Friday, February 5, 2021


Director Fritz Lang

California lynching following the kidnapping and murder of Brooke Hart





















FURY             A-                                                                                                                              USA  (92 mi)  1936  d: Fritz Lang

In this country people don’t land in jail unless they’re guilty.                                                    —a voice in the crowd

Fritz Lang is one of the founders of cinema, with a lengthy career extended from the early Silent era of 1919 until 1960, where his life epitomizes the birth and growth of cinema, deeply entrenched in its rich history.  But this film represented one of his greatest challenges, coming at such a difficult period in his life.  In 1933 he made the German crime thriller THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE, which contained anti-fascist elements, urging public resistance to the emerging fascist party.  He was subsequently called into the offices of Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda charged with enforcing Nazi ideology, informed that his film would be banned, yet he was also offered the job as head of the Nazi-controlled UFA studios.  Asked for time to consider, being part Jewish on his mother’s side, he fled the country that night, leaving his wife behind, who subsequently joined the Nazi party, coming first to Europe and then the United States in 1934, where this is his first film made in America, released just a year after becoming an American citizen, still, perhaps, having language difficulties.  Yet this is a very different kind of movie, a morality play moving from innocence to innocence lost, one of the strongest indictments of America’s small-town lynch mob mentality, coming years before Stuart Heisler’s Among the Living (1941) or William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), both dealing with the murderous effects of lawlessness from a lynch mob mentality, where vigilante justice replaces democracy, turning America’s ideals on its head.  Heisler’s film was made while Nazi’s were marching unchallenged throughout Europe while America sat on its hands in a position of neutrality, while Wellman’s film was made while America was at war, fighting on two battlefronts, in Europe and the Pacific, becoming a warning shot across the bow reminding viewers just what was at stake in the outcome.  But Lang’s film is the subject of great controversy, altered and tampered with by the studio, becoming a condensed version of what Lang had in mind, made earlier during Hitler’s rise to power transforming Germany into a fascist dictatorship with the Nazi regime eliminating all voices of opposition, fueled by mob violence, a subject Lang was intimately familiar with, having fled from Jewish persecution in Nazi-occupied Germany.  Lang originally envisioned a film about a black lynching, as there was a rise in lynching and mob violence in the 30’s, with NAACP lawyers drafting a federal anti-lynching bill that was killed in the Senate.  To perhaps no one’s amazement, to this day, it is still not a federal crime to lynch someone in America.  The subject, however, was taboo according to MGM head Louis B. Mayer, as his studio turned out family entertainment, not socially conscious filmmaking, with Mayer taking an active dislike to Lang, trying to bury the film upon its release, but Lang was able to sneak in a few scenes, appearing out of place and out of context, such as a black laundress (Edna Mae Harris) singing a slavery freedom song as she hangs out the wash, Oh Boys Carry Me 'Long STEPHEN FOSTER LYRICS ... YouTube (3:25), a scene cut out of the original print. 

Lang was never fully embraced by Hollywood, always viewing him with suspicion as a “foreigner,” as did critical reviews that accused him of anti-Americanism.  An additional thousand employees, both men and women from the German film industry also fled Nazi Germany, most finding employment in the newfound freedom of Hollywood, which welcomed the flood of immigrants, refugees, and exiles.  In the 1930’s Hollywood’s power rested with the movie moguls and producers, not with directors.  Lang was used to having total control over his pictures, never adjusting well to the American studio system, where he remained something of an outlier.  Unaware of labor laws and union rules, Lang was detested on the set for attempting to work through mandatory breaks, with Spencer Tracy vowing never to work with Lang again, with the director described as manipulative, abusive, and painfully insensitive.  Despite these problems, along with a studio-altered ending that infuriated the director, this is a powerful piece of filmmaking, where Lang’s vision of chaos and uncontrolled anarchy on the streets remained unequalled in American cinema until perhaps John Schlesinger’s THE DAY OF THE LOCUST (1975), using German Expressionist film techniques to convey a macabre horror, with close-ups on faces expressing a kind of unbridled glee while inflicting insurmountable damage, setting fire to a police station, targeting a lone prisoner who was suspected of kidnapping a young girl for ransom, who happened to be innocent, but mob hysteria drove the crowd into a feeding frenzy of violence, wanting blood on their hands, and they wouldn’t stop until they got it.  While the film is a stark metaphor for the fascist Storm Trooper tactics of Nazi Germany occurring on American soil, and who better than a prominent German director to film it, becoming a cautionary tale of warning in a time of dark turmoil, when democracy as the fabric holding our nation together is under siege.  Lang also exposes the hypocrisy of the court, revealing how it can be manipulated by outside forces behind the scenes to advance personal agendas, a rare exposé receiving little to no press and rarely identified or examined on any level.  The patriotism on display here, with repeated references to living up to the ideals of the Constitution, were typical of the building sentiment surrounding a world leading up to war, with the film accentuating what happens when all that is instantly thrown out the window, suddenly finding yourself without due process, at the mercy and victim of vigilante justice, where a simple spark fuels the flames of mob rule, where tyranny reigns.  Despite the film’s confusing oddities, the message remains appropriate today as well, where blacks continue to protest against racial injustice and police brutality after the gruesome murder of George Floyd, finding themselves exiles in their own country, targeted and victimized by racial stereotypes and profiling, including centuries of unremedied racial bias, claiming they are subject to different standards of justice and an unequal application of the law, pleading for their Constitutional rights, wanting the same rights and benefits as everybody else in the hopes of forming a “more perfect” union.

