Black Fury (1935) – full review!
Directed by Michael Curtiz with a screenplay by Abem Finkel and Carl Erickson that was inspired by Harry R. Irving’s play Bohunk and an account by Judge M.A. Mussmano of the real-life case of Pennsylvania coal miner Mike Shemanski this above average drama earned chameleon actor Paul Muni his third (of seven) Best Actor Academy Award nominations. He would go on to win his only Oscar the following year playing the title role in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935). Like in many of his (and Warner Brothers’) films Muni’s protagonist is fighting against a societal injustice – in this case the working conditions and wages of coal miners. The highly recognizable cast includes Karen Morley William Gargan Barton MacLane John Qualen J. Carrol Naish Vince Barnett Henry O’Neill Joseph Crehan Sara Haden Willard Robertson Ward Bond and Akim Tamiroff among others. Mike Mazurki also appears uncredited as a security force applicant.
Joe Radek (Muni) is a lovable lug of a coal miner who boasts that one day he’ll marry Anna Novak (Morley) whom he greets every day on his way to the mines. He’s saving his money in order to buy Sokolsky’s (Tamiroff) farm where they’ll raise pigs. Radek currently boards in the mining company home of the soft spoken local union representative Mike Shemanski (Qualen) and his wife Sophie (Haden). But not everyone is happy with their pay etc. under the union’s current agreement with the mining company’s management. Newcomer Steve Croner (Naish) is the most outspoken about the unacceptable conditions. Unbeknownst to the other miners Croner is really an antagonist paid by a manpower company to cause unrest and force a strike.
Even though the illiterate Radek claims to be on the verge of an engagement with “his” Anna she is really in love with a mining company policeman Slim Johnson (Gargan in nothing more than a cameo; Bond plays another policeman) who she sees as her ticket out of an environment and way of life she finds suffocating. Slim a friend of Radek’s isn’t as committed to Anna as she is to him but agrees to take her with him when he’s reassigned to another mine in Pittsburgh. Radek has finally saved enough to buy Sokolsky’s pig farm when he learns that Anna has gone. He is heartbroken and Croner exploits Radek’s pain his subsequent drunkenness and his natural leadership ability to split the union. The miners side with the Croner influenced Radek against Mike & union leader Johnny Farrell (Crehan) to strike. This leads to a falling out between friends Radek and Mike who evicts Radek from “his” home.
At the time the mining company president John W. Hendricks (O’Neill) learns of the strike he is unknowing with the responsible manpower company leaders including McGee (MacLane) who promise to help him by supplying all the workers (e.g. scabs) and security he needs to keep the mine operational. Hendricks hires them; McGee then fulfills this new labor agreement by hiring a bunch of thugs to work with him on the security detail. Radek is disillusioned with it all when Croner disappears and he’s expected to step into a role he’s completely unprepared and unsuited to perform. He becomes a regular drunk until Kubanda (Barnett) finds him in a bar to tell him that Mike is being beaten up by McGee and company (including Bond’s character). Even though Radek tries to prevent it Mike is killed in the scuffle.
Distraught and disillusioned by love lost herself Anna returns “home” to find changes in the mining town. She then finds Radek who’s been inspired by Mike’s death to keep his former friends from ending the strike by returning to work which Mike would not have wanted. Radek reluctantly shares with her his plan to rig the mine’s entrances with dynamite to prevent the miners from working. Anna insists on helping Radek and eventually becomes his voice to persons outside the mine after Radek blows up a couple of the mine’s openings and holds up inside it. Mr. Welsh (Robertson) becomes the company’s negotiator with Radek; they use a mine telephone to communicate. Meanwhile McGee is determined to find a way in to Radek. However once he’s inside Radek dynamites the entrance (miraculously killing no one lest the film’s ending would have to be different). McGee then becomes Radek’s hostage as he keeps the mine closed for days surviving by eating the bread he’d stolen beforehand.
*** SPOILERS ***
Meanwhile the government gets involved; their investigation exposes the manpower company and their illegal tactics such that mining company and union officials agree to restore to the original pre-strike agreement. This successful result from Radek’s efforts especially given his methods is one reason this film was banned in mining towns around the world.