#437) The Phenix City Story (1955)

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#437) The Phenix City Story (1955)

OR “Alabama Shakes”

Directed by Phil Karlson

Written by Crane Wilbur & Dan Mainwaring

Class of 2019

No trailer, but here’s a clip

Thanks, Katrina! 

The Plot: Ripped from the headlines, “The Phenix City Story” covers the true story of Phenix City, Alabama and the takedown of its corruption. By 1954, Phenix City has become overrun with illegal gambling, prostitution, and organized crime, leading to its nickname “Sin City, U.S.A.” Any attempts to end the corruption are silenced by crime syndicate leader Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews). A group of concerned citizens push to get revered local attorney Albert Patterson (John McIntire) elected Alabama’s Attorney General on a platform of cleaning up Phenix City. When Patterson is murdered, his son John (Richard Kiley) takes over and convinces the governor to declare martial law in Phenix City, and restore democracy to its people. And crime syndicates and voter oppression were never an issue ever again.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “[t]ight, tense and graphic for all of its 100 minutes”, and praises director Karlson’s “innovative camera work”.

But Does It Really?: At first I thought, “Does this list really need another late noir/pulp crime drama?” While “Phenix City” doesn’t differ too much from similar films of the era, I knew almost immediately why it made the cut in 2019. “Phenix City”, more than any other film I can think of, is a plea for fair and free elections in America, free of corruption and suppression. The film uses its real life events as a cautionary tale of what can happen in our own backyard, and that the power of change lies in the hands of the voter. It’s a message I hope the NFR inclusion will help make heard to our current politically divisive world. Is “The Phenix City Story” an undisputed classic? Hardly. Is it worth tracking down for its unexpected relevance to our own political unrest? Absolutely.

Everybody Gets One: Phil Karlson got his start in show business as an assistant director for several Universal B-pictures of the ‘30s. Among those he worked with was Lou Costello (of “Abbott &” fame), who hired Karlson to direct his first feature, 1944’s “A Wave, A WAC, and a Marine” for Monogram Pictures. Though Karlson never rose above his B-picture standing, he directed over 40 movies in a 30-year career.

Wow, That’s Dated: Guests of “The Phenix City Story” fly TWA!

Title Track: This is another movie I wasn’t expecting to have a title song. Composed by Harold Spina, singer Meg Myles has the “Phenix City Blues”.

Other notes

  • First of all, no one knows for sure why the city is spelled “Phenix” and not “Phoenix” like the bird. Even the city’s official website doesn’t know!
  • When announced in 1954, the film was set to star Glenn Ford and Edward G. Robinson (presumably as John Patterson and Rhett Tanner, respectively). I presume scheduling (as well as the film’s low budget) prevented Allied Artists from recruiting such big name talent. A majority of the cast were TV actors, many of them making their film debut.
  • The film begins with a prologue featuring real-life broadcast journalist Clete Roberts interviewing several people connected to Albert Patterson’s murder, including reporters who chronicled the story first-hand. The report concludes with Patterson’s widow urging viewers to vote. This is all well and good, but it’s a weird way to start a movie.
  • “The Phenix City Story” was filmed on location in Phenix City, Alabama. Many of the real locations were used, and the actors even wore some of their real-life counterparts’ wardrobe! Filming took place while many of those convicted were still on trial, and some remnants of Phenix City’s mob scene tried to disrupt production.
  • Rhett Tanner is an amalgamation of Jimmie Matthews and Hoyt Shepherd, who ran the Phenix City crime syndicate. Tanner is played by character actor Edward Andrews, making his film debut, and giving me some older George C. Scott angry vibes.
  • Weirdly enough, despite her prominence in the prologue, the widow Patterson is not a character in the movie.
  • Among the Phenix City residents appearing as themselves is Beachie Howard. Known as Ma Beachie, Howard ran “Beachie’s Swing Club”, which housed strippers, gamblers and prostitutes. By all accounts Howard was one of the kindest people in Phenix City, a story that meshes with her genteel cameo here.
  • Despite the film’s push for accuracy, hardly any of the cast members attempt a Southern accent or drawl. Another class of graduates from the Leslie Howard School of Invisible Accents.
  • Once Richard Kiley shows up, this film stands on its soapbox firmly and often. This movie is fighting for truth, justice, and the American way, and it will do so with as many Kiley close-ups as they can!
  • The incident in which Zeke’s child (an African-American girl) is brutally murdered is entirely fictional. The Production Code took issue with this film’s “unusual amount of violence and brutality”, specifically this scene, which was deemed “unacceptable”. Despite these objections, the film was released with these scenes intact.
  • The real hero of this story is Zeke’s wife Helen, played by Helen Martin, who points out the hypocrisy of wanting to avenge those who were killed. Thanks Wanda.
  • It’s somewhat appropriate that Richard Kiley plays John Patterson. After all, voting rights for every American is still the Impossible Dream.

Legacy

  • While the film was successful with audiences and critics, reporter Ray Jenkins called its historical accuracy into question. A Pulitzer Prize winner for his coverage of the events, Jenkins dismissed the film as “a rush job” and called some of the fictionalized scenes “inflammatory”.
  • Among the film’s fans is Martin Scorsese, who included clips from “Phenix City” in his 1995 documentary “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies”.
  • Director Phil Karlson doesn’t have too many bona fide classics on his resume, but he did direct ‘70s favorites “Ben” and “Walking Tall”, the latter being another film about a real-life person taking the law into their own hands.
  • As depicted in the final sequence, the real John Patterson did indeed become the Attorney General of Alabama, continuing his father’s platform of ending political corruption. In 1958, Patterson became Governor of Alabama, and was known for his…corrupt upholding of segregation laws!? Oh man, that completely changes my view of this movie…

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