The title of the 1937 film They Won’t Forget works on many levels.
It describes the reaction of a small Southern town, following the brutal murder of teenager Mary Clay (played, in her film debut, by Lana Turner). The town won’t forget Mary and they won’t forget the terror caused by her murder. They also won’t forget that local teacher Robert Hale (Edward Norris) was accused of the crime.
The district attorney, Andrew Griffin (Claude Rains), hopes that the people of his state won’t forget his efforts to see Griffin convicted of that crime. Griffin wants to be elected to the U.S. Senate and he knows that the high profile case could be just what his career needs.
The Governor (Paul Everton) knows that, if he steps into the case and acts on his suspicion that Hale is innocent, the voters of his state will never forget. And they certainly won’t be willing to forgive.
And, on a larger level, the title lets us know that the South and the North will never forget the Civil War and the conflict between the two regions. The film opens with three elderly veterans of the Confederate Army, preparing to march in the town’s annual Confederate Memorial Day parade and admitting to each other that, after all these years, it’s difficult to remember much about the war other than the fact that they’re proud that they fought in it.
It’s while the rest of the town is busy watching Griffin and the governor ride in the parade that Mary Clay is murdered. It’s easy to assume that Hale was the murderer because Hale was one of the few townspeople not to go to the parade. You see, Hale is originally from New York City. When he’s accused of murder, it’s equally easy for Griffin and tabloid reporter William A. Brock (Allyn Joslyn) to convince the town people to blame this Northern intruder for both the murder of Mary Clay and, symbolically, for all of the post-Civil War struggles of the South itself.
Meanwhile, up North, Hale is seen as a victim of the South’s intolerance. A high-profile lawyer (Otto Kruger) is sent down to defend Hale but, as quickly becomes clear, everyone involved in the case is more interested in refighting the Civil War than determining the guilt or innocence of Andrew Hale.
They Won’t Forget is a hard-hitting and fascinating look at politics, justice, and paranoia. It’s all the more interesting because it’s based on a true story. In 1913, a 13 year-old girl named Mary Phagan was murdered in Atlanta. Leo Frank was accused and convicted of the murder. (In Frank’s case, he was born in Texas but was also Jewish and had previously lived in New York before moving to Atlanta, all of which made him suspicious in the eyes of many.) On the word of a night watchmen, who many believe was the actual murderer of Mary Phagan, Leo Frank was convicted and sentence to death. After spending days reviewing all of the evidence and growing convinced that Frank had been wrongly convicted, Georgia’s governor committed an act of political suicide by commuting Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. Leo Frank was subsequently lynched and the man who had prosecuted the case against him was subsequently elected governor.
Well-acted and intelligently directed, They Won’t Forget is probably one of the best films of which few people have heard. Fortunately, it shows up fairly regularly on TCM and, the next time that it does, be sure to watch. It’s a great film that you won’t easily forget.