Sure, the radio has got me by the ears. That is old news to anyone who ever glanced at these pages or took a gander at my bookshelves. Truth is, I also make eyes at the old box whenever it catches them. Last night, I was in for an audio-visual treat. While not one of those 1930s productions designed to promote the ancillary medium (vaudeville extravaganzas like The Big Broadcast or its sequels), Archie Mayo’s Black Legion (1937) nonetheless makes great narrative use of the wireless, which plays a central role in telling the story of a workingman’s social decline and deviation. Let me give you a few “for instances.”
When we are introduced to Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) as a family man, we get to see him with his son (Dickie Moore) at the console, sharing the thrills of a juvenile serial. Mother (Erin O’Brien-Moore) stands by, enjoying the spectacle of father and son happily glued to the set, a family ritual fit for a household strapped for cash. As Taylor, frustrated about his position, finds an outlet in blaming his hardship on immigrants who presumably cost him his promotion, he ignores junior and switches the channels, eager to hear an angry voice echoing his sentiments.
Rather than being portrayed as a purveyor of innocent entertainment, the radio is also shown to be an insidious force, a noisemaker spreading potentially noisome messages. Making headlines back in 1937, when Black Legion was filmed, was the story of a boy turned killer after listening to crime programs (like Gangbusters, for example). In this case, it is the adult who is susceptible to broadcast rants from invisible demagogues exploiting the inclusive medium of radio for the dissemination of their exclusive missives. Even when they materialize, those hatemongers remain invisible, shrouded in the hoods of the Klan. They are radio creatures, reaching the multitude while remaining impersonal and shielded from attack.
When Taylor joins the legion and turns to a life of hate-crime, the radio is indirectly responsible for his capture. It’s not quite The Tell-tale Heart, but the wireless sure gives the guilty and conscious-stricken man away when, at a diner, he listens to a news broadcast about a crime in which he was involved. Noticing the reactions of their fellow listener, the police officers taking a break immediately spring into action and apprehend the stranger in their midst.
Broadcasters then turn Taylor’s story into a fictionalized newscast, a semi-factual and far from objective dramatization akin to The March of Time, in which the part of the accused is being played by an actor, the judge’s gavel being the baton of the conductor as the music underscores the immensity of the crime. Once able to relax at the console, Taylor has become the next instalment of Gangbusters. Better remain the mute receiver of broadcast entertainment, Black Legion advises, than to become news fodder or the stuff of melodrama.
Movies like this remind me how ubiquitous and influential radio used to be in American culture, not merely as a source of entertainment, but as a former of public opinions and a forger of personal destinies.