We love Warner Archive Instant and so should you! This week our Must Watch Warner Archive picks include Robert Montgomery as (what else?) a charmingly rakish cad in Hide-Out (1934) and Humphrey Bogart as a bigoted asshole in Black Legion (1937).
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Carley’s Pick: Hang-Out (1934)
Oh, Robert Montgomery. You are such a cad.
Few actors cut from the classic Hollywood cloth were able to be quite as smarmy, charming, and dangerously irresistible as the devilishly handsome Montgomery. He’s a bad boy with a choirboy face and, dammit, the cheeky bastard knows it. When he’s on screen, it’s almost an unspoken agreement between him and the audience: ‘if you don’t like me, then that’s just too damn bad.’ The man gives zero fucks.
And that’s just the way I like him. On the wrong side of the law; urbane; tough; wise-cracking; while still being as elegant a figure as ever to grace the screen. Well, W.S. Van Dyke’s pre-code drama Hang-Out (1934) ticks all those boxes and then some: it also gives Montgomery a chance to shine as a comedian.
The story starts off as standard early ’30s fare, which is always a good thing. Montgomery is a “Lucky” Wilson, womanizing, boozy, playboy conman who is always a step or two in front of the law– namely, detective Edward Arnold whom Montgomery gets a great kick out of thumbing his nose to. But when Arnold closes in on Montgomery’s operation, the racketeer is forced to flee New York, barely escaping with a bullet wound. Even though the wound isn’t life threatening, it’s still debilitating and Montgomery finds himself stuck up in the Catskills where he’s been found by a genial farmer.
It’s the perfect hide-out. Montgomery can convalesce while waiting for the cops to ease off his trail. He gets more than he bargained for, however, upon discovering the kindly farmer has a gorgeous daughter, Maureen O’Sullivan. The family buys the story that Montgomery is an innocent man who found himself in the middle of gangster crossfire and tends to him dotingly.
Plenty of breezy comedy comes from Montgomery being out of his element in two ways: not only is the city boy trying to adapt to life on a farm, but the infamous playboy has feelings for O’Sullivan that, for the first time in his life, are genuine. (Yes, yes, we knew this would happen before the film even began, but part of the fun with this kind of movie is guessing how Montgomery and O’Sullivan are going to get together.) He realizes that if he wants to make a real life with O’Sullivan, he’s going to have to straighten out his life. Fate answers by sending Edward Arnold: the detective has found out Montgomery’s hide-out and arrives at the farm with a warrant for his arrest.
Showing his true change of heart, Montgomery pleads with Arnold to play along, not wanting to hurt the family that’s done so much for him. Arnold is surprised at Montgomery’s sincerity and, since the roads back to New York City won’t be passable for a few hours, is forced to stay at the farm for dinner under the guise of Montgomery’s ‘friend from the city.’ Montgomery privately confesses the truth to O’Sullivan who tells him she loves him not for the man he was, but for the man he is now. Montgomery goes back to the city with Arnold to serve six months in the slammer, knowing that O’Sullivan will be waiting for him when he gets out. In a film that is largely light and airy, the ending is surprisingly (and thankfully) highly realistic.
While Hide-Out is far from the best work in either Montgomery or Van Dyke’s filmography, I can think of few better ways to spend 90 minutes that to watch Robert Montgomery at the height of his charms and at the top of his game.
Wade’s Pick: Black Legion (1937)
This early Humphrey Bogart effort (supposedly his first lead, but that’s arguable) is all kinds of crazy fun– albeit unintentional. The late 30s and early 40s were a schizophrenic period for Hollywood, with hardcore patriots waving the flag both for God and country (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) as well as using WWI as a metaphor (The Dawn Patrol) for increasing tensions in Europe. The dark winds of change were begging a world power such as the United States to take a side, but studio executives were afraid to commit thanks to several Neutrality Acts passed by Congress. Hollywood was filled with thinly veiled message films about the evil abroad (The Mortal Storm, Man Hunt), as well as limp statements supporting neutrality (The Wizard of Oz).
But Jack Warner loved controversy. Throughout the ’30s, his Warner Bros studio was known for delivering stories ripped from the headlines and the streets, about corruption, violence and hooliganism. So a morality play that peeled back the veil on homegrown bigotry seemed like a pregnant subject matter. Along came Black Legion.
The story is simple; a big talking engineer (Bogart) at a metal plant believes he should be next in line for a promotion to foreman, but a younger, more enthusiastic laborer is given the position. Angry, Bogart goes home and gets fired up listening to a fascist on the radio declaring American jobs are being taken away by those no-good immigrants. When a co-worker tells him about a “secret fraternity” that believes in “patriotism,” Bogart joins, and before you know it, he’s in front of hooded men in white and black gowns, swearing a blood allegiance to the “cause.”
From there, he and the Black Legion terrorize polish, Irish and French immigrants (still too much a “hot button” issue to focus on Blacks and Jews, but the audience got the idea) by beating, burning and whipping them, including Bogart’s foreman, leaving him with the job. It’s obvious quite quickly Bogart isn’t up to the position, as the Legion’s evil begins to corrode the man inside and out. He takes to drinking, violence and worse – adultery with a known floozy!
Black Legion plays like Reefer Madness with hate and bigotry as the addiction. Like the earlier morality play, there really isn’t a protagonist; just Bogart making boneheaded choices. He, of course, destroys his family and friends before he learns the err of his ways, and his performance meets the challenge as a haunted and obsessed hate monger. You can almost feel the nervous tension behind the cameras as well as in front as no mainstream studios were tackling the subject with such vehemence, especially as the world headed for war, and a certain German leader was setting up plans for “the final solution.” An odd yet mesmerizing entry into the Bogart oeuvre; definitely worth checking out.