The 1930’s was the decade of the Scottsboro Boys, Scottsboro Boys - Trial, Case & Names - HISTORY, 9 black kids (ages 13 to 19) arrested in Alabama for rape while riding the rails (a common practice during Depression times), wrongfully accused by a group of white kids who initially attacked the blacks, claiming it was a “white” train, but when their own assault proved unsuccessful, they contacted the police, with two white women claiming they were raped.  When word got out a lynch mob formed demanding their release, with the National Guard called in to prevent that from happening.  All except the youngest were convicted of rape and sentenced to death, resulting in multiple appeals and retrials while they languished in prison even after the Supreme Court overturned their convictions, now widely considered a miscarriage of justice, highlighted by the use of all-white juries.  Blacks were routinely disenfranchised in the Jim Crow South and unable to vote, which prevented them from serving on jury pools as well.  In addition, Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, leader of the right-wing National Union for Social Justice, broadcast his hour-long radio show spewing hatred towards Jews and Communists, while supporting some of the fascist measures of Adolf Hitler in Germany.  In June 1934, Harper’s magazine published their lead article entitled, Must America Go Fascist?  This potential for fascism in America is at the heart of the film, which is filled with eloquent speeches about American democracy, but it’s less interested in politics than an angered mob’s disposition for violence.  Exiles and immigrants fleeing fascist Europe felt a particular responsibility not only to warn America against mob violence and the breakdown of law and order, but to fight for an idealized America that lived up to its values and principles.  The film is based on a real-life incident pulled directly from newspaper headlines occurring in San Jose, California in 1933 when two men were accused of kidnapping and murdering Brooke Hart, a likeable young department store heir, demanding $40,000 in ransom (Vigilantes in California lynch two suspected murderers ...).  When Hart’s decomposed body was discovered dumped in San Francisco Bay, a mob estimated to be as large as 15,000 people gathered in a park across from the jail demanding vigilante justice, eventually storming the police station, dragging the kidnappers to the park where they were stripped of their clothing, beaten, and hung from two different trees.  Child actor Jackie Coogan, a college friend of Brooke’s, reportedly held one of the ropes used in the lynching.  California Governor James Rolph refused to send in the National Guard, actually applauding the actions of the mob, vowing to pardon anyone who was convicted of the lynching.  In 1933 there were 28 reported lynchings, where all but four of the victims were black, yet it was the public spectacle of this notorious lynching that captured the nation’s imagination.  No one was ever indicted for the crime, one of the last lynchings to occur in the state of California, with hawkers selling post cards commemorating the event, even selling pieces of the tree limbs as souvenirs. 

