Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is a factory worker who today is jokily chiding his best friend Ed Jackson (Dick Foran) about his hangover and giving him advice on what to do to get rid of it, though Ed sticks to the tomato juice at their lunch break. As they chat, one of their co-workers starts ribbing another, a Polish fellow, who is studying to better his station in life, but just as it is turning to goading one of the officials arrives and tells the assembled that the bosses plan to make one of them a new foreman. Frank is keen to get this post, and tells all and sundry that he is obviously the best man for the job so confident is he of securing it, but he is heading for a fall - a disappointment that will curdle his very soul.
Warner Bros. in the nineteen-thirties quickly became known as the studio of social realism, with many movies based around stories torn from the headlines, their gangster flicks the most prominent example of that. Black Legion was not exactly one of those, though it did concern itself with a criminal gang, in this instance the Ku Klux Klan who were hitting the news stories in print and on broadcast for their sabotage, insurgency, criminal damage and even murder, especially the lynching of the African-Americans they victimised. This was notable for not featuring one single black actor, so already you might consider it compromised, though on the other hand you could argue the black population did not need any more educating about the subject.
No, the target Warners were aiming for was the ordinary white American who was not only unaware of the damage the far right were doing to their society, but could conceivably be duped into joining them if their worst fears were exploited as prejudices - "foreigners" was the euphemism used here, likely thanks to the Production Code rules. If black performers had been placed in the project, it would have never seen release in the Southern states, which would have meant those the film was trying to appeal to, to make see the potentially grievous error should they give in to hate, would never have encountered it. Of course, the movies had a lot to answer for, as it was one blockbuster some two decades before that had been responsible for establishing the Klan to the extent they were such a problem in the thirties.
That was D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, a ghastly piece of fascistic propaganda that is still excused for its pioneering techniques, not that it was actually as pioneering technically as was often boasted. Although many who make the claim that movies can be a bad influence fail to take into account a wide range of other factors that bring people to crime, in this case their point was inarguable, and the industry had a lot to answer for, making a work like Black Legion all the more vital. Looking back on it from a twenty-first century perspective, it does come across as a lecture, almost wagging its finger if it was not so deadly serious about its social message, but in addition it was interesting to see Bogart not as the suave, capable hero who always knew what to say, but as a misguided and embittered little man on a path to both murder and snivelling cowardice.
There was no whitewashing of Taylor, no get out clause that he was not as bad as he seemed once the Legion had their claws in him, he becomes utterly despicable in a way that mainstream movies of the next century would balk at, though he does partially redeem himself at the courtroom finale. This was made as a B-movie, essentially, as if Warners were testing the waters to see how far they could go with this material, but it brought a lot of publicity and controversy, with some countries banning it outright, or demanding edits before allowing its distribution. Although it seems stagey in places, the blatant nature of its message making, with no attempt to sweeten that instruction and warning, can still be jarring today, particularly as though justice is eventually done we are in no doubt that lives have been shattered and may never recover thanks to the Legion, and within their ranks. The final shot of Taylor's shocked wife (Erin O'Brien-Moore, a promising performer whose career was interrupted by tragedy) as she stares into space trying to make sense of how the Klan has made everything go so horribly wrong was genuinely haunting.