The Phenix City Story (1955)

87 or 100 mins | Drama | 14 August 1955

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HISTORY

The working titles of this film were Phenix City and Wide Open Town . The film's credits are preceded by a thirteen-minute documentary sequence in which noted reporter Clete Roberts interviews several of the townspeople involved in the actual incidents that occurred in Phenix City, AL, including reporter Ed Strickland, who, along with fellow reporter Gene Wortsman wrote a book about Phenix City; townsmen Hugh Bentley and Hugh Britton, who fought against the organized crime that controlled the city; and the widow of Albert L. Patterson, the Alabama State Attorney General nominate who was murdered by the crime syndicate opposed to his reforms.
       As noted by Roberts, Patterson was killed on 18 Jun 1954 and was succeeded by his son John Patterson, a fellow lawyer and World War II veteran. [John Patterson went on to serve as governer of Alabama from 1959 to 1963.] The town, which was dubbed "Sin City, U.S.A." by the national press, had long been controlled by gambling, prostitution, drugs and racketeering syndicates, which catered to tourists and soldiers from nearby Columbus, GA. According to the MPHPD review of The Phenix City Story , the newsreel footage of Roberts was offered to exhibitors at no extra charge, and did not have to be included when showing the picture. The film ran 87 minutes without the newsreel, and 100 minutes with it. The viewed print included the newsreel footage.
       At the conclusion of the newsreel, the film's credits roll, followed by a written statement that reads: "There is no other place in the world as Phenix City, Alabama. For almost one hundred years it has been the ... More Less

