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Reviewed by Will Harris
ne of the best things about the long life of the DVD as a medium is that it has inspired studios to delve deep into their vaults and offer consumers the opportunity to purchase television and motion picture obscurities on demand. True, many of these productions are obscure for a reason, but that’s most certainly not the case with “The Murder of Mary Phagan,” a four-hour miniseries produced by Orion Studios and aired on NBC in 1987.
Miniseries have all but gone by the wayside, and with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences having made the decision in February 2011 to combine the Emmy categories for Outstanding Miniseries and Outstanding Made for Television Movie into one six-nominee category, they’re not likely to experience a significant resurgence anytime soon. In the 1980s, however, the format was still going strong, with high-profile miniseries often serving as the only acceptable reason for film actors to deign to take a small-screen gig. To clarify Jack Lemmon’s stature in 1987, one needs only see the box art for “The Murder of Mary Phagan,” which trumpets his name not merely above the title but, indeed, above the words “2-Disc Mini Series.” Now that’s what you call a movie star!
“The Murder of Mary Phagan” is based on a true story. Phagan (played by Wendy J. Cooke), a factory worker for the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia, was strangled to death on April 26, 1913, her body found in the factory’s basement the following day. The reason Phagan’s murder has become so infamous, however, is less because of her tragic demise and more because of the man accused of killing her. The initial suspect for her murder was Leo Frank (Peter Gallagher), the factory superintendent, who had been at the factory when she’d come by to pick up her pay on the 26th and was believed to be the last person to see her alive. Although there was nothing in his past beyond a bit of idle flirting to suggest that Frank might have been responsible for her murder, he was nonetheless convicted of the crime as a result of witnesses who either exaggerated or outright lied on the stand. In the former category, there’s Doreen (Cynthia Nixon), one of Phagan’s fellow factory workers, whose testimony against Frank likely never would’ve come about if she hadn’t wanted to get her name in the paper when she was approached by reporter Wes Brent (Kevin Spacey). As for those who offered falsehoods under oath, the leader of the pack would almost certainly have to be Jim Conley (Charles S. Dutton), the factory janitor, who is generally believed to have been Phagan’s actual murderer.
The controversy over the case drew the attention of Georgia’s governor, John Slaton (Jack Lemmon), who was at first unconcerned when Hugh Dorsey (Richard Jordan) successfully prosecuted Frank, earning him the death penalty in the process. In Gov. Slaton’s last days in office, however, Frank requested that his sentence be commuted to life in prison, and after reading 10,000+ pages of testimony and determining that a considerable amount of evidence in favor of Frank’s innocence was not presented to the court, Slaton granted Frank’s request. The end result: the so-called “Knights of Mary Phagan,” a group which included a staggering number of politicians and law enforcement officials, broke Frank out of prison and hung him themselves.
You’ve heard of the concept of a lynch mob? Leo Frank was on the receiving end of one.
Larry McMurtry is credited with having been responsible for the story of “The Murder of Mary Phagan,” which presumably means that it was his idea to make a miniseries out of it, but the actual teleplay was written by Jeffrey Lane & George Stevens, Jr. Given Lane’s history as a writer on “Ryan’s Hope,” it’s particularly impressive that he and Stevens avoid getting too soapy with the material, instead focusing on the legal and political drama of the case. It’s unfortunate that the anti-Semitism that powered a great deal of Frank’s conviction is downplayed far more here than it was at the time (if you’d made this story into a film today, it would be front and center), but you’ll still shake your head at the realization that Conley might have had a chance at being convicted for the crime if the courts and police department in Atlanta hadn’t believed – and, yes, this is true – that a black man couldn’t possibly have made up the convoluted story that Conley had told about how Frank had paid him to help move Phagan’s body.
There are a lot of great performances in “The Murder of Mary Phagan,” but while you’d expect it from Lemmon and Spacey, this production serves as a reminder of Gallagher’s gifts as an actor. Given that Spacey was still rather under the radar as an actor at the time, however, you can only imagine that this helped his stature considerably. Jordan manages to come across as earnest and villainous at the same time, which is impressive, and the same can be said of Robert Prosky as politician Thomas Watson, who was the driving force behind Phagan’s “Knights.”
If you don’t know the story of Mary Phagan, this isn’t 100% historically accurate (the real Gov. Slaton wasn’t quite as much of a Sherlock Holmes as he’s portrayed here), but it’s an excellent miniseries – indeed, it won the 1988 Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries – and one of the best things to emerge from MGM’s TV vault in quite awhile.
Special Features: Nary a one, but that’s pretty much standard practice for entries in MGM’s Limited Edition Collection. If it was a theatrical release, there might’ve been a trailer, but with this being a TV miniseries, it’s utterly bare.