In adapting the story to the screen, the original idea was presented by MGM writer Norman Krasna to noted screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz who was a producer on the film, largely because he spoke fluent German, at one time the Berlin correspondent for The Chicago Tribune.  Working with screenwriters Leonard Praskins and Bartlett Cormack (also a playwright), Mankiewicz largely provided the shape of the film, concluding that Tracy needed to be an ordinary man, a typical John Doe character, or an “average Joe.”  Adding a romance angle, Tracy as Joe Wilson is linked to Sylvia Sidney as Katherine Grant, a schoolteacher, with Wilson arrested by the police on the day of his intended marriage and held in jail on little more than flimsy evidence.  Aptly entitled, not to be confused with the Brian De Palma movie The Fury (1978), the film was released just 2 weeks after the execution of Bruno Hauptmann, an illegal immigrant from Germany charged in 1932 and convicted in 1935 for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindberg’s baby.  The round-the-clock publicity made this the trial of the century, but Hauptmann was convicted on circumstantial evidence, found with some of the ransom money, raising plenty of doubts and suspicions, which would have resonated with viewers at the time.  Made during the Depression when money is tight, forcing Katherine to take a job out of town in small-town America in order to accrue savings for their impending marriage.  After a year of living apart, the announced wedding day finally arrives, but Joe never shows up, having been stopped and detained by an overzealous deputy (Walter Brennan) on the lookout for the missing kidnappers.  When they discover a counterfeit $5 dollar bill in his pocket that was part of the ransom money, word spreads throughout town that they’re holding the kidnapper, who happens to be traveling with a small dog, appearing later as Toto in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939).  While the public rage seems fueled by implications of rape, which is never mentioned due to Pre-Code Hollywood standards, word spreads like wildfire, with exaggerations and animosity building, forming a mob with a predilection for attacking the sheriff and his deputies, breaking down the outside door to the police station with a battering ram, but they’re unable to reach the prisoner as the keys are actually thrown inside an empty jail cell that is locked, causing them to burn the building down, where the hellaceous mood grows into a frenzied explosion of fire and seething social discontent.  Much to Kate’s horror, she arrives on the scene as the jail is a blazing inferno of fire, witnessing the burning with Joe inside, utterly helpless and aghast at what she sees, with someone eventually throwing dynamite into the fire, Fury [1936] - Lynch Mob YouTube (1:48).  With so much destruction, the prisoner is presumed dead afterwards.  It’s just hours afterwards when the real kidnappers are caught that the town realizes their horrific mistake, with Kate left distraught and dazed, lost in grief afterwards.  Lang had dealt with this subject before, basically inventing the police procedural in M (1931), where an outcast pedophile child murderer is tracked down by the Berlin underworld and placed on trial before a mob of hardened criminals, claiming his actions are responsible for increased police presence, cutting into their criminal profits, basically giving crooks a bad name. 

The spontaneous destruction plays out like a delirious nightmare, happening relatively early in the film, shockingly killing off a lead character, while the case is later dissected and analyzed in lengthy courtroom proceedings, charging 22 instigators with the crime of murder.  While the townspeople remain tightlipped and refuse to acknowledge the names of anyone involved, where every single witness called to the stand blatantly lies, including the sheriff, blaming it on people from out of town, this is the first film to use newsreel coverage in a courtroom, becoming a film within a film, where the newsreel is stopped to identify each one in freeze frame, capturing them in the act of insurgency, countering their claims of innocence, creating extraordinary drama in the courtroom, basically putting a small community on trial.  At the time of the film’s release, film footage was inadmissible in California courts, but that was soon remedied less than a year later.  But in something of a twist, Joe actually survives (the dynamite blasts open his jail cell), climbing out of his sealed doom undetected, but is consumed by an overpowering drive for revenge, becoming a changed man, a vindictive avenger, turning it into a personal vendetta, a darkened figure focused completely on the trial afterwards, listening on the radio, showing little patience for those pretending to have alibi’s, covering up their crimes with fabricated lies, which only make Joe more driven to see them pay for their lawlessness.  The viciousness of Joe’s transformation is startling, no longer recognizing himself anymore, becoming strangely un-American, a stranger in his own country, consumed by his own anger and rage, mirroring the scene he witnessed outside his jail cell, lost in his own hysteria.  The prosecution, in all likelihood, is fully aware that Joe survived, working the case behind the scenes, nonetheless he presses his agenda forward, claiming murder knowing full well no murder occurred.  Katherine, meanwhile, seems lost in a catatonic state, too shocked to recognize the changing world around her, stuck or paralyzed by that moment, spending each day in a daze.  But she snaps out of it and starts putting together recognizable clues, realizing Joe is still alive, influencing the trial from behind the scenes.  The film continually lapses into a Hollywood melodrama, with longwinded, patriotic speeches in the courtroom serving as the nation’s conscience, followed by hysterical reactions from ordinary citizens seemingly driven by pangs of remorse, perhaps finally realizing the extent of their own cover up and crime, as they acted prematurely, thinking the worst, turned into a blood-thirsty mob taking murder into their own hands.  This kind of thing happened at the end of interrogation sequences on the long-running Perry Mason (1957 – 1966) television show, where out of nowhere the accused would spontaneously confess to their crimes, driven by internal forces of guilt.  That doesn’t exactly happen here, but through the newsreel footage, people perhaps see themselves in ways they never envisioned or realized, behaving like hoodlums or criminals, yet these are supposed to be upstanding citizens.  How quickly was Joe’s life destroyed?  How does a nation tolerate a public lynching?  What makes people lose possession of themselves like that and in an instant become a public menace, destroying community property, committing arson and perhaps even murder?  What flicks that switch?  The central trauma of the 30’s was the destabilizing effects of the Depression, as there was no threat yet to national security, which defined the 40’s.  As this film suggests, our entire system of values and democracy came under threat, with imminent signs of insurrection building from within, creating a societal rupture that has yet to heal, as the same dream of freedom and democracy is still not obtainable for all Americans, with a President, Senators, prominent billionaires, and police unions refusing to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter, causing some to lag far behind, unable to enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  

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