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The working titles of this film were Phenix City and Wide Open Town. The film's credits are preceded by a thirteen-minute documentary sequence in which noted reporter Clete Roberts interviews several of the townspeople involved in the actual incidents that occurred in Phenix City, AL, including reporter Ed Strickland, who, along with fellow reporter Gene Wortsman wrote a book about Phenix City; townsmen Hugh Bentley and Hugh Britton, who fought against the organized crime that controlled the city; and the widow of Albert L. Patterson, the Alabama State Attorney General nominate who was murdered by the crime syndicate opposed to his reforms.
As noted by Roberts, Patterson was killed on June 18, 1954 and was succeeded by his son John Patterson, a fellow lawyer and World War II veteran. [John Patterson went on to serve as governer of Alabama from 1959 to 1963.] The town, which was dubbed "Sin City, U.S.A." by the national press, had long been controlled by gambling, prostitution, drugs and racketeering syndicates, which catered to tourists and soldiers from nearby Columbus, GA. According to the Motion Picture Herald Prod Digest review of The Phenix City Story, the newsreel footage of Roberts was offered to exhibitors at no extra charge, and did not have to be included when showing the picture. The film ran 87 minutes without the newsreel, and 100 minutes with it. The viewed print included the newsreel footage.
At the conclusion of the newsreel, the film's credits roll, followed by a written statement that reads: "There is no other place in the world as Phenix City, Alabama. For almost one hundred years it has been the modern Pompeii where vice and corruption were the order of the day. Unlike Pompeii it did not require a Vesuvius to destroy it, for Phenix City is now a model community-orderly-progressive-and a tribute to the freedom loving peoples everywhere." Intermittent voice-over narration by Richard Kiley, as "John Patterson," is heard throughout the film, and at the end of the picture, "John" speaks directly to the camera, telling the audience that he intends to seek out and bring to justice his father's killers and with God's help, will keep closed the gambling establishments that have plagued the city.
Although an August 1954 Daily Variety news item reported that producer Samuel Bischoff had hired Crane Wilbur to write a "modernization of the Ray Golden yarn 'Wide Open Town,'" Golden's contribution to the completed film, if any, has not been determined. August and September 1954 Los Angeles Examiner news items announced that Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft were to be in the cast, and that screenwriter Crane Wilbur would direct the picture. As several reviews pointed out, many of the professional actors in the picture were recruited from television, and some, including Edward Andrews, Meg Myles and Ricky Klein made their feature-film debuts in The Phenix City Story. The picture's pressbook adds Eric von Stroheim, Jr. to the cast as a "heavy," and a March 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item includes Ann Hester in the cast, but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
Contemporary sources report that Wilbur did extensive research in Phenix City, where the picture was shot on location, and that many local citizens appeared as extras. An October 1955 LA Mirror-News article added that Phenix City resident Ma Beachie, who portrays herself in the film, was "the town's No. 1 madam." According to reviews and news items, the filmmakers were harassed and threatened by criminals remaining in Phenix City, as well as citizens who opposed the expos, but they were supported and protected by the Russell County Betterment Association.
According to information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, in early November 1954, the PCA decreed that the film's story was unacceptable due to "1. The presentation of white slavery. 2. The presentation of prostitutes and prostitution. 3. Excessive brutality." PCA officials also advise Bischoff that "in addition to the over-all problem of brutality, there was the specific item of the murder of the Negro child, which we thought was unacceptable." In January 1955, the film's basic story was approved, but the PCA continued to object to the "unusual amount of violence and brutality" in the story, as well as any portrayal of prostitution or the depiction of the murder of "Zeke Ward's" daughter. A June 1955 memo in the file indicates that after shooting on The Phenix City Story was completed, the PCA requested a number of cuts before it could be approved. Although the picture received an MPAA certificate on July 20, 1955, many of the details to which the PCA objected, such as the child's murder and men standing in line at a brothel, were in the released film.