Movies about the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)
Ever since the release of legendary director D.W. Griffith's controversial epic The Birth of the Nation (1915), based on Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s (play and) novel titled The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan and featuring silent star Lillian Gish and future Oscar winner Donald Crisp (among others), classic Hollywood seems to have avoided taking on the KKK to expose its wicked acts or its members’ ignorant beliefs in any substantive way. Though there are several dramas which incorporate it - or at least Klan-like organizations - peripherally, classic films that feature any real detail about its beginnings, longevity, charters, or even insight into its leaders and/or their motivations etc. are surprisingly absent. Maybe the studios felt that real evil and its practitioners were being adequately portrayed in their gangster and war pictures, or perhaps there were fears that a movie about the Klan wouldn’t make good at the box office (particularly in the South)?
The Warner Bros.'s Storm Warning (1951) wasn’t very specific about the KKK’s prejudices, though much of the film's dialogue (from prosecutor Ronald Reagan and the miscast Ginger Rogers character) does deliver the requisite indictment of the organization and its members: too scared to act without the courage of numbers or show their faces (hence the hoods). But the twist is that the Grand Dragon’s real motivation for leading the clandestine group is financial - there's real money for him in the dues and the paraphernalia he sells to its members - such that he comes off as a corrupt union boss, or worse a capitalist;-) In the end, the leader’s true self centered (versus "all for one") nature is revealed and the enraged and disillusioned group wises up and runs for cover from the law. Warner’s Black Legion (1937), starring Humphrey Bogart and featuring a plot plausible enough to earn Robert Lord his second Best Writing-Original Story AA nom, did a better job of exploring the roots of hatred and xenophobia that can seduce one to join such an organization. Since I wrote about MGM’s Stars in My Crown (1950) in my earlier Films about Faith essay, I’ll not include any more text about it here other than to mention that actor Ed Begley (Sr.) seemed to have excelled in portraying angry racist characters. The WB’s (and producer-director Mervyn LeRoy’s) overlong drama The FBI Story (1959), a veritable paean to the organization’s squeaky clean agents and the stout leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, warrants barely a mention except that one of its storylines includes the infiltration of the KKK by the film’s principal character, played by James Stewart.
Which brings me to The Mating Call (1928), produced by Howard Hughes and including titles written by future Oscar winner Herman J. Mankiewicz. The Klan-like organization in this one is named "The Order" and its purpose is to enforce a morality code within its community: black hooded individuals tie a wife beater to a cross and whip him for abusing his spouse. But the primary sin herein is adultery. Upon returning home a hero after serving his country during World War I, Leslie Hatton (Thomas Meighan) finds that his wartime marriage to Rose (Evelyn Brent, playing a sexually aggressive man-eater) was annulled by her parents. But even though he’s (somehow) not interested in having an affair with his former bride, Hatton’s accused of fooling around with Rose by her current husband Lon, a hypocrite that’s having extramarital relations of his own (with a judge’s daughter, no less). Lon uses The Order to threaten the war hero to leave his wife alone. Hatton’s solution to avoid future visits and further scrutiny from these local self-appointed moral authorities includes his going to Ellis Island and marrying a French girl (Renee Adoree, The Big Parade (1925)) whose parents want to immigrate to the United States. However, a subsequent scandal affecting the aforementioned characters (and others) leads The Order to become involved in Hatton’s life again.
Some other dramas that feature the KKK or like-minded groups are: Legion of Terror (1936), The Burning Cross (1947), Another Part of the Forest (1948), The Klansman (1974), Places in the Heart (1984), which earned writer (director) Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)) his third Oscar, and Mississippi Burning (1988); plus, it’s hard to forget the hilarious scene in Mel Brooks’ western spoof Blazing Saddles (1974) in which Cleavon Little (accompanied by Gene Wilder) dons a white rob and hood.
© 2008 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog