They Won't Forget(1937)
Director: Mervyn Leroy
Cast: Claude Rains, Gloria Dickson, Edward Norris
This is a film guaranteed to piss a few people off. It's a horror story of a different sort, than is usually found on this blog. This film is about the horror of corruption, greed and prejudice. Despite the title, this film has been forgotten by far too many people and for no earthly reason, because it's a fantastic drama that still packs a punch after nearly 80 years.
The film begins with the annual Confederacy memorial day in a small southern town. Only a few veterans are left and they contemplate whether or not people will remember what they fought for. What at first appears to be an oddly nostalgic look back at the old south, becomes something much more compex when a beautiful young woman is found murdered and a northern teacher, Robert Hale(Edward Norris) is put on trial. Overly ambitious District Attorney, Andy Griffin(Claude Rains, and yes I laughed at his screen character's name, too) is trying to find a man to convict to get him into the governor's seat. With the aid of some weasly newspaper men, the trial is held and Hale is convicted, despite the best efforts of his northern lawyer, Michael Cleason(Otto Kruger), who has to fight blind prejudice and corruption as jury members are threatened and propaganda is spread. I often give a ful synopsis in my reviews, but I just can't give away the ending of this film. It's such an abrupt and painful one, that it's lesson should be experienced rather than read in a critic's blog. It's that powerful and as I began this review, guaranteed to incite the viewer and likely, piss him/her off.
The film's story is based on the murder trial of Leo M. Frank in 1915, who was convicted of murdering a 13 year old girl. He was a northerner as well, and was also a jew, which raised more prejudice than even his Northern background.
They Won't Forget is a legitimately great film and one of the least analyzed of the golden age. There's not many reviews out there for this one, even though the venerable Leonard Maltin awarded this a four star review in his essential movie guide. One would assume such praise would be noticed, but alas, that has not been the case. Mervyn Leroy was one of the most capable directors of the time and handles the duties well, combining suspense and tension to a near fever pitch throughout. He directs the film much like he did the earlier and equally powerful, I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang(1932). It's a gritty, uncompromising picture and unlike most made at the time. The film is fast-paced and never falters for a moment as the film builds to it's shocking and unexpected conclusion. The cast are all uniformly excellent and quite vivid in their portrayals. Rains is always excellent in anything he appears in, but this has to be one of his finest roles. He's a much more vile character than even the character portrayed in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington(1939), which initially I thought this might have been a warm-up for. His commanding court room speeches are powerful and frightening, reminding one of how one speaker can warp and influence so many. The current threat of nazi Germany certainly came to mind when I viewed this character's ruthless rise to power. Edward Norris was always an underrated talent. He always portrays likeable and engaging characters and you really sympathize for his plight as the town closes in around him and the old blood still bristles at the North. His ultimate fate is tragic and difficult to watch. Gloria Dickson is effective as the wife of Norris, defending him to the end and perhaps giving the most powerful scene at film's conclusion, in her confrontation with Rains and her slamming of his greedy, corrupt ways. There's a wealth of character actors here, including Elisha Cook Jr., Allyn Joslyn and Kruger, all who are excellent. Special notice must go to the murder victim, portrayed by a young and incredibly sexy, Lana Turner. She certainly stood out in a tight sweater, bouncing around as she strolled down the street and I wondered who this babe was? When I saw the credits, I was very surprised to see it was Turner, who I didn't recognize with brunette hair. This was her first film role, being discovered only a month before production.
It's sad to say that many of the themes present in this film, still linger today as prejudice and racial tension are present. Despite, nearly 150 years between us and the close of the Civil War, the tensions still remain, however small and even after all these decades, the film's message is still as powerful as it was upon release. Sadly, it's only available through warnerarchive.com and that's a shame as this film should be more available to the consumer. Still, I guess we should be glad it's available at all! Hopefully, this film will be seen and such lessons can be learned from. Seek out this film and give it a view. They Won't Forget and neither will you.