A pretty schoolgirl is murdered. An ambitious prosecutor wants publicity. And an outsider - a Northern teacher in a sleepy Southern town - makes a handy defendant, someone the locals will happily convict, innocent or guilty.
Based on the infamous Leo Frank case, They Won't Forget is an explosive, acclaimed indictment of bigotry that's rich in deceptive motives, sudden violence and courtroom suspense. The talent is as powerful as the story: Mervyn LeRoy (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) produced and directed with steady hand and crackling pacing, Robert Rossen (The Hustler) co-wrote the unflinching script, Claude Rains (Casablanca) etches a portrait of the ruthless prosecutor with poison and guile, and, in her first credited role, Lana Turner makes the schoolgirl beguiling prey for an unhinged mind.
This hard-hitting Warner Bros. courtroom drama begins with the usual "Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental" disclaimer. Filmgoers with long memories, however, recognized Robert Rossen and Aben Kandel's screenplay as a blow-by-blow recreation of the Leo Frank-Mary Phagan case of 1915. Phagan, a 14-year-old employee in a Marietta, GA pencil factory, was found murdered. The bulk of the evidence pointed to a black janitor (who actually confessed to the crime years after the fact), but race-baiting Atlanta newspaper publisher Tom Watson decided to go after Leo Frank, the Northern Jew who owned the factory where Mary worked. "We can lynch a nigger any time," the politically ambitious Watson is alleged to have said, "but when do we get a chance to hang a Yankee Jew'" Thanks largely to Watson's "guilt by headline" campaign, and to Fulton County's cooperative solicitor general, Frank was found guilty and sentenced to death. Georgia Governor John M. Slaton, who all along smelled something fishy in the case, commuted Frank's case to life imprisonment (and was ruined politically as a result). En route to prison, Frank was abducted by a mob and lynched, an incident that boosted the prestige of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan. Aben Kandel dramatized this appalling miscarriage of justice in his novel DEATH IN THE DEEP SOUTH, which served as the basis for THEY WON'T FORGET. In Mervyn LeRoy's film version, Lana Turner (in a star-making turn) plays Mary Clay, a teen-aged typing school student who dresses garishly and flirts with every man she meets. Mary is later found murdered; the last person to see her alive was her teacher, recently arrived Northerner Robert Hale (Edward Norris). Once more, a black janitor (played as a superstitious moron by Clinton Rosemond) is the most likely suspect, but the ambitious district attorney (Claude Rains) seems sincere in his belief that Hale is guilty. Once Hale is sentenced to death, the governor, played by Paul Everton, commutes his sentence, serene in the belief that, once his career is finished, he'll be able to retire peacefully (real-life governor Slaton did not go down so benignly). Except for the removal of the original case's anti-Semitic elements, THEY WON'T FORGET is stark, powerhouse filmmaking, one of the best of Warners' "social protest" films of the 1930s. It was remade as the 1987 TV movie THE MURDER OF MARY PHAGAN starring Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Peter Gallagher, and Charles S. Dutton (as well as as the unsuccessful 1998 Broadway musical Parade).
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