Black Legion
Black Legion.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed byArchie Mayo
Michael Curtiz (uncredited)
Written byStory:
Robert Lord
Abem Finkel
William Wister Haines
Produced byRobert Lord
StarringHumphrey Bogart
Dick Foran
Erin O'Brien-Moore
Ann Sheridan
CinematographyGeorge Barnes
Edited byOwen Marks
Music byW. Franke Harling
Howard Jackson
Bernhard Kaun
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release dates
January 17, 1937 (NYC)
January 30, 1937 (US)
Running time
83 minutes
CountryUnited States

Black Legion is a 1937 American crime drama film, directed by Archie Mayo, with a script by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines based on an original story by producer Robert Lord. The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O'Brien-Moore and Ann Sheridan. It is a fictionalized treatment of the historic Black Legion of the 1930s in Michigan, a white vigilante group. A third of its members lived in Detroit, which had also been a center of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

The plot is based on the May 1935 kidnapping and murder in Detroit of Charles A. Poole, a Works Progress Administration organizer. Twelve men were tried and 11 convicted of his murder; all were sentenced to life. Authorities prosecuted another 37 men for related crimes; they were also convicted and sentenced to prison, breaking up the Legion. Columbia Pictures had made Legion of Terror (1936) based on the same case.

Black Legion was praised by critics for its dramatization of a dark social phenomenon. It was one of several films of this period in opposition to fascist and racist organizations.[1] Having followed Bogart's breakthrough in The Petrified Forest (1936), a number of reviewers commented that Bogart's performance should lead to his becoming a major star. Warner Bros. did not give the film any special treatment, however, promoting it and Bogart in their standard fashion. Stardom did come with High Sierra in 1941.[2]


Frank Taylor works in a Midwestern factory and expects to receive a job promotion that has become available. When he is passed over in favor of hard-working Polish immigrant Joe Dombrowski, Taylor joins the Black Legion, a secret organization that drives away immigrants and racial minorities through violent means. Dressed in black robes, Taylor and the Black Legion go on a torchlight raid, driving Dombrowski and his family from their home.[3]

With Dombrowski gone, Taylor receives the promotion, but when the Black Legion leadership forces him to spend time recruiting new members, Taylor is demoted in favor of his Irish neighbor, Mike Grogan. That night, the Black Legion attacks Grogan.[4]

Taylor's co-worker and friend, Ed Jackson, who is married to Grogan's daughter, suspects Taylor is connected to the attacks on immigrants. Jackson mentions his concerns to Taylor's wife, Ruth, who confronts Taylor. When he responds to her with violence, Ruth leaves him. As his Black Legion activities and drinking increases, Taylor loses his job and begins a relationship with Pearl Davis, a woman of ill repute.[4]

Seeing his friend's life unraveling, Jackson goes to see Taylor to express concern. A drunken Taylor tells Jackson about his secret life with the violent Black Legion. Afraid that his slip-of-the-tongue might prompt Jackson to go to the police, Taylor tells the Black Legion leadership what happened. The leadership orders Taylor to capture and execute Jackson.[3]

Unlike the Black Legion's other victims, Jackson is unafraid and threatens to go to the police. When Jackson tries to escape, Taylor panics and shoots him. Taylor is arrested for Jackson's murder. Ruth returns for Taylor's trial to support him. The lawyer for the Black Legion threatens Taylor's wife and son to stop him from implicating the hate organization, but filled with self-loathing, Taylor tells the truth in court. All of the members of the Black Legion are sentenced to life in prison for Jackson's murder.[4]


Erin O'Brien-Moore, Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan


Black Legion went into production in late August 1936.[5] Many of the details about the Legion portrayed in the film, such as the initiation oath and the confessions in the trial scenes, were based on known facts about the historic organization. Because United States libel laws had recently been broadened in scope by court rulings, Warner Bros. underplayed some aspects of the group's political activities to avoid legal repercussion.[2] The Ku Klux Klan sued Warner Bros. for patent infringement for the film's use of a patented Klan insignia: a white cross on a red background with a black square. A judge threw out the case.[2]

Lobby card for Black Legion
Lobby card for Black Legion

Location shooting took place in private homes in the Hollywood area, the Providencia Ranch in the Hollywood Hills and the Warner Ranch in Calabasas.[6] Executive producer Hal B. Wallis had wanted Edward G. Robinson to play the lead role, but producer Robert Lord thought Robinson was too foreign looking, and wanted a "distinctly American looking actor to play [the] part."


Writing for Night and Day in 1937, Graham Greene gave the film a good review, characterizing it as "an intelligent and exciting, if rather earnest film". Greene praises Bogart's acting and comments that the film's intelligence comes from the director's attention to the moments of horror.[7] Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times praised the film's direction, writing, performances, and strong themes; calling it "editorial cinema at its best".[8] Dennis Schwartz from Ozus' World Movie Reviews awarded the film a grade B−, calling it "A gripping social drama based on the newspaper headlines of the day".[9] TV Guide gave the film 3 out of 5 stars, calling it "A grim, often brutal film", while criticizing Bogart's performance as being unsympathetic and Sheridan's role as "thankless".[10]

Awards and honors

Robert Lord's original screenplay received an Academy Award nomination in 1937, but lost to William Wellman and Robert Carson's work for A Star Is Born.[11] The National Board of Review named Black Legion as the best film of 1937, and Humprey Bogart as the best actor for his work in the film.[12] It was one of a series of anti-fascist films in this period that addressed the dangers to society from groups that opposed immigrants (especially Catholics and Jews) and blacks, showing that fascism and racism resulted in similar "crimes against humanity."[1]


  1. ^ a b Jennifer Lynde Barker, The Aesthetics of Antifascist Film: Radical Projection, New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 64–65
  2. ^ a b c Tatara, Paul (December 7, 2006). "Black Legion". TCM. Turner Classic Movies, Inc. Retrieved September 30, 2022.((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  3. ^ a b Deming, Mark. "Black Legion (1937) – Archie Mayo – Synopsis, Characteristics, Moods, Themes and Related – AllMovie". AllMovie. AllMovie, Netaktion LLC. Retrieved September 30, 2022.((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  4. ^ a b c "Black Legion (1937) – Turner Classic Movies". TCM. Turner Classic Movies, Inc. Retrieved September 30, 2022.((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  5. ^ TCM Overview
  6. ^ IMDb Filming locations
  7. ^ Greene, Graham (8 July 1937). "Black Legion/Night Must Fall/Top of the Town/The Last Train from Madrid". Night and Day. (reprinted in: Taylor, John Russell, ed. (1980). The Pleasure Dome. Oxford University Press. pp. 151–154. ISBN 0192812866.)
  8. ^ Nugent, Frank (18 January 1937). "THE SCREEN; The Strand's 'Black Legion' Is an Eloquent Editorial On Americanism--'Conflict' Opens at the Globe. At the Globe – The New York Times". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 January 2019.
  9. ^ Schwartz, Dennis. "blacklegion". Dennis Schwartz. Archived from the original on 12 December 2017. Retrieved 24 January 2019.
  10. ^ "Black Legion – Movie Reviews and Movie Ratings". TV TV Guide. Retrieved 24 January 2019.
  11. ^ 1937 (10th)[permanent dead link] on AMPAS website
  12. ^ Allmovie Awards