FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Murder of Mary Phagan
Reviewed by Thomas Doherty

Kevin Spacey as  Wes Brent  and William H. Macy as Randy  

Kevin Spacey as Wes Brent and William H. Macy as Randy 

Produced by George Stevens, Jr. Productions in association with Century Towers Productions; produced by George Stevens, Jr.; directed by Billy Hale; written by Stevens and Jeffrey Lane, based on a story by Larry McMurtry; cinematography by Nic Knowland; music by Maurice Jarre; starring Jack Lemmon, Richard Jordon, Robert Prosky, Peter Gallagher, Kathryn Walker, Charles Dutton, Paul Dooley, and Kevin Spacey. DVD, color, 203 min., distributed by MGM Limited Collection Series.

The strange fruit from the Leo Frank case is picked over again in The Murder of Mary Phagan, a five-hour television miniseries from 1988. The DVD resurrection comes courtesy of MGM’s Limited Collection Series, a bare-bones repackaging of the back catalog, some worthy of a second life, some better left in the mausoleum. It’s a no-frills package, without commentary tracks, liner notes, extras, even a menu of chapter breaks. Given the controversial, convoluted byways of this notorious and oft-chronicled tale of crime and punishment in the maw of the Jim Crow South, a crib sheet and some assigned reading would have been nice. A complete version of the original telecast would have been even nicer.

In historical context, the facts of the case are commonplace enough. On the night of August 16, 1915, two dozen well-armed, well-disciplined vigilantes (not a liquored-up mob of deratiocinated hicks) broke in to the Milledgeville State Prison in central Georgia and dragged inmate Leo Frank from his cell. Driving in convoy to Marietta, the group convened under an oak tree outside town and, not being novices to such extralegal action, calmly and efficiently hanged their prey for the murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old girl who had worked under Frank at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta. On April 26, 1913, Confederate Memorial Day, Phagan’s battered and possibly raped body had been found in the basement of the building. Suspicion quickly fell on Frank, the factory manager and multiple auslander: he was from Brooklyn, a Jew, and an industrialist. After a sensational trial, the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to death. When Georgia Governor John M. Slaton commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Frank seemed to have slipped from the hangman’s noose—until the so-called Knights of Mary Phagan overturned the governor’s decision.

What made the Frank lynching different from thousands of similar acts of vigilante injustice in the post-Civil War south was not that the victim was white, or well-to-do, or a Yankee stranger, or even that he was Jewish, but that a perfectly good African American suspect was available as a likely candidate for the ceremony—the factory’s janitor, Jim Conley. Why lynch Frank when a black man was so close at hand and presumptively guilty? To break up the monotony? No wonder the event has tantalized so many scholars and a surprising number of filmmakers.

Originally telecast over Sunday and Tuesday night on January 24 and 26, 1988, on NBC, The Murder of Mary Phagan is a well-crafted précis of the case that was, for Georgia, truly the crime of the century. Handsomely mounted in a faux period way, where the clothes are sharp, the vintage cars are cherry, and the teeth are California perfect, the film persuades us not for a minute that we are in Atlanta in 1913. (We are actually in Richmond, Virginia, a suitable body double.) Everything is perfectly polished and starched. Even the brothels look clean and wholesome. By the grisly standards of today’s prime-time forensic noirs, it is a squeamish and pristine crime-scene investigation, still very much under the shackles of Television Code self-censorship. (A crucial piece of evidence in the Frank case was a pile of human excrement; in the miniseries, it becomes an umbrella.)

Little matter: the solid virtues of the venerable genre from the heyday—or rather twilight—of three-network hegemony are their own compensation, especially the crisp professionalism evident throughout the entire production and the languid confidence of a melodrama that takes its sweet time to wind up for the punch. By the early 1970s, the TV miniseries and MOW (movie of the week) had inherited many of the duties of the postwar Hollywood social problem film. Year in and year out, a lineup of earnest melodramas, instructional in tone and ready to handle the Big Issues, broke up the flow of picaresque sitcoms and formula cop shows. Some of the entries were pretty trashy and tedious—Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) and The Winds of War (1983)—but others— Roots (1977), Holocaust (1978), The Day After (1982), The Burning Bed (1984), and An Early Frost (1985)—were authentic cultural landmarks, bluntly tackling issues heretofore verboten (slavery, genocide, nuclear winter, spouse abuse, and AIDS, respectively) at a time when the Hollywood feature film was largely missing in action.

