BLACK FURY (director: Michael Curtiz; screenwriters: Abem Finkel/Carl Erickson/based on the play Bohunk Harry R. Irving and the story “Jan Volkanik” by Judge M. A. Musmanno; cinematographer: Byron Haskin; editor: Thomas Richards; music: Howard Jackson/Bernhard Kaun; cast: Paul Muni (Joe Radek), Karen Morley (Anna Novak), William Gargan (Slim), Barton MacLane (McGee), John Qualen (Mike Shemanski), J. Carrol Naish (Steve Croner), Mae Marsh (Mary Novak), Ward Bond (Mac), Willard Robertson (Mr. J.J. Welsh), Vince Barnett (Kubanda); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Lord; Warner Brothers; 1935)
“It’s lively, probably good for its time period and is properly sympathetic to the hard-working miners; when viewed today it’s badly outdated.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”/”Angels with Dirty Faces”) directs this typical hard-hitting Warner Brothers prole social ‘working-class’ drama; it’s adapted from Henry Irving’s fact-based play Bohunk which was based on the account by Judge M.A. Mussmano, the judge who presided over the 1929 trial of three company policeman who murdered Pennsy miner John Barkowski; it’s scripted by Abem Finkel and Carl Erickson. It was taken from the screaming newspaper headlines of the time and was inspired by the real-life murder of the Pittsburgh miner, who here goes by the name of Mike Shemanski (John Qualen). It’s lively, probably good for its time period and is properly sympathetic to the hard-working miners, but when viewed today it’s badly outdated.
Joe Radek (Paul Muni) is a happy-go-lucky, buffoonish Pennsy coal miner who is engaged to Anna Novak (Karen Morley), whom he hopes to marry and live on a pig farm. The popular miner cheerfully speaks with an absurdly broad Polish accent (which I found intolerable). When Anna leaves Joe for a cop, a slippery guy named Slim Johnson (William Gargan), who will take her away from the deplorable coal-town to Pittsburgh, Joe gets drunk and attends a union meeting for the miners where the union official John Farrell (Joseph Crehan) warns the men not to form a new union as a new miner acts as an agitator, Croner (J. Carrol Naish). Croner’s really a plant on the payroll of the manpower racketeers who want to cause a strike for their own profitable reasons, and he convinces the politically unsophisticated ‘man of the people’ Joe to bolt the union and form another one. The slick agitator then gets the dupe elected as the head of the union. The union tells the mine no one works who is not a union member, and when these conditions are not met go on strike. The mine president Hendricks (Henry O’Neill) is unaware that he’s being helped by racketeers Jenkins (Purnell Pratt), who’s Croner’s boss at the manpower company, and the big racketeer boss McGee (Barton MacLane), as through them he hires both company cops and scabs to take the place of the union men who walked out in protest of better wages and working conditions.
Joe’s union activity upsets his best friend, union rep Mike Shemanski, in whose mining company house he boards. Mike’s wife Sophie (Sara Haden) tells Joe he must leave the house. With the hiring of scabs and thugs for cops, the new security force is called in to breakup the strike. The strikers are further told if they want to return they must sign for worse terms. Since Croner has taken a powder, Joe has become disillusioned as he realizes that he’s in over his head running the union and that the mine workers he led on strike have no money and are getting evicted from their residences. This leads the sullen Joe to become a drunk. Things change for the worse when McGee kills Mike after the gentle union man tries to protect a woman from being attacked by a cop. Joe is determined to make things right again, blaming himself for the mess and insists that the men not go back to work before they win. When Anna returns, realizing that it’s the good-hearted lug Joe she loves, she helps Joe get explosives while he barricades himself in the mine and rigs the mine’s entrances with dynamite. Joe then makes the newspaper headlines for his effective one-man strike, in which he holds McGee as hostage in the mine for a few days. Willard Welsh (Robertson) becomes the company’s negotiator with Joe and they communicate via a mine telephone, as Welsh says all charges would be dropped if he surrenders. But government officials in Washington learn of the strike and they reveal how the manpower company is run by racketeers who manipulated the strike under false pretenses for their benefit–using both the owners and workers. Everything is back to normal when the mining company and union officials agree to restore things to the original pre-strike agreement and the real police arrest McGee for the murder of Mike.
Despite receiving some critical acclaim for handling such a controversial political topic with intelligence and compassion, the Depression-era drama Black Fury did not receive much love at Oscar time (though Muni was nominated for best actor in a write-in vote). Some believe the film was simply too politically hot for Hollywood even though it was hardly radical, in fact it offered a conservative position. Nevertheless it was banned in Maryland and Illinois, and for awhile in Pennsylvania (objecting to the unflattering presentation of Pittsburgh).
The real villains in the piece are the racketeers and the thugs they hired for security, while the mine bosses get a pass and the immigrant workers are looked upon glowingly as the ‘salt of the earth’ workers. They work hard, have good family values, behave decently and live in shacks they keep clean. The elementary script and the hammy boisterous performance by Muni failed to arouse this labor lover.
REVIEWED ON 12/12/2006 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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