IMAGINE. A big cheese like the former Mayor of Asbury Park, Ed Johnson, asking a small fry like me to introduce a classic film. So I am…and am flattered and honored to do it:
I have to admit, my blood runs cold as soon as this movie’s music starts underneath the Warner Brothers’ shield – “Dixie.” With the theme song, the Confederate flag and the gray of Johnny Reb’s uniform … – << Shiver! >> – … I picture strange fruit and feel the pain, fear and terror of peoples’ past. Mervyn LeRoy’s film “THEY WON’T FORGET” is relentless in driving home the point that the South is, well…the South.
Now when we see these old codgers, there’s a modicum of sympathy for them. You feel their regret and their shoring up their last bit of pride to represent their role fighting for their beliefs in the Civil War. Past glories, triumphs and pride surface as they march in their town’s parade. But what they represented does separate me from them.
To help me be at least six thousand degrees of separation from our painful collective past, I have to put on my historical cap and focus on the cinematic lesson of a movie that shines a light ( or lights a torch ) on the flaws and injustice of a culture and a system. This is a movie about what it means to be un-American. Or perhaps “too American”. ( Is that a thing? ) This is a movie about what happens when things go terribly horribly wrong. Here we see a democratic system bastardized that, on its face, is a pretty ideologically sound system to aspire to. In classic films, there were a spate of “Message Movies” that dealt with the miscarriage of justice and mob rule. There’s Fritz Lang’s “Fury” (1936) and “You Only Live Once” (1937). There was “Black Legion” (1937) with Bogie, and “Storm Warning” (1951). The press gets its hands dirty in “Ace in the Hole” (1951), and there’s the full-frontal insanity of “Paths of Glory” (1957). And let me not leave out the still devastating “Ox Bow Incident” (1943). “They Won’t Forget” is in league with these films; its story is based on the Leo Frank / Mary Phagan murder trial. Leo Frank is accused of killing thirteen-year old Phagan back in 1915 Atlanta. The story has been realized four times in movies, with names and locations changed. Oscar Micheaux tackled the story twice with his silent: “The Gunsaulus Mystery” (1921) and its 1935 remake: “Murder in Harlem”. Then there was the 1988 tv-movie starring Jack Lemmon – ( “The Murder of Mary Phagan” ). The way LeRoy unfurls his film feels like riding a train rolling inexorably towards a cliff. There’s no stopping it, no explaining it, no reasoning with it.
The thing is, this is a man-made thing. This is no immutable Law of Nature. But once the hate-lust is put in place, nothing on earth can stop it. The campaign of injustice is a three-pronged assault, aided and abetted by:
- The Media
- Mob rule
- Politics / The Law
At least two of the three elements are supposed to be arbiters of the truth. I’d say especially the press has a duty to factually report what’s going on; keep things honest. Checks and balances and all that sort of rot. But different factions are in bed with each other that blur those lines of objectivity:
The Press and the Police The Press and Politics / the Law
In this instance all three ( The Media, Mob Rule and Politics & The Law ) beautifully work together in concert with one another like cogs in a wheel, to railroad and destroy one man’s life.
* * * * * * * * *
Allyn Joslyn – plays Bill Brock, reporter. He’s bored. There’s nothing to do in this bohunk town. And then a young woman is murdered. He comes alive; has a job worth doing. But instead of reporting a story…he creates the story. He starts to collect bits and pieces of information. He crafts a tale…not based on cold hard evidence, but on gossip, hearsay, how HE wants to spin things. ( Sound familiar, Fox Ne…I mean, folks? ) One of the more despicable things he does is visits the Accused’s wife, take pictures without her permission, gets another reporter to pump the wife for ‘her side of the story’, search through her apartment without a warrant. He does have one infinitesimal moment of sympathy for her…but it quickly passes. Once Joslyn gets through reporting, his slant sensationalizes everything beyond beyond.
The freedom of the press. I don’t think it means what he thinks it means. Teletype flies fast and furiously…frantic calls go to the paper’s front desk to scoop other newspapers. Events are embellished, situations metastasize. Joslyn’s now giving blow by blow courtroom descriptions via loudspeakers, to a crowd…a throng…the mob, in front of the courthouse.
They’re not solely to blame, but much of the destruction lies at the press’ feet. If only it had sought out the truth; report the shady goings on of the Prosecution, and the low rumblings of the mob. That might be the story. That might be a Pulitzer. But he takes the easy route and picks the low hanging fruit of hate and headlines. Joslyn does a marvelous job in this role. He’s oily, slimy and wants more…more…MORE. You want to kill him.
* * * * * * * * *
Front and center, actor Trevor Bardette
C’mon. Let’s not pussyfoot around. They’re racists. They don’t trust the North; those old Civil War resentments come into play. They’re also racists. Did I mention racists? In particular the Clay Brothers. Yes, they have a dog in this fight with their sister being killed.
But as this movie rolls along you sort of forget that this is about her. ( Lana Turner makes her auspicious screen debut as Mary Clay ). I could stretch my empathy to feel their pain, but there’s something ominous about those Clay boys.
Larger forces come into play. The brothers’ presence is a heavy shroud over everything. They inhabit a parallel world…a shadow world. They have a hold over the townspeople. Hell, they are the townspeople and the townspeople are them. When the dead girl’s boyfriend is questioned by the police he quivers and quakes and protests his innocence. NO ONE does that better than Elisha Cook Jr., who’s made a career out of being ‘that guy.’ When he’s with the boys in the poolhall, his bravado comes out. But when one of the Clay Brothers visits, Cook is weasly again. Clay says little; he doesn’t have to.
He has an ominous and threatening presence. No man stands up to him. They all cave. You think they’re protecting Southern womanhood? Well, that’s a good excuse as any. You wouldn’t want to meet this mob in a dark alley. Their creed hangs over these proceedings.
“We know how this is gonna end.”
* * * * * * * * *
( Continued on page 2 )