Thursday, March 29, 2012

They Won't Forget

I thought I had blogged about the film They Won't Forget before, but a Blogger search claims I haven't. It's airing tomorrow morning at 6:45 AM on TCM, and is an effective, underrated movie.

The scene is a small southern city in the (then) present (the movie was released in 1937) celebrating Confederate Memorial Day, with a small number of veterans of the Civil War still around to remember those days. Everybody in town celebrates, with the exception of one teacher at the local business college (Edward Norris), who can't be bothered to celebrate because he's a northern transplant. The day is a half day for everybody, and Norris lets his secretarial students out, only for one of them (a young Lana Turner in one of her earliest roles) to return looking for a compact she accidentally left in the room. Unfortunately, she winds up dead at the bottom of the building's elevator shaft, discovered by the black janitor who is understandably terrified that the cops are going to suspect him. After all, this is the South with all its racist stereotypes of black people unable to get justice, especially not when a pretty girl has been killed. It doesn't help either that you've got a people braying for justice, and a district attorney (Claude Rains) who is politically ambitious and willing to do anything ot get ahead in his career. Thankfully for the janitor, though, there's a better suspect: Norris, the outsider who is also the last person known to have seen Turner alive.

It's only in the past year that we've been through the media frenzy of the Casey Anthony trial and those in the media eager to pronounce the defendant guilty before there's even a trial, which shows that They Won't Forget is still a timely movie 75 years after its original release. And as with the trials of today, there's not only the ambitious prosecutor and a vengeful citizenry, but a media that's just as much out for blood; of course, 75 years earlier there was no live TV coverage of trials because there was pretty much no TV at all. But all the same factors were in place to ensure that it would be exceedingly difficult for the defendant to get justice. All this despite the strictures of the Production Code.

Then again, one of the things helping all this get past the folks in the Code Office is that despite the standard boilerplate about all the characters being fictitious, with any semblance to real people being purely coincidental, They Won't Forget is generally considered by those who know Southern history to be based upon actual events that happened in the Atlanta area back in the early teens, with a few changes. In real life, the murder victim was 12 or 13; here she's supposed to be about 18. Perhaps more interestingly is the hapless defendant's being a northener in the film. You'd think that would make it harder to get good bookings for this film in the south. In the original case, the defendant was Jewish, and the bias was anti-Semitism. Perhaps Hollywood's disproportionately Jewish moguls didn't want any grumblings from a largely Christian viewing public about a prejudice that didn't affect them.

As for the film itself, it's superb, thanks in no small part to Claude Rains' acting. (Well, aside from the southern accent, although Rains was just as good with a phony New York accent in They Made Me a Criminal.) Turner doesn't have much to do here since she gets killed off early; what she does have she does well. The defendant, and especially his wife (Gloria Dickson) are quite good; and then there's Elisha Cook, Jr., playing Turner's boyfriend. For some reason, he always comes across as creepy, even when he's supposed to be a reasonably good guy, as in Don't Bother To Knock. Finally, there are all the Warner Bros. values; they and director Mervyn LeRoy excelled at the sort of social commentary you'll see in this picture.

They Won't Forget has gotten a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive, although to be honest, it probably deserves even better. Compare and contrast it with MGM's Fury.

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