Black Legion (1937)

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Dey Turk Ur Jerbs!

Today when the issue of immigration is brought up you will likely be shouted down as a racist by many factions. Since there are people who believe white supremacists (an increasingly meaningless buzzword) have actual influence today in the age of Trump, what does 1937’s Black Legion say on the issue of immigration and people who are without a doubt real white supremacists. Black Legion was inspired from true events from an organisation of the same name despite the film’s false opening disclaimer.

In Black Legion Humphrey Bogart plays the role of Frank Taylor, a family man who is a far cry from the likes of Rick Blaine or Phillip Marlowe. However Bogart being one of the most adaptable actors he never feels out of place in the part not to mention he actually had a boyish look to him in his early films before he became more rugged over the next few years. Bogart isn’t a tough guy here but rather someone who tries to act like a tough guy. This is exemplified in one of the film’s most memorable scenes in which Frank stands in front of a mirror while alone in the living room of his house with a gun in his hand and admiring the way he looks with it. He feels empowered by it and develops a false sense of security as he plays it tough to bolster his lack of confidence as rarely does Frank ever look totally comfortable within in the Black Legion itself.

Frank Taylor is drawn to racial hatred and later to joining the Black Legion after he loses a job promotion of factory foreman to Joe Dombrowski, a foreign born worker. Dombrowski is an interesting character. When the position of foreman opens up Joe states that he believes Frank will make a great foreman as he has been employed longer than any of the other employees. However it is Dombrowski who gets the job as he goes to night school, reads many books and is even studying how to design a lathe such as those used in the factory. Although his nationality or ethnicity is never mentioned, the name Dombrowski is Polish and Jewish in origin while the movie also subtly hints at the character being Jewish when his nose is referred to as “a plenty big one at that”. Likewise the comments later given by Ann Sheridan’s character in relation to the idea of the Dombrowski’s setting their own house aflame for an insurance payment in that they are “honourable people” and that “they wouldn’t do a thing like that” gives the impression that they are pillars of the community and that the locals do not look on at them as foreigners.

Essentially the factory in the film operated as a meritocracy and employed the best person for the job (“They will fill it the way they always have, move the best man up”); the essence of the American Dream – study hard and you will be rewarded. Frank however is a sore loser and instead of reflecting on himself and seeing where he went wrong he takes the weak minded route out. How would Frank have reacted if the job had been given to one of his American born co-workers?  He would not have been able to put the blame on “immigrants taking our jobs” so would he have come up with another lie in order to feel better about himself?

After Frank loses out on the promotion he comes across a charismatic radio presenter complaining about foreigners stealing American jobs and taking bread from American homes. Like this would have a hope in hell of appearing on any mainstream media today in what would now be referred to as “hate speech”. Likewise the scene in which Frank first attends a secret meeting held by the Black Legion in which a Hitler-esque speaker who overtly finger points gives a riveting yet at the same time ridiculous speech in which he speaks of ethnic nationalism and delves in conspiratorial nonsense on how foreigners “Now enriched with the jobs they have chiselled away from Americans and drunk with the power of their stolen prosperity, they are plotting to seize and control our government”.

With movies such as Black Legion and others from the mid to late 30’s you can’t help but ask would it be better if it were made before the code? Possibly the topic at hand would be presented in a less watered down manner. Look at a pre-code film such as Warner’s Five Star Final which had no problem with using a range of racial slurs whereas the only instance of this in Black Legion is the use of the word honyock. Likewise Black Legion does distinguish itself as an interesting beast of a film in that it feels like it is in between being a B picture and an A picture.

Interspersed between the main story is a love triangle subplot between Ann Sheridan, Helen Flint and Dick Foran. It’s largely a distraction from the main plot until it finally finds its relevance later on and is ultimately the lesser interesting portion of the film. Regardless Ann Sheridan provides some entertaining wise cracks plus Helen Flint plays a character called Mrs Danvers (no relation to the Rebecca character).

Does Black Legion hold much relevance for today? – To an extent yes. While much has changed since the 1930’s in today’s world of uncontrolled immigration, quotas and political correctness, there will always be groups of various political persuasions to pray on the weak minded.

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It’s Love I’m After (1937)

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The Taming of the Shrew

It’s Love I’m After draws many parallels to the earlier screwball comedy Twentieth Century (1934) with Leslie’s Howard’s Basil Underwood drawing a number of similarities John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe. Basil Underwood is an egomaniacal actor who is as big a ham off stage as he is on. Like Barrymore in Twentieth Century he can never describe something in a conventional matter but rather has to do it poetically with his constant references to Shakespeare, with Howard’s English accent making him sound all the more pretentious. He’s clearly a man of the theatre to the point that he doesn’t even know who Clark Gable is (yes they actually mention an MGM star in a Warner Bros movie when studios where keen to usually only promote their own contract players). Likewise his sparing with Bette Davis as his bride to be Joyce Arden is similar to the screaming and shouting between John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century, yet in a movie with Bette Davis Howard is still the bigger drama queen.

Although Basil is engaged to marry Joyce despite the two hating each other one minute and then are in a loving embrace the next, the real unforgettable dynamic is between Howard and Eric Blore. It’s implied throughout the film that Basil and the effeminate Diggs are gay lovers through much gay subtext (“Do we know anyone called Marsha West Diggs?”, “Not unless you’ve been cheating on me sir”). This occurs even though Basil is set to marry Joyce, thus is Joyce even aware of this and are they involved in a three way relationship or is Basil cheating on Joyce with Diggs? Why does Basil even need Joyce if he has the perfect partner in Diggs? Either way the dynamic between the entire cast of It’s Love I’m After is effortless.

Olivia de Havilland’s Marcia West is an early example of what we would now call fanboyism, having a fanatical love for Basil Underwood. Yet despite her bursts of hyperactivity and her ditzy manner, she does have a smarter side to her. She does cleverly get her way into Underwood’s dressing room at the theatre and even has the common sense to just talk to him about her feelings towards him then run off again and not to continue bothering him. It’s only when Basil deliberately turns up to her house does he feel the full wrath of her fanaticism.

Also contributing to the movie’s over the top histrionics is Bonita Granvillie as the chatterbox Gracie. I actually find her character quite disturbing with her spying through keyholes on other people’s business only to then tell the rest of the family about her discoveries. She reminded me the little girl who from These Three and its remake The Children’s Hour who ruined people’s lives with deceitful spying and her big mouth. Thus it came as no surprise when I learned she was the actress who played the little girl in These Three!

The cinematography of It’s Love I’m After is also a thing beauty, a perfect showcase the distinctive Warner Bros aesthetic of the 30’s and 40’s; particularly the lighting the of the dark theatre at the beginning of the film and those spellbinding close ups of Miss de Havilland. During the beginning of the film Basil and Joyce are playing Romeo & Juliet on stage. Howard had played Romeo the year before in MGM’s production of Romeo & Juliet which along with Warner’s A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream in 1935, had failed to garner much interest from film goers. I get the impression It’s Love I’m After reflects this when Spring Byington falls asleep to the production of Romeo & Juliet only to be waken and utters “Isn’t it so wonderful, Shakespeare is so elevating”.

Stage Door (1937)

The Women

Stage Door is like the poverty row version of MGM’s The Women. It features only one big box office star, another who had become box office poison and a supporting cast who would later go on to play notable prominent roles in later films (Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Eve Arden).

Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn where the two big rivals at RKO pictures, with Rodger’s career on the up and Hepburn’s career on the down yet you can feel their mutual respect for each other as the film progresses (in the fictional realm at least). Stage Door follows a group of actresses living in a drab theatrical boarding house, trying to make it in the world of show business. Right of the bat the movie is emotionally investing as the cast of street smarts constantly spew one liners and witty remarks in an effort to try and deal with their lack of success amidst the depression ridden 30’s, the film succeeds in evoking both laughter and sadness simultaneously. The lightning fast dialogue alone makes Stage Door worthy of multiple viewings. Supposedly the filming began without a completed script, resulting in much of the film’s dialogue being improvised, the interactions between the female cast feels real, the acting present in the movie doesn’t feel like acting, almost like I’m getting a voyeuristic insight into these character’s lives. I find Stage Door a one of a kind film; it has a raw quality, one that can’t be created intentionally making it a rare treat in many respects. The cast and dialogue is just too good that I really become attached to these characters and almost wish the film could be a bit longer.

Katharine Hepburn’s Terry Randall is another instance of Hepburn playing the odd one out. She’s the one character in the boarding house who clearly comes from an upper class background and she is only one who achieves stage success by landing the lead in a play despite her lack of acting experience. I get the impression Stage Door purports the idea that one who comes from a lower class background will find it harder to overcome these ties and find success. In one dialogue exchange Terry asks the other women “do you have to just sit around and do nothing about it?” and the character played by Lucille Ball replies “maybe it’s in the blood, my grandfather sat around until he was 80”. Terry is clearly more dedicated to her craft than the other woman in boarding house, discussing Shakespeare and other aspects of theatrical arts, while the other conformist woman poke fun and shun her for it, which does make me question what they are doing there in the first place. But untimely Terry is the one who manages to go places.