Best Pictures of 1937 (#8) – They Won’t Forget

(United States)

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).

Lana Turner's screen debut as the ill-fated Mary Clay

 

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.

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6 Comments

Filed under 1937, Yearly Best Pictures

6 responses to “Best Pictures of 1937 (#8) – They Won’t Forget

  1. “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.”

    Absolutely Jason! A great film for all sorts of reasons, and a vintage example of Warner social pictures. A must for this Top 10, and a reason for celebration when the Warner Archives DVD recently released.

    • And I have to thank you for turning me on to this movie Sam. I was surprised how much I liked it and was further surprised that it isn’t a better known picture. Now that it is out on DVD I hope people will discover it. Maybe if Netflix would do a better job of acquiring Warner Archive releases more would see it.

  2. Yet another great review, Jason.I’ve just seen this fine movie too and must also thank Sam for turning me on to it. I’m impressed by the way that the title takes on so many resonances in the course of the film – the words come from the opening scene and moving footage of the Civil War veterans worried that their sacrifice will be forgotten. But it then becomes all too apparent that the divisions and bitterness between North and South won’t be forgotten – and, of course, none of the surviving characters involved in the tragedy will ever forget what has happened to them. I was frustrated that the central question of who committed the murder is still left unanswered at the end – it seemed to me as if both the main suspects must be innocent.

    I was impressed by the way many of the characters are morally ambiguous, as you say, and the way both Rains’ character and the newspaper reporter, Allyn Joslyn, use the case for their own purposes – this is the second film I’ve seen in a short space of time where a lawyer is using a court case in the hopes of becoming governor (the other was the pre-Code comedy-drama ‘State’s Attorney’, starring John Barrymore). As a Brit, I’m slightly confused by the fact that Rains seems to be both a police officer and a lawyer, though – did the role of DA combine the two? I must say I think his accent is terrible and does take away from his otherwise great performance – at first I thought he was trying to do a Cockney accent, but then about halfway through the film I realised it was supposed to be Southern!

    Anyway, all the actors are excellent and I was especially pleased to see Gloria Dickson, who is John Garfield’s leading lady in ‘They Made Me A Criminal’ (1939), in such a good role. Also, by coincidence I’ve just been reading Jeanine Basinger’s book ‘The Star Machine’, which has a long section on Lana Turner’s career and tells how this movie created her original “sweater girl” image and how important it was in terms of her career – Basinger quotes the title and says fans “wouldn’t forget” that scene of Turner at the cafe counter, all through her subsequent roles. Anyway, this is turning into an epic response, sorry about that, Jason!

    • No need to apologize for epic responses, Judy. I love it! You point out some great things like the how the title’s meaning changes over the course of the film and Claude Rains’ awful accent. (I was willing to forgive him because he was so good otherwise.)

      “As a Brit, I’m slightly confused by the fact that Rains seems to be both a police officer and a lawyer, though – did the role of DA combine the two?”
      I don’t know how this works in the UK, but the district attorney is responsible for prosecuting. He wouldn’t usually investigate a crime. He should leave that up to the police, then take what the police found in their investigation and run from there. I believe here, Rains’ character took over the case because of the political opportunities. That may have happened in smaller jurisdictions in the 1930s, but I don’t think you would see that today. Though they often work together, the DA and the police have different roles. In this movie it was a signal of how he would use this case for his own political ambition.

      I’m glad you mentioned Gloria Dickson because something I didn’t mention in the review is how shabbily she is treated by the press. The scene where they barge into her apartment, steal pictures, and browbeat her into giving an interview, and later twist her words is abominable and, it seems, not all that different from how it works today. I just saw FAIR GAME and there were some similar moments with Sean Penn as Joe Wilson being confronted by the press.

      I can understand your frustration about the movie not clarifying who the killer is. I had a similar reaction as well until I read about the true case on which the novel was loosely based. The particulars of the case are mostly the same though the leave out the fact that the accused, Leo Frank, was Jewish and Antisemitism played a large part in the campaign against him. Frank was lynched for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in 1915 though evidence, like in the movie, was not conclusive. Later evidence implicated someone else, but no one will ever really know what happened. I think the author of the novel and the filmmakers wanted to make an anti-lynching picture. In the end, determining the innocence or guilt of a person lynched plays into the vigilante game. Would it be any less horrific if we found out he was guilty? Thankfully Warner Bros. was around in the 1930s to ask these kinds of questions. There weren’t any other major studios doing so.

      I didn’t know that this movie put Lana Turner and her sweaters on the map. Thanks for that interesting tidbit.

      And now my response to your epic response is turning epic itself. Thanks again Judy!

      • Thank you very much for the great reply, Jason, and for explaining about the DA, something which had me scratching my head, as in the UK the lawyers would have nothing to do with investigating the case. Thanks also for the further background information – I hadn’t realised this was based on a real case which had never been conclusively resolved, which does explain why we don’t find out who the killer was.

        On Gloria Dickson, I do agree that the press pack hounds her appallingly in this film – I have seen newspaper staff stealing photos in other 1930s films, such as ‘Picture Snatcher’ with James Cagney, so have to think that this kind of thing must have happened. I’d better not comment too much on journalism nowadays as I’m a local newspaper journalist myself (well, a sub-editor nowadays), but interested to hear what you say on this – I haven’t seen ‘Fair Game’ as yet.

        • Ha! I didn’t know you are a journalist. I wonder if that colors your take on some of these movies. Movies seemed to be ambivalent about movies in the 1930s. They alternated between heroes and villains, and sometimes both, like in FIVE STAR FINAL (where, if I recall correctly, Boris Karloff also steals a photograph) or the original FRONT PAGE. One of the weirdest portrayals of a newspaper man was in PLATINUM BLONDE where Robert Williams does things that are so sneaky and nasty, but yet he’s supposed to be the hero? I’ve never understood the cynical, wisecracking newspaper man as hero. I much prefer Edward G. Robinson in FIVE STAR FINAL where he really struggles with the moral questions of get the story at all costs.

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