Director and Producer, Mervyn LeRoy (Warner Bros.); Screenplay, Robert Rossen and Aben Kandel; Cinematography, Arthur Edeson; Original Music, Adolf Deutsch; Editing, Thomas Richards; Art Direction Robert Haas; Costumes, N’was McKenzie
Cast: Claude Rains (Andrew J. Griffin), Gloria Dickson (Sybil Hale), Edward Norris (Robert Hale), Otto Kruger (Michael Gleason), Allyn Joslyn (William A. Brock), Lana Turner (Mary Clay), Linda Perry (Imogene Mayfield), Elisha Cook Jr. (Joe Turner)
They Won’t Forget is something of an oddity for the 1930s. Filmmakers from this period tended to be timid when it came to the subject of Southern justice and lynch law. Most studios were unwilling to take on the issue, potentially alienating an entire region of the nation that remained sensitive to outside probing of their justice system. Even in the most explicit anti-lynching movie up to that date, Fritz Lang’s Fury, Warner Bros. carefully avoided placing the town in the South. There wasn’t a hint of a Southern accent which clearly indicated the movie’s target was lynch law in general, not the South despite the fact that most of the world associated lynching with the South.
But They Won’t Forget chucks out any pretence of caution and boldly sets their story in the South. On Confederate Memorial Day, young secretarial student Mary Clay (Lana Turner in her debut role) is brutally murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on the African American elevator operator of the building who found her, but ambitious District Attorney Andrew Griffin (Claude Rains) recognizes this high profile case as his opportunity to establish a state-wide, even national, name for himself. Though he never articulates it as crassly as this, what mileage would he get out of another conviction of a black man who attacked a white woman? Slowly he turns his attention to Mary’s teacher, Robert Hale (Edward Norris).
Circumstantial evidence points to the teacher. More importantly the man moved to their Southern town from the North. Appealing to sectional xenophobia, Griffin begins a campaign with the complicity of a local reporter against the teacher who, along with his stunned wife (played by Sybil Hale), loudly proclaims his innocence. His trial turns into a sad playing out of sectional hatreds that go back generations. We see early on that the outcome will have little to do with the evidence. As people often do, they decided the case long before they heard all the evidence. They intimidate anyone who may have exculpatory evidence and even compel the original suspect to lie and implicate Hale. When things don’t go the way the citizen’s of Mary’s town expected, they take the law into their own hands.
Director Mervyn LeRoy (who went uncredited on this picture) put together an effective drama. Cases of injustice usually boil my blood pretty easily, so it wasn’t a surprise that this movie caught my attention. What was surprising is the way LeRoy is (from my non-Southern eyes) even-handed with the material. Griffin is clearly the villain, but there are moments when we wonder if he really believes he has the right man, and there are other moments when we suspect he doesn’t care. Despite a spotty Southern accent, Claude Rains turns in a tight and effective performance, giving his character the moral ambiguity that may have been missing from the script.
They Won’t Forget is a movie that demands to be seen and remembered today, both as a document of a shameful trend in U.S. history during which thousands of Americans met their end at the hands of violent mobs. It also should be seen as a strong example of the way the Hollywood studio system could highlight social problems, a practice at which Warner Bros. was especially proficient. Fortunately this movie was recently released on DVD through the Warner’s Archive Collection. It also airs occasionally on TCM. If I had gotten this post up earlier, I could have given everyone a heads up that it was going to be on this morning (at 6am, but that’s what the Good Lord invented DVRs for). You can see the trailer at TCM’s website here.