Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The trailer for the upcoming King Kong was on my mind when I re-spun this terrific
pre-Code drama the other day - the early 1930s were such a great time for daring content in
movies. We studied I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang in film school. Around that time Stanley Kramer
brought us his new movie Bless the Beasts and Children and expected to be hailed as
the greatest filmmaker alive. His 'controversial' movie was a tepid joke.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was made during a relatively short period of time
(late 1930 to mid- 1934) when studios were free to pursue racier content, before the enforcement
of the code put married people in twin beds and forbade anything hinting at vice. In the first
years of the Depression a strange spell of foreboding fell over the country, the idea that
institutions were corrupt and that the whole political structure might collapse as had the
economy. King Kong expressed (in one of its many interpretations) the public's unconscious
desire to see civilization toppled, for some force of nature to bring the system to its knees.
Chain Gang's true story of outrageous injustice brought the same emotions to the surface -
audiences wanted to see Paul Muni strike back against his tormentors, in any way he could.
Returning veteran James Allen (Paul Muni) falls on hard times after quitting his
boring job and looking for migrant construction work. A stick-up man (Preston Foster) forces him
to help rob a diner, and he finds himself sentenced to a Southern chain gang for ten years.
Conditions are so appalling that Allen engineers an escape and hides under a false name
in Chicago. A few years later, he's a successful engineer and the toast of
the town. But his grasping landlady-lover, Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell) forces James to marry her
and eventually reveals his status as a fugitive. Since he's a model citizen, the Southern state
offers a pardon if he will return for just 90 days. Hoping for closure, James surrenders, only for
the state to refuse his pardon out of spite for the bad publicity he's attracted. Helpless, all
that Allen can do is scream out that the official treachery is a thousand
times worse than anything he ever did.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was one of the most popular movies of 1932, in the 'dark
depths' of the Depression when unemployment was at its highest. The movie is about the injustice
suffered by Robert E. Burns, who at the time of the filming was a real fugitive. Warners cleaned
up his scandalous autobiography somewhat for the purposes of ironic contrast, mainly by making
'James Allen' a talented builder instead of Burns' salesman and publisher. The film raised public
awareness and contributed to Burns eventually being given a commuted sentence.
The studio also hid the fact that Georgia was the villainous state in question. Seen in 1932 or today,
the film has a powerful emotional effect on audiences - James Allen is a lightning rod for social
frustration. Paul Muni explodes with rage upon hearing that his pardon has been
denied, a moment that still sets one back in one's seat. Muni looks ready to start a revolution.
Even after seventy years of repetition and parody, the chain gang scenes are still pretty rough. There's
Sullivan's Travels and Cool Hand Luke,
not to mention spoofs like Woody Allen's first film, Take the Money and Run. "Who didn't give
me a good day's work!" isn't heard around offices much any more, but for decades people knew it referred
to the sadistic warden walking among his 'employees' in search of his next new whipping victim.
Mervyn LeRoy is more famous as a producer but he directed his share of classics,
with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang surely at the top of the list. It has a number of scenes
that have become famous. Allen tries to pawn his Belgian
Croix de Guerre, only to find that medals of valor are a dime a dozen. For his first escape, Allen
asks a fellow prisoner named Sebastian (Everett Brown) to bash his leg irons with a ten-pound sledge
hammer. While on the run, Allen spends time with an undisguised prostitute. It's also
made clear that he's been sleeping with his landlady, the dependable Glenda Farrell
(Mystery of the Wax Museum). 1
The grim ending is one of the bleakest in movie history. The conclusion of The Seventh Victim
goes higher on the cosmic-poetic scale and
there are later films noir that work up more miserable ends for their protagonists, but
Chain Gang takes the cake for making an audiences' collective blood run cold. Savant won't
spoil it here.
Warners DVD of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is available separately or as part of their
Controversial Classics Collection; it's the oldest but by no means the least title in
that boxed set. The transfer looks fine, with only a little damage here and there - older prints
and videos have been pretty wretched.
Warner's box copy skips the film's political content, stressing Robert Burns' "will to be free"
instead of James Allen's obvious desire to blow society to bits (His best prison pal isn't named
'Bomber' for nothing). There's a vintage trailer and a curious musical short subject
parody of the film, in which chain gang life is so cozy the criminals turn themselves in to
enjoy the benefit. But the best extra is the highly informative commentary by USC professor Richard B. Jewell.
He places Chain Gang in its Depression context, linking it to the resentment felt by
the thousands of ex-soldiers that marched on Washington, only to be brutally repressed. Jewell
closely compares the slightly
whitewashed film version to the less clear-cut factual case and points out many interesting
details. He identifies a rock quarry in the film as being out in Chatsworth somewhere, which is
probably accurate for a large site seen in Allen's second prison term. But the first quarry location
is clearly our old stomping grounds
The Bronson Caverns, seen
in countless movies since 1922.
The package cover features dramatic original art from the movie's first release. Jewell's commentary
tells us that this movie cemented Paul Muni's Hollywood star, after his big breakthrough in Howard Hawks'
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang rates:
Supplements: trailer; musical novelty 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang; commentary by
Richard B. Jewell.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 16, 2005
1. A dialogue line from a
socialite played by Helen Vinson gets a different kind of reaction. She
assures Allen that she can go out with him because she's "free, white and twenty-one." Even when
the production code clamped down, the frequency of that line didn't decline in Hollywood movies,
along with its companion: "That's mighty white of ya!"
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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