Black Legion – 1937

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My Review

—Very Good—

Your Bogie Fix:

4 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

(Although, this might be a fix you only go to once or twice in your life…)

Director – Archie Mayo

The Lowdown

When machinist Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is passed over for a promotion in favor of a young Polish immigrant, he’s outraged. It’s not long before an ultra-conservative, pro-American, secret society called the Black Legion recruits Frank to join their cause – terrorizing local immigrants in an effort to keep shops and businesses strictly American owned and operated. Soon Frank is involved so deeply within the organization that he cannot keep from getting swept along into a series of brutal attacks, and eventually, murder.

What I Thought

Occasionally there will be a movie that is very well made, and yet so gut wrenchingly powerful that I just can’t imagine sitting through it again. Schindler’s List was this way for me. So was Mystic River. Now I would easily add Black Legion to that category. Loosely based on a true story, Black Legion took me places emotionally that I wasn’t used to going in a normal Bogart film.

It’s easy to distance yourself from a villain on screen when their violence is outlandish and they talk in constant hyperbole, but Bogart’s Frank Taylor is a family man, and his motivations are actually understandable. He feels that he’s been wronged at work. The promotion should have been his based on seniority and his relationship to the company. When he thinks the job is a sure thing, he begins to dream up ways of spending the money – a new family car and a vacuum for his wife.

These are situations we have all been in. Everyone, at some point, gets passed over at work. (Fairly or unfairly, it always seems wrong when it happens to you.) Everyone has those moments where they optimistically hope for the best and dream for a better future, only to have those dreams dashed with a strong dose of reality.

What makes this such a painful film to watch is that Bogart is not the over-the-top gangster or escaped convict that we’ve seen in so many other films. He’s a normal man in a relatable situation. When those types of people begin to make bad choices, choices with motivations that viewers can relate to, they become some of the scariest film antagonists of all.

The Bogart Factor

Director Archie Mayo seemed to be able to get performances out of Bogart that few other directors even got close to. First he directed him as Duke Mantee in Petrified Forest, and then a year later as Frank Taylor in Black Legion. Bogart disappears more deeply into these two roles, I would argue, than many of his other pictures.

Unlike so many of Bogart’s more iconic characters, Frank Taylor struggles intensely with his self-confidence, is easily swayed by emotion, and suffers from a severe lack of impulse control. This isn’t Bogart’s typical in-control bad guy or ethically superior good guy. This is a flesh and blood real man that we are appalled by, but also understand. It’s certainly some of Bogart’s best work.

The Cast

Several other familiar faces from Petrified Forest also show back up in Black Legion.

Dick Foran, who played football-obsessed Boze in Petrified Forest, is here as Frank’s best friend Ed – a simple factory worker who loves his beer almost as much as he loves his girlfriend. Foran is given a much deeper role to work with in Black Legion and does very well representing the voice of the audience as we watch him eventually lose his temper and confront Frank.

Joe Sawyer, who appeared as Duke Mantee’s thug, Jackie, is Cliff, the man who pulls Frank into the Legion. While not given as layered a role as Foran’s, Sawyer has plenty more to chew on compared to his gun-toting thug in Petrified Forest. Sawyer was born to play the tough guy with his square jaw and broad nose, and he portrays Cliff as the borderline-intelligent bully that can cause a lot of havoc with just a little effort.

Perhaps two of the best supporting actors are Henry Brandon as the Polish immigrant Joe Dombrowski, and Clifford Soubier as the Irish immigrant Mike Grogan. Though they are given small roles, Brandon and Soubier are able to make strong supporting appearances as hardworking men who find themselves caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Erin O’Brien-Moore and Dickie Jones play Bogart’s wife and son, Ruth and Buddy. Both capably play their roles realistically without falling too far into the melodrama trap, giving us an incredibly heartbreaking moment in the final court scenes as Ruth and Frank lock eyes for the last time before he’s taken away.

Ann Sheridan appears as Betty Grogan, Ed’s girlfriend. She’s sweet enough in the role but doesn’t get a lot to work with beyond that.

Make Sure to Notice

Helen Flint as Pearl Davis, a local floozy who has a wonderful drunk scene with Bogart after his wife and child leave him. They play it up so realistically, arguing over how to appropriately sing Home on the Range, that we get a rare, but wonderful, moment of levity in an otherwise bleak film.

Classic Bogie Moment

Bogart, who made dozens of movies where he carried and used firearms, stands before a mirror, gun in hand, admiring the way it looks in his grasp. It empowers him with a false sense of security as he “plays tough,” trying to bolster his desperate lack of confidence. It’s a great counter balance to all the other times in his career where we saw him comfortably use a weapon as if it was an extension of his own arm.

The Bottom Line

Black Legion is a definite must-see for any self-respecting Bogart fan, as Bogie does some of his best character work.

A Little Extra

According to the short documentary on the DVD, the machine shop featured in the film where Bogart works is the actual Warner Brothers machine shop with real employees in the background.

The Petrified Forest – 1936

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My Review

—A Great Film—

Your Bogie Fix:

4.5 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  Archie Mayo

The Lowdown

Alan Squier (Leslie Howard) is a drifter / writer / hitchhiker making his way across the U.S. when he walks into a little gas station café in the Arizona desert for a “bar-bee-cue.”  Gabby Maple (a young, gorgeous, bright-eyed, yes I have a crush . . . Bette Davis) is the café owner’s daughter who waits on Squier, quickly falling in love with him.

