THEY WON’T FORGET (Mervyn LeRoy, 1937)

Among the most notorious murder trials in the U.S. is that of Leo Frank. Frank, who was Jewish, was born in Cuero, Texas, in 1884. His public schooling was in Brooklyn, New York, where he was raised. He attended Pratt Institute and graduated from Cornell University in 1906, having majored in mechanical engineering. His first jobs were in the northeast, but he and his wife, Lucille, moved south so that he could manage the National Pencil Company, of which he was also part owner, in Atlanta, Georgia. One of the girls who worked there, Mary Phagan, was found raped and murdered in the factory basement on April 27, 1913. Phagan was not quite fourteen. Frank, who was innocent of the crime, was arrested the next day and tried in the local papers before being found guilty at trial and sentenced to death. In 1915, Governor John Slaton commuted this sentence to life imprisonment. Frank’s throat was slashed in prison and, when he was transported by train from one facility to another, he was hanged en route by a lynch mob two months after the commutation. The actual killer of Mary Phagan served one year in prison as Frank’s accomplice. Two organizations came into being as a result of the Frank trial and its aftermath: the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and the modern Ku Klux Klan. In 1986, the State of Georgia pardoned Leo Frank.

Ward Greene had covered the Frank trial for the Atlanta Journal. In 1936 his novel based on that trial appeared, Death in the Deep South, perhaps suggesting that, after nearly a quarter-century, the experience haunted him. (Greene is also the author of the story “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog” that became the basis for the 1955 Disney film Lady and the Tramp.) Almost immediately, Robert Rossen and Aben Kandel converted the book into a script. Mervyn LeRoy directed the 1937 film whose title became They Won’t Forget. Besides moving the time up to the present day, the film exacts a number of changes. The victim is now in her late teens, and the Leo Frank character, rechristened Robert Perry Hale, is now her teacher at a business school. He is a northerner still, but no longer (necessarily) Jewish.

A major studio released the film: Warner Bros., for whom the same director had made a number of strong, impressive, socially important films: Little Caesar (1930), Five Star Final (1931), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and The World Changes (1933). LeRoy, producing as well as directing, very much wanted to make this film; in effect, it was his “cashing in” on having given the studio its biggest financial success in 1936, the spectacularly entertaining Napoleonic adventure Anthony Adverse, which he had produced and directed. But there was a major problem with which the studio had to contend. Because of the subject matter and themes, it was likely that many movie theaters in the South wouldn’t exhibit the film. This indeed turned out to be the case. Was there, then, any way to compensate for the lost income and achieve a profitable result? Anthony Adverse had been as lavish and richly decorated a period piece as one can imagine; on the other hand, LeRoy had to make its successor on the proverbial shoestring. One lead role would be enacted by one of the studio’s best character (that is, supporting) actors, Claude Rains, who had contributed memorable villainy to Anthony Adverse; other roles would be filled by unknowns and near-unknowns. Its expenses reduced to a minimum, the film, lauded by reviewers, turned a profit and helped to stardom the actress who played Mary Phagan, rechristened Mary Clay, who appeared bra-less in a form-fitting sweater. This was a 17-year-old, unblonde Lana Turner—sex on heels. But its financial success couldn’t overcome the controversy that the film engendered, as a result of which Hollywood, including Warners, turned away from “problem pictures” until after the war. Nevertheless, LeRoy and others involved in the project had provided David O. Selznick with an alternative to the racism with which he infused Gone with the Wind (1939) in order to soothe the South. In anticipation of Lucas and (until very recently) Spielberg, however, Selznick wasn’t after mere profit; he was after the most enormous profits possible. Selznick sold his soul so that the South could love his movie enough to help make it the most financially successful sound film ever. Selznick went the lavish and the racist route. By contrast, LeRoy’s Anthony Adverse, for all its opulence, had been pointedly humanistic and anti-slavery.

They Won’t Forget opens on Confederate Memorial Day. Immediately clarifying the meaning of the title, a few remnants of the War for the Confederacy sit on a public bench before heading off to participate in the day’s big parade; old, they muse about their dwindling numbers. At the local business school, class proceeds. The scene establishes that Mary Clay has a crush on Hale, the young, handsome instructor from the North. Clay feels anguish at her classmates’ giggles when the owner of the school interrupts class, publicly humiliating Hale, to remind him that today is only a half-day at the school so that students, like everyone else, can view the parade. Clay and a friend have sodas at a drug store counter before Clay, on her own, returns to the school to recover the compact that she left behind. In the classroom she is applying makeup when someone off-screen enters. The camera moves to a closeup of her face as parade cannons discharge outdoors—an artful rendering of both Mary Clay’s fate and the motive behind the accusation and arrest that will eventually seal Robert Hale’s fate.

