful social issue films of the mid-1930s. The film received critical acclaim by most of the major newspapers and magazines of the era, and Humphrey Bogart in particular received the best notices of his career to that time.

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