The Murder of Mary Phagan glows with the righteousness of high-serious, noble-minded Quality Television, and brandishes the pedigree to prove it: based on a story by Larry McMurtry, with a score by Maurice Jarre, and infused with the social conscience of producer and cowriter George Stevens, Jr., the creative force behind the project, the person who would today be called the showrunner.

The unfolding of the case is ready made for the act in/act out rhythms of television narrative timed to the beat of commercial interruption—Phagan’s death, the perfunctory investigation, the accusation, the media frenzy, the trial, the political machinations, the fateful decision by Slaton, and the lynching of a man, once a cipher, who at some point during his season in hell becomes quietly heroic. In the telefilm’s telling, Frank is not really railroaded by unscrupulous politicians and ambitious prosecutors; he is the luckless victim of blind prejudice and police incompetence. Despite the occasional ethnic slur, the venom spat at Frank is less religious than regional. He is a vessel into which rural Georgia pours its shame for being forced to sell the flower of its young womanhood to the Yankee bosses in the big city.

Part of the pleasure of revisiting television retrieved from the time capsule is rebonding with familiar faces and spotting future stars. In an offbeat casting choice that works, pretty goy-boy Peter Gallagher plays Frank as a quirky type, obviously not at home in the Deep South or his own skin, and not just because of the New York Jew thing. When he eyes the girls and walks into the women’s washroom, is he a creep—or just a jerk to work for? Charles Dutton nails the pivotal role of Jim Conley, the janitor and probable perpetrator. A wily scoundrel in real life, Conley used the racism of the time to deflect suspicion from himself. In accusing Frank, the story he wove was so intricately detailed, and his parrying of the defense attorneys’ cross-examination so deft, that the all-white jury assumed he could only be telling the truth. No mere black man could outsmart a slick white lawyer. The acting challenge for the agile Dutton is to convey that intelligence to the viewer without being so obvious as to tip off the jury. In addition to Paul Dooley as the unctuous but effective private detective William Burns and Richard Jordan as the oleaginous prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, the cast includes early versions of Dylan Baker, William H. Macy, and Cynthia Nixon, but the actor you can’t take your eyes off is Kevin Spacey. Soon to break through with his performance as the psychotic Mel Proffit in the long-arc templateWiseguy (1988), he plays a boozy reporter who smells the story of a lifetime and eventually sniffs out something more.

Having secured an intertextual lock on the personification of middle-American decency in films such as The China Syndrome (1979 and Missing (1982), Jack Lemmon as Governor Slaton is the moral center of the film. Like most accounts of the Frank case, the narrative moves inexorably away from the plight of the accused and toward the moral dilemma facing Slaton as he considers the appeal to commute Frank’s sentence. Slaton weighed the evidence, found it wanting, and, to the fury of the electorate and the termination of his political career, commuted Frank’ s sentence to life imprisonment. Tragically, the people of Georgia would not be denied their pounds of Northern Jewish flesh.

In 1988, The Murder of Mary Phagan drew critical plaudits and high Nielsen ratings. “It is a powerful, gripping, conscientious piece of work,” wrote Tom Shales in TheWashington Post, voicing the consensus. Only the trade-minded Variety demurred. “As a case, The Murder of Mary Phagan still chills; as a 5-hour tele-film, there’s not much conviction.” The drama had enough conviction for the Academy of Television Arts and Science, however, who awarded the show the Emmy that year for outstanding miniseries.

