11 January 2003 | bmacv
A lot of heat but not much light in LeRoy's Hollywood version of Mary Phagan murder
One of Warner Brothers' `hard-hitting' social comment dramas of the 1930s, They Won't Forget leaves viewers all riled up though, today, maybe less at the judicial process in the Deep South than at Mervyn LeRoy's depiction of it in the movie. Based not too loosely on the Mary Phagan murder case of 1913, it updates the events to the late Depression and also advances the victim's age (Phagan was 13; here, the victim an unrecognizable Lana Turner, in her debut is a student at a small business college).
It's Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, and the college lets out early, unexpectedly for instructor Edward Norris, a Northerner. But Turner returns for the vanity case she's left behind. Hours later, her body is discovered at the base of an elevator shaft. The town prosecutor (Claude Rains, slinging a Southern drawl) smells a political advantage that might propel him to the state senate, an advantage of no use if the perpetrator is only the illiterate black janitor who found her. Suspicion falls on Norris, and soon the judicial establishment, the press and the townspeople have turned against him. Outside help a detective and a defense attorney prove of no avail. Turner is convicted and sentenced to death; when the governor commutes his sentence, he's lynched (as was Leo Frank in the original case). It's fast, brutal and pretty unsentimental.
LeRoy was known for his slam-bang, take-no-prisoners style but here he dawdles at first. Under the credits is a medley of songs of the South, bolstered by quotations from Lincoln and Robert E. Lee to soften up those touchy audiences in Dixie so they won't know what hit them. When he gets up to speed, however, he doesn't slacken, cutting quick to advance the action his movie's an unstoppable steamroller, just like the judicial railroading of the story (the lynching itself, expressed by a mailbag clipped off its hook by a passing train, is especially and darkly adroit).
But there's a near-fatal flaw in the story. We're meant to harbor persuasive doubts as to Norris' guilt, but the possibility of a suspect other than he is never more than fleetingly entertained. The movie purports to document a miscarriage of justice, but it fails to build an ironclad case.