They Won’t Forget (1937)

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy (uncredited)

This is one of those peculiar movies that does a number of things right but just as many wrong, not the least of which is engaging in the frustrating Hollywood practice of contradicting its own theme by doing the very thing it criticizes.

They Won’t Forget is the story of a man falsely accused of murder (Edward Norris as Prof. Robert Hale). It’s a particularly heinous crime because his victim is 13-year old Mary Clay (played by a 16-year old Lana Turner in her first film role). It takes place in a southern community and everyone is outraged and crying for justice.

In the end, Hale is lynched by a self-righteous mob.

An infatuated Mary Clay (Lana Turner) looks up at Prof. Hale (Edward Norris).

The movie is a critique of prejudice and mob justice. It is based on the true story of Leo Frank, who was tried, convicted and later lynched in 1915.

Regardless of its flaws, it’s a compelling movie largely due to director Mervyn LeRoy keeping the movie moving along at a quick pace. Despite its somber story, the first act of the film is pretty light as we meet the various characters and the movie never gets overwhelmingly dark as it focuses a great deal on the drama of the court room, media and community.

The most troubling aspect of the movie is its answer to the question,“Why did this happen?” The movie lays the blame on prejudice. The crime was in the south, the victim a southern girl. The accused, Hale, was a northerner. Worse than that, he seems indifferent to  – or at least unaware of – southern history and pride. The day of the crime he is oblivious to its being “Memorial Day,” when the town celebrates its Confederate past.

When his trial begins, everyone working for him (such as his lawyer, Michael Gleason, played by Otto Kruger) comes from the north. The media focuses on this aspect – north vs. south – fueling emotions. (We see telegram scrolls run across the screen urging this aspect be played up.)

The real case, however, meaning that of Leo Frank, makes much more sense. He was a Jew. He was victim of the accusations and the mob’s violence because he was Jewish (or so it is argued). The prejudice was not geographical (north vs south); it was racial. (The north vs. south angle may have played a part, but only afterward as the case gained notoriety.)

Claude Rains as the tenacious, self-righteous D.A.

The prosecution’s flimsy case (as the movie presents it) is headed by Claude Rains as D.A. Andrew Griffin. They Won’t Forget is one of the few movies I’ve seen where I didn’t like Rains’ performance. To begin with, that very identifiable Claude Rains’ accent comes through and strikes an off-note in a character that is supposedly a southern lawyer.

He is also almost histrionic, particularly in courtroom scenes. To some degree, it is appropriate to the character but it struck me as far too overplayed. (His finger pointing and wagging at the jury almost becomes laughable.)

And there, in part, lies the real problem of the film. It’s about prejudice and how it leads to mob violence. Yet the film is oblivious to its own prejudice. The south is caricatured. The northern characters, like Hale and his lawyer, are seen as educated and sophisticated. The south is uneducated and/or unsophisticated. They are biased bumpkins or scheming and unscrupulous opportunists.

And then there is the character of Tump Redwine, played by Clinton Rosemond, the only African-American in the movie. The movie breezily portrays its one non-white character as a barely coherent idiot.

So what the film seems to be about, the evils of prejudice, is the thing the film uses to tell its story.

Lana Turner as Mary Clay in her screen debut.

Despite these problems, I found I liked the movie, despite nagging reservations, as I watched it. Having seen it, however, and thought about what I had seen, I found myself saying, “Hey! Wait a minute …”

The subject of the movie is a frighteningly serious one and how it treats the subject — it’s point of view and presentation — is unsettling at best. It also strikes the occasional frivolous note.

In her first screen appearance, Lana Turner is a sweater girl and there is one scene in particular where the movie takes its time displaying the 16-year old’s attributes.

They Won’t Forget is definitely a watchable and compelling movie but don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about what you have seen.

It’s very disturbing if you do.

(Another take on the Leo Frank story was the 1988 TV mini-series The Murder of Mary Phagan starring Jack Lemmon.)

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