As noted above, the Frank case has been a fertile source for screen treatments both coded and uncoded. In Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television, published in 2009, film historian Matthew H. Bernstein illuminated four depictions of the case, two on the big screen, two on the small. The feature films were Oscar Micheaux’sMurder In Harlem (1934), a racial and regional reimagining by the pioneering African American filmmaker who, Bernstein speculates, may have covered the case as a reporter; and Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget (1937), a searing example of Depression-era Warner Bros. social consciousness, which mentions neither Frank, Jews, nor Georgia. The other television docudrama was “Governor John M. Slaton,” an episode from NBC’s Profiles in Courage (1964-1965), a JFK-certified series focusing on the moral courage of the Georgia governor. (When JFK approved the series based on his book, he insisted that all the episodes focus on acts of moral courage in politics, not acts of physical bravery on the battlefield.) Bernstein asserts that of all four depictions, the miniseries “delivers the most nuanced and fullest account of what befell Mary Phagan, Leo Frank, and John M. Slaton—and why.” Subsequent to Bernstein’s book, Ben Loeterman’s The People v. Leo Frank (2009) gave the case the full-on documentary treatment.

Given the obsessive interest in the Frank case and the high profile of The Murder of Mary Phagan, it is befuddling to learn that the MGM Limited Collection edition is missing nearly eighteen minutes of footage from the original telecast. A reviewer on first noted the gaping lacuna at the end of Part I, from the Sunday night telecast of January 24, 1988. By my count, ten sequences are missing, including scenes where a group of outraged Jewish leaders confronts Governor Slaton and County Solicitor Dorsey to protest the “virulent anti-Semitism which permeates your trial”; Dorsey’s summation to the jury, in which he disavows anti-Semitism and proclaims his esteem for the Jewish race; and Frank’s dignified final statement to the court (“I told you the truth...the whole help me God.”). I am not conspiratorially minded, but the missing chunk of footage—about the running time of a single reel of 35mm film—contains the most explicit highlighting of the Jewish angle in the entire telefilm. The MGM DVD label insists, “this film has been manufactured using the best source material available.” That seems unlikely. The 1992 Orion Home Video release on VHS includes the full 221-minute running time of the original.

Responding to an email inquiry about the omission in the MGM version, George Stevens, Jr. expressed consternation. “I was appalled to hear your report on The Murder of Mary Phagan,” he wrote. “I had not been told by MGM that a new release was in the works and it is unforgivable carelessness to release an incomplete version. It is a film constructed with great care and we pared it to its essence in editing. Missing scenes will leave the viewer befuddled.” Promising to get to the bottom of the matter with MGM, he continued, “Having shepherded my father’s films through the rocky shoals of preservation, it is distressing to find that a relatively recent work would be handled this way. I suspect they simply didn’t notice that reels were missing from the transfer.”

Two other legacies of the Leo Frank case need to be mentioned, both concerning race-related organizations whose reach has stretched into twenty-first-century American culture. Spooked by the raw anti-Semitism in a nation heretofore more tolerant of Jews than any in history, B’nai B’rith, the Jewish fraternal association, founded the Anti-Defamation League to combat discrimination of all kinds in the United States. The second outfit got an added push from the burgeoning motion-picture medium. Frank’s lynching came in the wake of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), the film that glorified the exploits of the South’s nightriding vigilantes during the Reconstruction era. On Thanksgiving Day, 1915, the Knights of Mary Phagan met on Stone Mountain near Atlanta and, taking a cue from the Little Colonel’s ritual pledge of vengeance for his beloved Little Sister in the Griffith epic, vowed a blood oath to racial purity and resurrected the Ku Klux Klan.

Addendum: Producer George Stevens, Jr. brought the issue of the missing eighteen minutes of footage from The Murder of Mary Phagan to the attention of MGM. MGM responded: “Yes, apparently the master of the film was sent to the distributor in 3 tapes. When they authored the disc, they inadvertently left out one of the tapes, hence the missing 18 minutes of film. They have fixed the mistake and what the consumer can now purchase at retail is the complete film. The distributor is in the process of notifying customers and replacing any DVDs ordered with the missing 18 minutes.” So this angle of the Leo Frank case is closed.

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of several books.

To purchase The Murder of Mary Phagan, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3