Suspects abound on the school premises, and Clay’s response to whomever she sees (that we don’t) is incompatible with her infatuation for Hale.

One of the participants in the parade, in a car, is Andy Griffin, the district attorney. We learn from his conversation with a crony that he is politically ambitious, waiting for the right case to propel him into the state senate. The “right case,” of course, requires the right crime and the right defendant—a situation that inflames community passion. The Clay case will prove to be Griffin’s ticket, and an early suspect, the school’s black janitor, will be rejected in favor of the outsider in their midst, the northerner Hale, against whom there will never be more than faint circumstantial evidence. It is clear to us that neither the janitor nor Hale could possibly have committed the crimes.

At their apartment, the film (somewhat naïvely, perhaps) makes a point of noting how happily married Hale and his wife, rechristened Sybil, are. Hale is still smarting from having been officially mocked in front of his pupils, and the childless couple show something of the wear and tear that a hostile social environment imposes. Sybil, though, admits to having been stirred by the parade. Yet it’s precisely the spirit that the parade seeks to memorialize and perpetuate that will prove her spouse’s and her own undoing.

It is such narrative and thematic condensation that largely accounts for the superlative result that LeRoy achieved here. Indeed, They Won’t Forget claims a thematically rich and beautifully integrated plate of concerns, taking aim at a number of targets: regional prejudice, media’s undue influence on legal process, lynching, and the state’s inclination to fit a murder case to a presumption of guilt against the accused by manipulating witnesses and distorting evidence along the way. This unshakable film is no less relevant today. Perhaps only William A. Wellman’s Roxie Hart (1942) does a better job of portraying a criminal trial as media circus. (Rob Marshall’s recent remake, Chicago, is puny and pointless by comparison—and nowhere near as funny.) Moreover, They Won’t Forget is surprisingly nuanced and sophisticated for all its sledge-hammer force as a result of the lynching—the swinging of a deposited track-side mail bag provides a stunning metaphor—and the emotional finale, where Hale’s widow, face-to-face with them, blames both Griffin and a local news reporter, Bill Brock, for her husband’s death, after which, once the woman has left, Brock (Greene?), shaken, wonders aloud about Hale’s actual guilt and Griffin responds, “I wonder.” Rossen, Kandel and LeRoy might easily have overplayed their hand, creating fully conscious villainous monsters; but their film is extraordinarily subtle and effective at showing how, particularly, Griffin deludes himself into believing in Hale’s criminal guilt in order to justify demagoguery and manipulation at Hale’s expense. Those who made this film understand that in order to do monstrous things officials have to convince themselves, first, that a righteous end justifies dubious means.

There is but one lapse in LeRoy’s directorial judgment. The janitor, embarrassingly today, fits the racial stereotype of the voice-quavering, frightened Negro. One suspects that George Stevens, at the time at RKO, would have avoided this mistake even back then, and John Ford, with his effortless complexity, would have pulled off a Brechtian coup, showing the janitor as indeed LeRoy shows him, but at the same time distancing the man’s display of tearful panic in such a way as to expose the stereotype and move white audiences in the direction of confronting it. But, of course, one can scarcely blame LeRoy for not being Ford—although one must note the merry parlor game played by cineastes where everyone attempts to identify the Ford scenes and the LeRoy ones in Mister Roberts (1955), the direction of which LeRoy took over when Ford fell ill. (The film is almost entirely Ford’s.)

LeRoy’s starless cast is excellent. Whatever his discomfort with an American southern accent, Rains is ferocious as Andy Griffin, the politically minded prosecutor for whom justice is a means of career advancement. Rains is adept at showing how Griffin hews to a determination to dismiss Hale’s humanity, and LeRoy is sly enough to find this dismissal mirror-imaged in Hale’s attitude toward the South. Edward Norris and especially Gloria Dickson are marvelous as the Hales—Robert, with something of a penchant for victimization, and Sybil by far the more mature of the two, the more optimistic and adaptable. Dickson renders Sybil’s final speech—and it is that: a speech—heartrending. Elizabeth Risdon as Hale’s mother and Otto Kruger as his defense attorney are fine, and two newcomers, Allyn Joslyn as Brock and Turner as Clay, would never again be half so good. Pauline Kael correctly described Burt Lancaster’s debut in The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946) as “falsely promising”; ditto Turner here. Turner, taken in by M-G-M as a ready replacement for Joan Crawford, never again in my opinion gave a decent performance.




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