The working titles of this film were Phenix City and Wide Open Town . The film's credits are preceded by a thirteen-minute documentary sequence in which noted reporter Clete Roberts interviews several of the townspeople involved in the actual incidents that occurred in Phenix City, AL, including reporter Ed Strickland, who, along with fellow reporter Gene Wortsman wrote a book about Phenix City; townsmen Hugh Bentley and Hugh Britton, who fought against the organized crime that controlled the city; and the widow of Albert L. Patterson, the Alabama State Attorney General nominate who was murdered by the crime syndicate opposed to his reforms.
       As noted by Roberts, Patterson was killed on 18 Jun 1954 and was succeeded by his son John Patterson, a fellow lawyer and World War II veteran. [John Patterson went on to serve as governer of Alabama from 1959 to 1963.] The town, which was dubbed "Sin City, U.S.A." by the national press, had long been controlled by gambling, prostitution, drugs and racketeering syndicates, which catered to tourists and soldiers from nearby Columbus, GA. According to the MPHPD review of The Phenix City Story , the newsreel footage of Roberts was offered to exhibitors at no extra charge, and did not have to be included when showing the picture. The film ran 87 minutes without the newsreel, and 100 minutes with it. The viewed print included the newsreel footage.
       At the conclusion of the newsreel, the film's credits roll, followed by a written statement that reads: "There is no other place in the world as Phenix City, Alabama. For almost one hundred years it has been the modern Pompeii where vice and corruption were the order of the day. Unlike Pompeii it did not require a Vesuvius to destroy it, for Phenix City is now a model community--orderly--progressive--and a tribute to the freedom loving peoples everywhere." Intermittent voice-over narration by Richard Kiley, as "John Patterson," is heard throughout the film, and at the end of the picture, "John" speaks directly to the camera, telling the audience that he intends to seek out and bring to justice his father's killers and with God's help, will keep closed the gambling establishments that have plagued the city.
       Although an Aug 1954 DV news item reported that producer Samuel Bischoff had hired Crane Wilbur to write a "modernization of the Ray Golden yarn 'Wide Open Town,'" Golden's contribution to the completed film, if any, has not been determined. Aug and Sep 1954 LAEx news items announced that Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft were to be in the cast, and that screenwriter Crane Wilbur would direct the picture. As several reviews pointed out, many of the professional actors in the picture were recruited from television, and some, including Edward Andrews, Meg Myles and Ricky Klein made their feature-film debuts in The Phenix City Story . The picture's pressbook adds Eric von Stroheim, Jr. to the cast as a "heavy," and a Mar 1955 HR news item includes Ann Hester in the cast, but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
       Contemporary sources report that Wilbur did extensive research in Phenix City, where the picture was shot on location, and that many local citizens appeared as extras. An Oct 1955 LA Mirror-News article added that Phenix City resident Ma Beachie, who portrays herself in the film, was "the town's No. 1 madam." According to reviews and news items, the filmmakers were harassed and threatened by criminals remaining in Phenix City, as well as citizens who opposed the exposé, but they were supported and protected by the Russell County Betterment Association.
       According to information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, in early Nov 1954, the PCA decreed that the film's story was unacceptable due to "1. The presentation of white slavery. 2. The presentation of prostitutes and prostitution. 3. Excessive brutality." PCA officials also advise Bischoff that "in addition to the over-all problem of brutality, there was the specific item of the murder of the Negro child, which we thought was unacceptable." In Jan 1955, the film's basic story was approved, but the PCA continued to object to the "unusual amount of violence and brutality" in the story, as well as any portrayal of prostitution or the depiction of the murder of "Zeke Ward's" daughter. A Jun 1955 memo in the file indicates that after shooting on The Phenix City Story was completed, the PCA requested a number of cuts before it could be approved. Although the picture received an MPAA certificate on 20 Jul 1955, many of the details to which the PCA objected, such as the child's murder and men standing in line at a brothel, were in the released film. More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
23 Jul 1955.
---
Daily Variety
6 Aug 1954.
---
Daily Variety
9 Aug 1954.
---
Daily Variety
18 Jul 55
p. 3.
Film Daily
20 Jul 55
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
9 Aug 1954
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
14 Sep 1954
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
8 Mar 1955.
---
Hollywood Reporter
1 Apr 55
p. 46.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Apr 55
p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter
14 Jun 55
p. 13.
Hollywood Reporter
7 Jul 1955
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
8 Jul 1955
p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter
18 Jul 55
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
20 Jul 1955
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
21 Jul 1955
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Jul 1955
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
4 Aug 1955
p. 13.
Hollywood Reporter
5 Aug 1955
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
29 Aug 1955
p. 6.
LAMirror-News
3 Oct 1955.
---
Life
26 Sep 1955.
---
Los Angeles Examiner
3 Aug 1954.
---
Los Angeles Examiner
14 Sep 1954.
---
Los Angeles Times
23 Oct 1955.
---
Los Angeles Times
27 Oct 1955.
---
Motion Picture Daily
18 Jul 1955.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
23 Jul 55
p. 521.
New York Times
21 Aug
1955.
New York Times
3 Sep 55
p. 9.
New York Times
14 Sep 1955.
---
Newsweek
22 Aug 1955.
---
Variety
20 Jul 55
p. 6.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
PRODUCERS
WRITERS
Documented in Phenix City by
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTOR
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
COSTUMES
Men's ward
Women's ward
MUSIC
Mus comp and cond
Orch
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
MAKEUP
Makeup
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod supv
Scr supv
Casting
SOURCES
SONGS
"Phenix City Blues," music and lyrics by Harold Spina, sung by Meg Myles.
PERFORMER
COMPOSER
DETAILS
Alternate Titles:
Phenix City
Wide Open Town
Release Date:
14 August 1955
Premiere Information:
Phenix City, AL, Chicago, IL and Columbus, GA openings: 9 July 1955
Production Date:
late March--late April 1955
Copyright Claimant:
Bischoff Enterprises, Inc.
Copyright Date:
21 August 1955
Copyright Number:
LP5188
Physical Properties:
Sound
Western Electric Recording
Black and White
Widescreen/ratio
1.85:1
Duration(in mins):
87 or 100
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
17581
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In the early 1950s, Phenix City, Alabama is known as "Sin City, U.S.A." for its nearly 100-year history of supplying gambling and other vices to tourists and the soldiers of nearby Fort Benning, Georgia. Rhett Tanner, the head of the city's organized crime syndicate, deals viciously with any honest citizens who try to stop his "industry's" $100,000,000 per year profit. Due to the gambling syndicate's hold on the city, most of its elected officials and police officers are corrupt, and only a few brave inhabitants dare to oppose Tanner and his cohorts. Among those trying to shut Tanner down are Ed Gage, whose son Fred, an aspiring lawyer, is dating Ellie Rhodes, a blackjack dealer in Tanner's Poppy Club. Worried about the new citizens' committee organized by Gage, Hugh Bentley and Hugh Britton, Tanner visits his old friend, influential lawyer Albert L. "Pat" Patterson. Pat refuses either to accept Tanner's offer to work for him or to join the citizens' committee, as he both hates vice and despairs that it will never be stopped. Reassured that Pat will not fight him, Tanner leaves, after which Pat welcomes home his son John, a fellow lawyer who has been prosecuting war criminals in Germany, and John's wife Mary Jo and their two young children. Mary Jo is unsettled when Pat offers John a partnership in his law firm, as she does not want to live in Phenix City. Pat and John assure her that she will be safe, as long as she avoids Fourteenth Street, the main "red light district." Gage and Britton then arrive at the Patterson home to ask Pat to ... +


