Southern Movie 13: “The Phenix City Story”

1955’s The Phenix City Story was produced to tell the story of the June 1954 murder of Democratic nominee for Alabama attorney general, Albert Patterson. A lawyer who had served on the local Board of Education and in the state’s Senate, Patterson had run for AG because he wanted to clean up the rampant crime and corruption in his small town, which is right across the state line from Columbus, Georgia. In the early to mid-twentieth century, Phenix City‘s name was synonymous with corruption, gambling, prostitution, and organized crime. The movie, which is black-and-white, begins with a faux news reel featuring a distinctly 1950s TV reporter, complete with Bryl-Creem hairdo and neatly trimmed mustache, then it transitions to its fully fictionalized story.

The opening news reel in The Phenix City Story smacks a little of a half-rate effort to emulate the opening of the classic Citizen Kanesans the typewriter sound effects. (The Phenix City Story is mid-1950s, where the other film came out in the early 1940s). The stern anchor interviews a series of locals, including a newspaper reporter who broke the story and a local janitor/deputy sheriff who was set to testify against the organized crime folks. What impressed me immediately about The Phenix City Story was its use of real Alabamians. I get worse than aggravated at listening to fake Southern accents, and to hear the real thing roll off of these people’s tongues was refreshing.

Then we shift our attention, and the main part of the movie begins with a highly expository panoramic view of the town, which soon hones in one of its shady operations. The room is packed with soldiers who cheer and jeer at a scantily clad lady doing a suggestive cabaret number, and then we meet three of our villains: the mean blonde floor-walker Cassie, the thug Clem Wilson, and the proprietor Rhett Tanner. Yet, we also meet some of the minor-character good guys: Mary Jo Patterson, a sweet girl who is trying to earn a decent living by working in the club, and her boyfriend Fred Gage, who wants his girlfriend out of there. In a particularly surprising move, one of the people we see in those early moments is Ma Beachie, a local strip-club owner whose kind-hearted attitude toward her clients earned her some degree of notoriety; in that brief street scene, the real Ma Beachie is who we are watching as she greets passers-by.

Next, we meet Albert Patterson when Rhett Tanner goes to visit him one more time to ask Patterson to be his syndicate’s lawyer. Patterson politely declines, citing his desire to stay out of other people’s messes, and the two have a friendly chat, until it’s time for Tanner to leave. In the hall outside of Patterson’s office, Tanner runs into the local man who is organizing the a grassroots movement, a la Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” against the seedy vendors on 14th Street. Now, we have real tension. The upright citizens of the Phenix City will take on these harbingers of sin— right at the same time that Albert Patterson’s son John arrives home from military service.

From here, the scene gets testy. As the righteous little group tries to get organized, the bad guys answer first with a small violent skirmish behind a local café. John Patterson, who had caught a ride into town to buy diapers, jumps in, and it becomes his fight, too! He has brought his family to his hometown, and he can’t yield to his terrified wife’s pleadings that they get away from there as fast as possible. Now empowered by the younger Patterson’s participation, the do-gooders approach his father to run for attorney general to push the corrupt element out. However, the elder Patterson still wavers on whether he should get involved.

As the conflict between the do-gooders and the seedy types escalates, we also meet Zeke, the black janitor at Tanner’s club, who joins the fight against his employer.  Yet, Zeke is in a particularly tough spot, being black in a Deep Southern small town, and quickly the bad guys show him how tough. His young daughter is kidnapped, killed, and thrown from a moving car onto a front lawn! Ultimately, after the efforts to clean up the town have drawn this kind of violence, Albert Patterson does agree to run for Attorney General.

Yet, the corrupt businessmen and politicians won’t give up that easily. They scheme and plan, often with dour faces and knowing looks. A campaigning Albert Patterson is assassinated, and his son John has to step up. After an impassioned speech to the crowd that has gathered after the killing, John Patterson enters Alabama politics. And, as they say, the rest is history.

This moment in Alabama history is pivotal to the whole state’s trajectory through the latter half of the twentieth century, and up to today. (Having already known, the story of John Patterson‘s political ascendance after his father’s death, the outcome of the movie was not a surprise to me.) The murder of Albert Patterson, which led to his son John’s notoriety, ultimately paved the way for John to move beyond the AG’s office and into the governor’s office. John Patterson’s victory in the 1958 election over a field of candidates, including George Wallace, was due in large part to his vehement Civil Rights-era segregationist stance, which was vigorous enough to win him the support of the Ku Klux Klan. The standard set by Gov. Patterson was then expanded by George Wallace, whose infamous antics in the 1960s garnered national attention.

Notwithstanding the slightly cornball feel of it, The Phenix City Story is a better movie than I expected it to be. I began the movie expecting a Hollywood fabrication full of stereotypes and half-truths about the Deep South. Considering the film’s genre is “docudrama,” what we’re really watching is a heavily sensationalized, somewhat noir version of the history: the basic story with some soap-opera thrown in for mood and tone.

For someone who really wants the history, there is Alan Grady’s book When Good Men Do Nothing; for those who are just looking for a good old movie, there’s The Phenix City Story.

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