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Thursday 1 October 2009

They Won't Forget (1937)

Director: Leo McCarey
Stars: Claude Rains, Gloria Dickson, Edward Norris, Otto Kruger and Allan Joslyn
It's easy to see how the First National Pictures sputtered around the politics in this film, carefully opening with a caveat that everything in it is fiction even though it's based on a real murder, that of Mary Phagan in 1913. The book that told her story was called Death in the Deep South, which was the working title of our film. Then it became In the Deep South, then just The Deep South and eventually They Won't Forget, suggesting that perhaps 'the deep south' was a dangerous thing to mention in 1937. After the opening credits we get Abe Lincoln's famous proposition that all men are created equal, but then a quote by Robert E Lee that's inscribed at the foot of his statue.

We're in Georgia on Memorial Day, an important event for the locals and an even more important one for the six Confederate veterans sitting in front of Lee's statue, waiting to march in memory of the Confederate dead. They're the focus of the day, as everyone is either marching or watching them march, especially as they're getting old and won't be able to march on many more Memorial Days. As one points out though, the townsfolk won't forget once they're gone and if they do, they'll climb out of their graves and make them remember. Given that he's played by Harry Davenport we can believe him.

It may sound heretical to say so given the context, but these veterans have their day and then it's handed over to someone else: Mary Clay. In reality, the victim was Mary Phagan, a thirteen year old girl working at a pencil factory, but this is a Hollywood movie so she turns into buxom sixteen year old Lana Turner learning shorthand at the Buxton Business College with a new surname. This was Turner's first credited role after being an extra in A Star is Born. She definitely made her mark here though, judging from how long the camera follows her down the road, far enough forward so we can see her breasts bouncing along with her stride. Soon she'd become the Sweater Girl and it's already rather obvious why.

In this film though she's just the victim and so leaves the film pretty quickly, dumped in the college basement. Under normal circumstances the case would be closed as quickly as it's opened, given that a negro janitor discovers the body; it's all the DA can do to stop the family lynching him right then and there. These aren't normal circumstances though because Memorial Day is always a quiet time for news and journalist Bill Brock wants a big story; because the District Attorney, Andy Griffin, has ambitions on the governor's job; and most of all because Prof Robert Perry Hale, Clay's shorthand teacher, is a damn yankee, one who can't seem to find his place in southern society.

To be fair there is some circumstantial evidence against Hale. He was in the building at the time, Mary had a crush on him and when the police came to question him, he was planning to leave town and there was blood on the suit arriving back from the cleaners. What really counts against him is the fact that there's nobody on his side. The barber who could provide his alibi doesn't want to admit that he cut someone in his chair, the negro janitor is pressured into telling all sorts of stories and public sentiment is whipped up against the yankee from moment one. Most importantly many of these people have active reason to take him down for their own purposes.

DA Andy Griffin is played by Claude Rains, who is a little miscast here. Griffin is a massively ambitious man and Rains has that down, bouncing up and down actively in the courtroom scenes. I think what seems strangest is that while Rains was a powerfully subtle actor, there's nothing subtle about Griffin in the slightest, so he's forced to lower his voice and overact up a storm trying to be coarse. He's great at being smug but not so great at being sleazy. Allen Joslyn is more believably sleazy as reporter Bill Brock, who gets up to no end of unprofessional shenanigans to get his story. The scenes where the press invades Hale's apartment and searches it while she's fainted clean away are chilling. Joslyn looks a little like a shorter John Lithgow and that helps. Elisha Cook is a great pissant as Mary's boyfriend Joe Turner.

What stuns most is that while this story emphasises the miscarriage of justice, it really doesn't come close to what really happened. The victim wasn't a 16 year old secretarial student who was merely murdered, she was a 13 year old pencil factory worker who was raped and strangled. The convicted man wasn't just a yankee, he was a Jew, and after his lynching half of Georgia's 3,000 Jews left the state. The press wasn't just riled up by one journalist, it was fuelled by a war between two rival papers, to the degree that the Atlanta Georgian, recently taken over by the Hearst syndicate, published a morgue photo of the victim's head spliced onto another girl's body. No less than forty extra editions were issued on the day the murder was reported. Cops intimidated witnesses and even took statements after getting them drunk. Witnesses who had incriminating evidence against the factory's black janitor were ignored and never testified.

Worst of all, the lynch mob didn't just hijack the train carrying the convicted man to prison, they kidnapped him from the state prison farm in a highly organised raid. What's more the ringleaders weren't the grieving family of the dead girl, they included, among others, a former governor, a judge, the county sheriff and the son of a US senator, along with a lawyer who was also the solicitor general responsible for bringing the lynch mob to justice. No wonder none ever did. This lynch mob wasn't just an outraged set of locals either, it was an organised attempt to found a new version of the Ku Klux Klan, calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan, posing proudly in front of the body for photographs that were later distributed throughout the south as postcards.

It seems hard to believe that prejudiced southerners would convict a white man over the black man who almost certainly committed the crime, but there was another prejudice that isn't often highlighted. Leo Frank, the real man who was convicted and lynched of this murder, was a highly educated society man from the north, who had come south to run a factory in part owned by his uncle, a Confederate veteran. He wasn't the modest young shorthand teacher that he's depicted here, he was a society man with servants who spent his time on cultured pursuits like bridge and the opera. He was the epitome of a perceived divide where the northerners ran things and the southerners worked for them. In the end he became the only known Jew to be lynched on American soil.

What seems strangest to me is how the prejudice is shown in this film. Certainly prejudice is an appropriate topic, but the story doesn't sit well. The film tells us that almost every honest God fearing southerners is so prejudiced against the north that he'd happily take down a yankee instead of a negro. The true story suggests that these townsfolk were whipped up into a frenzy by a number of key individuals very set on their own gain, but there were many on both sides of opinion. The Atlanta Georgian ended up on Frank's side. Somehow, in omitting the more extreme material about prejudice, like the the Knights of Mary Phagan, the film exhibits its own prejudice against the south.

The balance struck would make a fascinating scholarly article, as I'm sure the case already has. Recently new evidence came to light strongly suggesting the black janitor as the killer, including eye witness testimony, and this prompted a new award winning adaptation of the story in 1988. This was The Murder of Mary Phagan, a four hour NBC miniseries written by Larry McMurtry and starring such talent as Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Robert Prosky, Charles Dutton and William H Macy. It won the Emmy as the Outstanding Miniseries of 1988 and I'm now really interested in checking it out. It seems like a far more accurate account of the real story. This one's mostly interesting for the wrong reasons, like watching Claude Rains overact, Elisha Cook posture, Clinton Rosemond flounder and Lana Turner bounce.

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