Squier is an intellectual and Gabby is an intellectual in the making.  With a fifteen year age difference between Howard and Davis, it’s a May-December romance that’s easy to believe since both actors exude charm from every pore of their bodies.  But, alas, it’s a romance not to be.  Howard’s Squier is a depressed wanderer at heart, and he’s just wise, mature, and intellectual enough to know that he shouldn’t get involved.  Whatever emotional baggage he’s obviously carrying below his plucky surface, it’s enough to keep him from returning Gabby’s advances.  So Squier heads out the door on his way to see the Pacific, and Gabby reluctantly stays behind in the café with her dreams of becoming a Parisian artist on hold and a lunkhead gas station attendant named Boze nipping at the hem of her dress.

Enter Duke Mantee, played by Humphrey Bogart in what most consider his breakout role.  A gangster on the run after a shootout in Oklahoma, Duke’s car happens to break down just a few miles away from the café, just before Squier’s hitched ride passes by and stops to help.  Within minutes, Duke and his gang have commandeered a new ride, and Squier is left on the side of the road, watching the gangsters head straight towards Gabby’s café.

Squier returns to make sure Gabby’s okay, of course, and what follows is a tense and gripping hostage situation where Howard and Bogart get lots of time to shine in roles they were both born to play.  As the story goes, Howard was the one who demanded Bogart play the part of Mantee after they played the roles together in the original stage production.

It’s no wonder why it was a star making turn for Bogart, as he adopts a tone, style, and mannerisms for Duke Mantee that I don’t believe he ever surpassed in any other role.  Both IMDB and his biographies claim that Bogart studied bank robber John Dillinger for the role, and the character work done here is nothing short of Bogie’s best.

The Great

Bogart physically becomes a violent, desperate, dangerous gangster.  From the moment he appears on screen (about 35 minutes into the film), he is a rubber band wound tight, and the viewer is just waiting for his inevitable snap.

He walks hunched with his hands held slightly out at the waist.  It gives you the impression that he’s either going to draw his gun, or strangle someone at any moment.

I cannot imagine any other actor playing the role of Duke Mantee as well as Bogart does.  It’s clear that Bogart worked hard to embody the gangster from top to bottom.  I almost began to wonder if he was even able to sweat on command as the movie ramps up to its violent, dramatic conclusion.

Bette Davis, who looks and seems to be playing younger than her 28 years here, is so cute and fun that it’s almost too unbelievable that Leslie Howard would choose to leave her at the beginning of the film.  If the sight and flirtations of a budding Davis can’t break a man out of depression, what could???

Leslie Howard portrays the depressive intellectual wonderfully, and his playful banter with Bette Davis is both the heart and the backbone of the film.  We believe that Howard’s mind is stimulated by Davis’ thirst for more in her life.

The script, which is said to stay very true to the original stage play, offers this group of actors a lot of great dialogue and story to work with.  So many times, a filmed play seems like just that – a play on film, but Archie Mayo adapts this story wonderfully.  It wasn’t until Bogie’s off-screen death scene that I remembered that The Petrified Forest was meant for the stage, and sticking close to the original script is probably why we don’t get to see Duke go out in a blaze of glory.

It’s been written about a lot before, but director Mayo’s use of the buffalo horns behind Bogie’s head is a wonderfully subliminal way of giving us a demonic look at the unstable Mantee.

The Good

The supporting cast is quite good, and there are a lot of great comedic moments spread throughout the movie.

Joe Sawyer’s portrayal of Mantee’s henchman, Jackie, is particularly fun – a role he also originated on stage.  When he taunts the gas station attendant Boze, there seems to be real enjoyment in his cruelty.

Porter Hall and Charley Grapewin do very well in their respective roles as Dad and Grandpa Maple – giving the movie a good dose of its comic relief, and Bette Davis just enough henpecking to remind us why she wants out of the café.

Classic Bogie Moment 

Joe Sawyer’s Jackie narrates Bogart’s entrance as he announces, “Now, just behave yourself and nobody’ll get hurt.  This is Duke Mantee, the world famous killer, and he’s hungry!”  And there stands Bogart – a wild, edgy, dynamite stick of a man who’s ready to blow up at any moment.

Director Mayo gives Bogart some of the best close ups he would ever get.  The sneer.  The sweat.  The trembling lip.  The sunken, desperate eyes that dart around the room.  Bogart does as much with just his face in this movie as most actors wish they could do with their whole bodies.

This portrayal should be a textbook example for all actors on how to really lose yourself in a role.  While Bogart would go on to play other desperate, edgy characters, I don’t think any come close to Duke Mantee.

The Bottom Line

There’s no argument needed as to why this was Bogart’s breakout role.  From script to cast, this movie is tight and entertaining.  This was a role Bogie was born to play.  Sit back and enjoy.

Fun Fact

Warner Brothers apparently wanted Edward G. Robinson for the role of Duke Mantee.  While I can understand how Robinson would have lent instant credibility to a gangster film, I don’t know if he could have played Mantee as dangerously dark as Bogart was able to.  There was always just a hint of humor in too many of Robinson’s roles.  (Although, if they’d shot an alternate-Robinson version, I’d be the first in line to make a comparison!)