THEY WON’T FORGET is a film that was based on the novel, DEATH IN THE DEEP SOUTH by Ward Greene, which in turn was a fictionalized account of a real event, the conviction and lynching of Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan in 1913.
The murder victim in the film, Mary Clay(played by sixteen year old Lana Turner in her first film role), is murdered in the business college she attended when she returns to pick up her vanity she left there when the school closed early for the Memorial Day parade. Suspicion at first falls on three men: the black janitor who was in the building, Mary’s boy friend, Joe Turner(a very young Elijah Cook, Jr.), angry because she stood him up, and her teacher at the school, Robert Perry Hale(Edward Norris). All three men meet outside the entrance shortly before three p.m.
Claude Rains is district attorney Andy Griffin, a man with political ambitions. He’s running for the Senate against the retiring governor, his term nearly finished. He’d already made the statement to a crony while riding in the parade that he needed something big to put him over.
He sees this case as his ticket.
He hammers away at the black janitor who was in the building. He didn’t know about the teacher yet. I kept waiting for the janitor’s character to descend into that stereotypical black role of the period. I was surprised. To be sure, he was a terrified man. After all, this is the south we’re talking about. He kept telling them he was asleep in the basement and didn’t see anything.
The boyfriend is next because of his anger at being stood up. He swears he left after the confrontation in front of the school to shoot pool with friends.
A ruthless reporter, Bill Brock(Allan Joslyn), after the big story and fanning the flames of prejudice, brings Hale to Griffin’s notice. There’s not much evidence against him. He, too, was in the building, Mary Clay was sweet on him(an angle played up by one of her girl friend’s jealous because he paid her no mind in class, something he did for Mary Clay. One piece of damning evidence was the spot of blood on the jacket he wore that day. His account was that he went to the barbershop for a shave and was cut before returning to the school to grade some papers. He’s also admitted to his wife the feeling that he, a northern teacher, wasn’t liked in the town. He was already putting out feelers for other teaching jobs. When the cops pick him up, he has a telegram to one saying he could leave immediately, the current term was over.
It all turns into a three-ring circus before it even gets to trial. Blaring headlines every day, statements by community leaders professing belief in his guilt, reporters descending on the city from all over the country, a big attorney from up north agrees to defend Hale. Every little bit in the film, we get ticker tape with pronouncements on the case flashing across the screen. Every other one says push the prejudice angle.
the trial dominates the second half of the film, Griffin’s histrionics flouting even the best Perry Mason moments. It’s the defense’s lawyer, Michael Gleason(Otto Kruger) that is the composed one. We get the feeling he already knows how it will end, he’s just in it for the publicity.
Immense pressure is on everyone involved. The barber swears he doesn’t remember if Hale came in that day. Earlier in the picture, a detective brought in from the north gets him to admit he never forgets a face or name. His wife seems to be on the the side of truth. She slaps his face. Buxton, the owner of the school hires a lawyer for his janitor, who wonders why he needs a lawyer. “I didn’t do nothing.” His lawyer pressures him to embellish his story. If Hale isn’t convicted, he will be next. In fact, the janitor is the only one I’m sure isn’t guilty. We seem him asleep in the basement, woken by a bell, and runs the elevator up to the main floor, only to hear footsteps going up the stairs. We see no one, just the sounds of the steps.
The murder victim’s three brothers are rather a cold blooded looking lot. Shadduck(Trevor Bardette), the oldest, gives us a premonition of the end of the film. Several times he says “It doesn’t matter what they do, we know how it will end.”
Even one juror, the youngest of the twelve, who’s leaning toward not guilty, finds a message in his pocket that says vote guilty if you want to live.
All the prosecution’s witnesses are refuted quite cleverly by the defense. The barber finally admits that Hale did come into the barbershop, but still swears he didn’t cut him, then looks guiltily over at his wife who’s giving him the evil eye. The cop who arrest him says the man was nervous, the attorney asks if all people being arrested aren’t nervous. “no, he proclaims, nine of ten are cool as a cucumber.” “It’s that tenth one, the innocent man, who’s nervous.” The janitor at first tells of seeing Hale inside, then finally admits hre made it up under pressure, not wanting to send a man to his death on a lie.
None of it matters.
The governor, after all appeals are exhausted, makes a decision he knows will end his political career. He commutes Hale’s sentence to life in the hope that evidence might be found some time to clear him.
That wasn’t to be either.
At the end, the wife storms into Griffin’s office, who’s chatting with the reporter, and throws a check down on the desk. Griffin sent it to her because “I heard you were leaving town and might need it. “No sir! You just wanted to soothe your conscious!” She glances up at the reporter and adds, “I’m surprised you didn’t send one.”
Griffin vows he will find the ones responsible and bring them to justice. She looks both in the eye and lets them know who’s really responsible for her husband’s death. “They had lost someone and were doing what they thought was right.” Then storms out of the office.
The film leaves the killer’s identity unknown. Did Hale kill her? The boyfriend? My money was on Buxton, the school’s owner. But we are left with only guesses.
The film received positive reviews and was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who was actually uncredited.
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