In the 1937 They Won’t Forget, Mary Clay, a pretty young schoolgirl, was brutally raped and murdered on Confederate Decoration Day in America’s Deep South. The movie was an adaptation of Ward Greene’s novel Death in the Deep South which was in itself a fictionalisation of the real life murder of Mary Phagan by Leo Frank in 1913.
Mary Phagan was aged just thirteen and worked in a pencil factory in Atlanta; a factory that Frank managed. On 26th April 1913, Mary had gone to collect her wages, but she never returned home; her dead body was found the following day, covered in sawdust in the basement of the factory.
Frank was the last person to see the girl alive and although hisousekeeper provided an alibi for the presumed time of death, and there were inconsistent statements from another suspect, factory janitor Jim Conley, the jury chose to believe the prosecution’s allegations that Frank was a sexual pervert—allegations which were questionable to say the least—but this was a rare occasion when a white man was convicted on the evidence of a Southern black man.
Leo Frank, who was Jewish by religion, was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment on review.
However Frank was hospitalised after having his throat cut by a prison inmate before, on 17th August 1915, being kidnapped by a twenty-five-strong lynch mob and driven to Mary’s home town of Marietta, Georgia, where he was hanged from a tree. Not only were there some fairly prominent citizens within the mob—a son of a senator, a former governor, a former judge, a Methodist minister, the Cobb County sheriff and his deputies, as well as Mary Phagan’s uncle D. R. Benton—but many photographs were taken and sold with residents proudly posing in front of the dead body.
In 1986, Leo Frank was granted a posthumous pardon in recognition of the state’s failure to protect the businessman or bring his killers to justice; however, the pardon did not address Frank’s guilt or innocence of the crime for which he was convicted.
Back to They Won’t Forget, the young actress chosen to portray Mary Clay was the unknown teenager Julia Turner, who had recently assumed the stage name Lana.
In the movie, suspicion for Mary Clay’s murder initially fell on negro janitor Tump Redwine (played by Clinton Rosemond), but it was one of Mary’s teachers Robert Hale (Edward Norris) who ultimately became the focal point of the murder investigation, and the film followed the pattern of the true story as, despite nothing more than circumstantial evidence, Hale was convicted before dying at the hands of a lynch mob, which was led by Mary’s three brothers.
Lana’s appearance was brief, but memorable and her iconic fifteen-second walk dressed in a tight skirt and even tighter sweater earned her not only national attention, but the nickname of “The Sweater Girl”—a label she hated.
Many years later, in her autobiography The Lady, the Legend, the Truth, Lana revealed just how she felt when she visited the cinema with her mother and watched herself on screen for the first time: “When the lights went down, I slumped in my seat and grabbed my mother’s hand. The sound track’s jazzy, earthy beat magnified the image on the screen. It was a young girl—was it me?—but, my God, the way she walked!
“The audience began to stir as the camera angle shifted. That walk was more than teasing - it was seductive. Her breasts and backside were not that full, but when she walked they bounced. From behind me came an audible growl, and a chorus of wolf whistles filled the hall.
“’Who’s the girl?’ I heard someone ask, but I had tears in my eyes. I slipped down farther in my seat until I was resting on my spine. Only the brim of my new hat stopped me from sliding to the floor.
“At the end of the reel, when the credits rolled up, my name was listed sixth. Lana Turner—the first time it had ever appeared on screen. ‘Let’s get out of here,’ I urged my mother, who seemed to be in a daze. A production assistant swept us out before the lights came on.
“As we hurried to a waiting car, I clutched the young man’s sleeve. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Tell me. I don’t really look like that.’
“He cut me off with a slight smile. ‘Fortunately,’ he said, ‘you do!"