They Won’t Forget (1937): LeRoy’s Lynching Drama, Starring Clause Rains and Lana (Sweather Girl) Turner in her Stunning Screen Debut

In 1937, Warner Bros. produced Melvyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget, a mob lynch drama inspired by a factual trial and other similar cases.

In later years, it became better known as the movie that launched the career of Lana Turner, then a teenager of fifteen, on her way to become one of MGM’s biggest movie stars.

The script was based on Ward Greene’ book, “Death in the Deep South,” which was in turn a fictionalized account of the trial and lynching of Leo M. Frank after the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan in Atlanta.

 

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

hey Won’t Forget
They Won't Forget poster.jpg

 

When teenager Mary Clay (Lana Turner) is murdered on Confederate Memorial Day, the ambitious district attorney Andrew Griffin sees the crime as his way to the Senate– if he can find the “right” scapegoat for the trial.

To that extent, he seeks out Robert Hale, Mary’s teacher at the business school where she was killed. Even though all evidence against Hale is circumstantial, Hale happens to be from New York (Leo Frank was a Southern Jew from Texas, but he was raised in New York). Griffin then joins forces with reporter William Brock in creating a media frenzy of prejudice and hatred against the teacher.

The issue thus moves from innocence vs. guilt to the continuing bigotry and suspicion between South and North, especially given the significance of the day of the murder.

The film shows the pressures bearing on the community members to help in the conviction. They include the black janitor, induced to lie on the stand for fear he himself will be convicted if Hale is found innocent. Then there’s the juror who is the sole holdout to a guilty verdict, and the barber who is afraid to testify because it could exonerate Hale. Michael Gleason, Hale’s lawyer, does his best, but Hale is convicted and sentenced to death.

The governor, with the support of his wife, decides to commit political suicide by commuting Hale’s death sentence to life imprisonment because the evidence is  insufficient to send a man to his death. The townsfolk are enraged, and the murdered girl’s brothers, who have been threatening to take matters into their own hands if Hale is not executed, plot and carry out Hale’s abduction and lynching with the help of a vengeful mob.

In the end, Hale’s widow goes to Griffin’s office to return a check he had sent her to help her out, telling him he cannot soothe his conscience that way. As he and Brock watch her leave, Brock wonders if Hale was guilty, and Griffin replies without much concern, “I wonder.”

Since the release of this movie followed Fritz Lang’s Fury just by months, comparisons between the two tales were inevitable.

First, the political context in which They Won’t Forget takes place is more prominent than it is in Fury.

Second, the film’s portrayal of public officials is even more cynical. In Fury, the sheriff at least tried to prevent the masses from executing a lynch, whereas They Won’t Forget ends on a more ambiguous note, when a reporter says: “Now that it’s over, I wonder if Hale really did it.” “I wonder too,” the prosecutor says, confirms his own doubt.

Thematically, both Fury and They Won’t Forget offer a critical chronicle of the fickleness of the crowd, and the ease with which irrational instincts could be subversively manipulated.

Both movies pose severe warnings to the democratic process, though both avoid the issue of race by choosing white protagonists as their victims.  In actuality, most lynch victims were blacks, but, because of the demographics at the time (most viewers were white), white victims were considered to be “safer” targets as far as the films’ commercial appeal was concerned.

Recycling

In 1987, the story was also dramatized by Larry McMurtry as a TV miniseries entitled “The Murder of Mary Phagan,” starring Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Rebecca Miller, Cynthia Nix and William H. Macy.

Cast

Claude Rains as District Attorney Andrew J. Griffin

Gloria Dickson as Sybil Hale

Edward Norris as Professor Robert Perry Hale

Otto Kruger as Michael Gleason

Allyn Joslyn as William A. Brock

Lana Turner as Mary Clay

Linda Perry as Imogene Mayfield

Elisha Cook Jr. as Joe Turner

Cy Kendall as Detective Laneart

Clinton Rosemond as Tump Redwine

Elisabeth Risdon as Mrs. Hale (as Elizabeth Risdon)

Clifford Soubier as Jim Timberlake

Paul Everton as Governor Thomas Mountford

Donald Briggs as Harmon Drake

Sibyl Harris as Mrs. Clay

Elliott Sullivan as Luther Clay

Wilmer Hines as Ransom Scott Clay

Credits:

Produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Written by Robert Rossen and Aben Kandel, based on the 1936 novel, “Death in the Deep South, “by Ward Greene
Music by Adolph Deutsch
Cinematography Arthur Edeson
Edited by Thomas Richards

Production and distribution company: Warner Bros.

Release date: July 14, 1937

Running time: 95 minutes