Monday, November 2, 2009

Perfectly Frank

Back in September, when character great Claude Rains was being feted as TCM’s Star of the Month, the cable movie channel unspooled one of my favorite Rains films, the 1937 social drama They Won't Forget. Rains plays an ambitious District Attorney in this one, seeking to prosecute a business school teacher (Edward Norris) for the mysterious death of a young student (Lana Turner, in her first major film role) simply because the man is (gasp) a Northerner and has earned the enmity of many of the citizens in Rains’ burg. The teacher is convicted on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence, and just before he is scheduled to hang the state’s governor (Paul Everton) commutes his sentence to life imprisonment. However, the good people of the town strenuously object to this turn of events and, stopping the train that is taking him to the penitentiary, decide to administer a little justice of their own. Forget is a sobering and scorching indictment of both injustice and mob rule, and though it doesn’t quite pack the dramatic punch that it did upon its release, is still must-see viewing.

Forget was produced by Warner Bros. as another in their series of hard-hitting “social protest” films, and the opening preface states that oh-so-familiar "Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental" disclaimer. But in this instance, it’s simply not true. The film was inspired by a real-life courtroom drama that focused on Leo Frank, the manager of The National Pencil Company in Atlanta, GA, and Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old girl whom Frank was accused of bludgeoning and sexually molesting. Police initially arrested a black janitor, Jim Conley, for the deed—but with the help of a race-baiting Atlanta newspaper publisher named Tom Watson (who allegedly asked: “We can lynch a n****r any time—but when do we get a chance to hang a Yankee Jew?”) the attention soon turned to Frank, considered an “outsider” by the community…and Conley wound up as the state’s star witness against the innocent Frank.

Forget completely whitewashes the Jewish angle, and the true story of the case would lie dormant, movie-wise, until fifty years later when an outstanding TV-movie was produced entitled The Murder of Mary Phagan (1988), starring Peter Gallagher as the wronged man and a cast that included Jack Lemmon (as Governor John Slaton, the man who commuted Leo’s sentence), Robert Prosky (as Watson), Charles S. Dutton (as Conley), Richard Jordan, Rebecca Miller, Parkersburg’s own Paul Dooley, Kevin Spacey, Cynthia Nixon, William H. Macy and Dylan Baker. The story also became the subject of an unsuccessful 1998 Broadway musical (yes, musical) Parade, and the subject of several books—the best being Steve Oney’s And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.

I mention all this to alert you to a documentary scheduled to be shown on PBS’ always intriguing American Experience series this evening (this article says it will be shown at 10:00pm but you’d do well to check your local listings; Experience is on Georgia Public Broadcasting, for example, at 9:00pm) entitled The People vs. Leo Frank. I haven’t seen it, but I’m definitely going to be sitting down for it tonight—I thought I’d pass this along for those of you who may have already seen They Won’t Forget and are curious to catch what that film left out.

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