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They Won't Forget (1937) is widely regarded as the film that launched the career of Lana Turner. Prior to it, the teenaged Judy Turner had only appeared as an uncredited extra in a few films. Even though she is only onscreen for a few minutes, the newly renamed Lana Turner makes a lasting impression.
They Won't Forget is based on the Ward Greene novel, Death in the Deep South and Turner plays a southern schoolgirl named Mary Clay who is murdered on campus. The two main suspects are a black janitor and a northern teacher. The District Attorney (Claude Rains) decides it would be more of a challenge and a better boost for his political career to successfully convict the northern teacher, Robert Hale (Edward Norris). Local papers emphasize that the accused is from the north and before long everyone but his wife and mother believes he is guilty. So, based only on circumstantial evidence, the prejudiced jury convicts Hale and sentences him to death. The governor, however, recognizes the injustice and commutes his sentence to life in prison. But on the way to the jail, a lynch mob abducts Hale and dispenses its own form of justice. According to Variety, "The film pulls no punches, indicting lynch law and mob fury with scalpel-like precision...It pounds across a powerful story with a maximum of quiet dramatic impact."
Ward Greene based his novel on the notorious Leo Frank case. In 1913, Frank was accused of murdering thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan at a pencil factory in Atlanta. Frank, a northern Jew, was convicted on circumstantial evidence and then killed by a lynch mob. The incident sparked numerous books and movies.
Lana Turner's twelve minutes on screen in They Won't Forget caught the attention of film critics and moviegoers, mostly for the seventy-five foot tracking shot that follows her walking down the street wearing a tight sweater, skirt, and spiked heels. According to producer and director Mervyn LeRoy, "It was very important that the girl in our story have what they call 'flesh impact.' She had to make it look like it was a sex murder. You'll notice we never use the word 'rape' in the screenplay. We couldn't say things like that in those days. I figured that a tight sweater on a beautiful young girl would convey to the audience everything we couldn't say outright." Turner recalls going to the theater with her mother to see the film and being shocked at the way she looked on screen. In The Films of Lana Turner, the actress describes herself as an object in They Won't Forget, "She was enough to start a reaction leading up to a murder all right. But she certainly did not seem to be me." The whistles from the audience also surprised her. Turner states, "For quite a while I was ashamed to face people. I also found it embarrassing to turn my back on them."
Lana Turner may have felt like hiding, but critics knew she would be back. Kenneth McCaleb of the New York Daily Mirror wrote, "a girl named Lana Turner exits from the screen much too early to suit me; I want to see more of her and have no doubt that I shall, for she looks to me like a natural." Twenty years later when the film was reissued, Turner was billed as the main star.
Director/Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Aben Kandel and Robert Rossen. Based on a novel by Ward Greene.
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Claude Rains (District Attorney Andy Griffin), Gloria Dickson (Sybil Hale), Edward Norris (Robert Hale), Otto Kruger (Gleason), Allyn Joslyn (Bill Brock), Lana Turner (Mary Clay).
BW-96m. Closed captioning.
by Deborah Looney