In the early 1950s, Phenix City, Alabama is known as "Sin City, U.S.A." for its nearly 100-year history of supplying gambling and other vices to tourists and the soldiers of nearby Fort Benning, Georgia. Rhett Tanner, the head of the city's organized crime syndicate, deals viciously with any honest citizens who try to stop his "industry's" $100,000,000 per year profit. Due to the gambling syndicate's hold on the city, most of its elected officials and police officers are corrupt, and only a few brave inhabitants dare to oppose Tanner and his cohorts. Among those trying to shut Tanner down are Ed Gage, whose son Fred, an aspiring lawyer, is dating Ellie Rhodes, a blackjack dealer in Tanner's Poppy Club. Worried about the new citizens' committee organized by Gage, Hugh Bentley and Hugh Britton, Tanner visits his old friend, influential lawyer Albert L. "Pat" Patterson. Pat refuses either to accept Tanner's offer to work for him or to join the citizens' committee, as he both hates vice and despairs that it will never be stopped. Reassured that Pat will not fight him, Tanner leaves, after which Pat welcomes home his son John, a fellow lawyer who has been prosecuting war criminals in Germany, and John's wife Mary Jo and their two young children. Mary Jo is unsettled when Pat offers John a partnership in his law firm, as she does not want to live in Phenix City. Pat and John assure her that she will be safe, as long as she avoids Fourteenth Street, the main "red light district." Gage and Britton then arrive at the Patterson home to ask Pat to attend that evening's committee meeting, but Pat turns them down, although John rides with them downtown to run an errand. There, Gage, Britton and John are attacked by Tanner's thugs, led by Clem Wilson, who have been told about the meeting by Jeb Bassett, Tanner's spy in the citizens' committee. Infuriated, John pursues Clem, once his schoolmate, to the Poppy Club, and there beats him. Fred and black janitor Zeke Ward help John to escape and take him home, where John tells his father that they must attend the meeting and help to change the town. At the meeting, Pat insists that he will not participate in the vigilantism that has been the town's usual response to the criminals, and John postulates that if the good citizens of the state were rallied, they would vote in an honest attorney general, who could institute reforms. Upon John's suggestion, everyone turns to Pat, but he refuses to run for the office and states that all of his reforming efforts have been defeated. Pat's mind is changed, however, when Clem, in an effort to intimidate John, kills Zeke's young daughter and tosses her body onto the Pattersons' lawn. While Clem is escaping, he runs over a newspaper boy, and Fred, who has seen him, jumps into his car and pursues him. At the Poppy Club garage, Fred is killed by a blow to the head from Clem, who then stages a car accident so that Fred's death will not look like murder. Finally deciding to fight, Pat appears at the coroner's inquest and tries to prove that Fred was killed, but the terrified jury, spotting Tanner in the crowd, returns a finding of accidental death. Al then informs Tanner that he will be running for attorney general, and despite his advanced age and frail constitution, Al campaigns tirelessly. Citizens attending Pat's rallies are beaten by hoodlums, and Bentley's home is bombed when he makes a televised speech for Pat, but on election day, Pat wins. Tanner points out to his cohorts that Pat has not yet been sworn in, and late one night, as he walks to the office, Pat is shot to death by two of Tanner's henchmen. Ellie witnesses the murder, and Tanner's men begin to search for her. Later, at the funeral home, John attempts to appease the growing mob, which wants to lynch everyone on Fourteenth Street. Receiving a call from Ellie that she is hiding at Zeke's house, John tells Bassett that he is going to protect her, and Bassett informs Tanner. At the Ward home, John arrives to find Clem and another man beating Zeke and his wife Helen. John helps Clem to fight off the men and then searches outside for Ellie, only to find Tanner near her dead body. While Helen stops Zeke from clubbing one of his attackers to death, John viciously beats Tanner, who admits to killing Ellie and orchestrating Pat's death. Zeke prevents John from drowning Tanner, telling him that he must follow the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill." John then returns to the funeral parlor, calls the state capital and demands that the militia be called out. With Phenix City under martial law, Fourteenth Street is closed down and its denizens arrested. Soon after, John is elected to replace Pat as attorney general and vows to uphold the justice his father sought. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.