Reviewed by Leonard Quart 

Directed by Michael Curtiz; screenplay by Abem Finkel and Carl Erickson, adapted from the play by Harry R. Irving, based on a story by M.A. Musmanno; cinematography by Byron Haskin; edited by Thomas Richards; starring Paul Muni, Karen Morley, William Gargan, Barton MacLane, and John Qualen. DVD, B&W, 95 min., 1935. A Warner Bros. Archive release.

In the 1930s Warner Bros was known for stars such as James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Edward G. Robinson, and Barbara Stanwyck who were able to play tough-talking, working-class types that connected with the general public. The studio was also identified with making social-problem pictures—many wrenched from the headlines (e.g., Dead End)—and a succession of gangster movies (e.g., Roaring Twenties), both reflecting that the Depression had shaken the country’s confidence in its social and political system. Not that most Warner Bros. films offered radical or even coherent social critiques and solutions. A striking example of a Warner Bros. social-problem film that copped out on seriously dealing with its subject was Michael Curtiz’s Black Fury (1935).

Set in a studio-set coal-mining town, the film’s central character is an immigrant Polish miner, Joe Radek (a magnetic but scenery chewing Paul Muni), who is ignorant, unseeing, and sweet natured. The hard-working, jovial Joe is popular among the other workers, and he has a dream—buying a farm and marrying the angular, sharp-featured, much smarter Anna (Karen Morley). But when Anna, who is sick of coal-town life, takes off, Joe drowns his sorrows in drink. Drunk, he innocently stumbles into a politically charged union meeting (Joe is apolitical) where unknowingly he is manipulated by an operative for a criminal strike-breaking agency to divide the union into two, and is made the leader of the dissident, antiunion faction.

Like many Thirties Hollywood social problem films, the real issues get lost in the insidious machinations of the agency and its hired thugs' (wearing police uniforms) brutality towards the desperate, striking workers, including murdering Radek's best friend. The film substitutes melodramatic action and heroics for a genuine depiction of and reflection about the ethos of the mines, leaving us with one, simple, conservative social message: that complacent unionism and a compromise settlement (the Shalerville Agreement) with the supposedly reasonable, benign owners that insures labor peace is the best path for workers to take. The film seems unconcerned that the settlement leaves the miners with substandard working conditions and low pay.

Joe ultimately sees the light after his friend’s murder, and takes radical action to ensure that the broken, defeated workers won’t return to work under worse conditions than before the strike. He barricades himself in the mine, insisting that he will destroy himself and the entire property unless the company fires the scabs they hired and restores the Shalerville Agreement. Anna, who has magically returned to town, affirming her love for him, aids Joe in this endeavor. It’s all finally resolved because the New Deal government steps in—saying there “was no real issue in the controversy,” except for the racketeering agency that will be punished—and the workers happily return to the mine.

Black Fury is populated by one-dimensional characters and provides a contrived happy ending. The film predictably views social and political change in classic Hollywood fashion. Works of this sort always feature an individual hero who is sufficiently bold and courageous to challenge the exploiters or oppressors and bring about some semblance of change. The mass of workers in these films are also usually impotent—they remain either supine or given to thoughtlessly shifting allegiances, as they do here. Joe is at first vilified and ostracized by the other miners, for example, and then, at the film’s conclusion, triumphantly raised on their shoulders.

Obviously, Black Fury is not a film interested in either analyzing the limits of American unionism or capitalism, or attempting, beyond a few superficial scenes—the Slavic dance sequence or work scenes at the mine face—to capture the texture of life in the coalmining community. Rare for a Hollywood film of this era, however, it does set up a genuine labor confrontation and raises real work-related problems, but then predictably abandons them to the film industry’s genre conventions.

Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the fourth edition of American Film and Society since 1945 (Praeger).

To purchase Black Fury, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2