(Continuing Reveal Shot’s examination of 1930s gangster movies, particularly those made by Warner Bros. Inspired by viewings from Warner Home Video’s four-volume DVD series, “The Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection.” )
One of the variations on the 1930s gangster thriller was the “prison picture.” After MGM scored a major hit with “The Big House” in 1930, Hollywood saw that there was appeal in showing the brutal society of men behind bars.
Warner Bros., always concerned with social issues, came up with a unique take in “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang” (1932), starring Paul Muni as James Allen, a World War I veteran who aspires to be an engineer but falls into an itinerant life and winds up a friend’s unwilling accomplice in the robbery of a diner. He is then sentenced to a long jail sentence that includes hard labor on a Georgia chain gang.
Some of the chain gang scenes will remind many of the much-later “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), especially in the way the guards treat the prisoners, who must ask for permission to do anything other than swing their sledgehammers. To be sure, life on these gangs was the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment.
“Chain gangs were dangerous; performing demanding work while chained to another person often resulted in serious injuries,” according to an article in American Cop magazine. “Shackles frequently caused sores, and because of unsanitary conditions and poor medical care, the sores would become infected. Muscular and skeletal injuries were common; and since those in the chain gang didn’t usually have the sunniest disposition, fights among prisoners were frequent. It’s not like retreat was an option.”1
There are, as ever, situations and bits of dialogue that are kind of jarring to the modern viewer in their matter-of-fact racism. One of the biggest prisoners, Sebastian (Everett Brown), who is black, is referred to as a “buck.” Certainly he would have been called much worse in Georgia during the 1920s, so the remark doesn’t seem out of place. Later, a character says she’s “free, white and 21.”
For film historian Saul Austerlitz, “Chain Gang” is “the most visceral and the most shocking, not only of the Warner Bros. crime films, but all the movies made in the 1930s, with the harshness of the world it depicts.”
Austerlitz added: “It’s indicative of the pre-Code ethos, the way it portrays this completely unfair, Topsy-turvy world and a protagonist who is essentially damned for eternity. I feel like it took decades for the American film to get back to the point where it was able to do something like that.”
The film was based on “I Am A Fugitive From A Georgia Chain Gang!” by Robert E. Burns, a man who really was sentenced to six years of hard labor for petty theft. The book was a sensation when it was published in 1932, exposing the horrific conditions of such prison camps to Americans who had no idea they were so bad. The wave of reforms it inspired were undoubtedly aided by the Warner Bros. film.
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
The key to the movie’s effectiveness is the frustration it creates for the viewer when James Allen’s life seems to take a turn for the better, only to be crushed by venal, vindictive men.
After several miserable experiences, Allen manages to escape the chain gang, and, after traveling to Chicago and changing his name, even realizes his dream to become an engineer. It is then that his personal Hell really begins. He has an affair with his landlady, Marie (Glenda Farrell), but when he tries to break off the romance, she reveals that she knows he is a fugitive, and blackmails him into marriage. This is the only part of the film that struck me as contrived; Marie seems attractive enough to find a man without having to resort to such a thing.2
Allen meets another woman, Helen (Helen Vinson), and determines to divorce Marie, who makes good on her promise to betray him. When he is arrested, the company he works for and several civic leaders in Chicago try to convince the state of Georgia to pardon the now-respectable citizen. A prison official from that state assures Allen that if he returns to Georgia, he can be cleared for life if he simply goes back to a soft job at the prison camp for 90 days.
It’s obvious that this isn’t going to turn out well, but Allen is seduced by the thought of being free of the charges forever, so that he and his girlfriend can go on with their lives.
Allen’s 90 days end up being hard labor, as before, and when those 90 days are up, the prison board refuses to pardon him. When Muni hears this, the look of excruciating anger on his face is very convincing. Whatever theatricality Muni generally brought to his film roles, it works here.
Allen escapes one more time, but the film is careening toward a conclusion that has haunted viewers for 81 years, one that finally underscores the notion that nothing is more evil than a system that deliberately oppresses people.
Though Warner Bros. would go on to make other films about the need for penal reform, including “20,000 Years In Sing Sing” (1933) and, in the post-Code era, “San Quentin” (1937), “Each Dawn I Die” (1939) and “Invisible Stripes” (1939), “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang” stands alone as the best example of this variation on the ’30s crime film.
Instead of the Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection, “Chain Gang” is actually part of another DVD series, the studio’s “Controversial Classics” releases.
– David B. Wilkerson
- “Working On The Chain Gang,” American Cop magazine, April 27, 2012. ▲
- New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall, in an otherwise glowing review of the film, says of this plot point: “This part of the story must be taken for what it is worth.” (“Paul Muni in a Film of Robert E. Burns’s Book, ‘A Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang,’ “ New York Times, Nov. 11, 1932. ▲