Stereotypes run amuck in this Warner Brothers pre-code from 1933. Yet it is these categorizations that make this pre-code interesting to watch. It begins on the Lower East Side of New York, Orchard Street to be specific, an ethnic neighborhood which at various times was filled with Jewish, German, Italian and Puerto Rican immigrants among others. The script focuses on an Italian family. Tony has called for a doctor, his wife is giving birth, and he’s crying for help. An ambulance arrives with a doctor in tow, our heroine, Mary Stevens (Kay Francis). Tony is shocked. My God, the doctor is a woman! No, no, no, he wants a real doctor…a man! Having already lost one child, he threatens Mary with a machete if she fails to help his wife through to a successful birth. Mary locks herself in the bedroom with the expectant mother while Tony is being restrained by the police (called earlier by the frightened ambulance driver). As expected, the baby is successfully delivered and all is well. This short opening scene reveals how far we have come in our labeling of people and yet it also reveals how far we still have to go. I am sure there are still men out there who do not want to be treated by a female doctor just because she is a woman. Continue reading
Middle of the Night is a story of a May/December romance. Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann. Mann directed three films written by Cheyefsky, Marty, his first film which won Best Picture of the Year and Best Director awards, followed by The Bachelor Party and Middle of the Night. Later on Cheyefsky would write the screenplays for Network and The Hospital. He also adapted the William Bradford Huie novel, The Americanization of Emily for the screen. Middle of the Night began as a TV episode on the anthology series “The Philco Television Playhouse”, starring E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint. In 1956, Cheyefsky turned it into a play and it opened on Broadway with Edward G. Robinson as the older man and Gena Rowlands as the young woman. In 1959, the movie version was released with Fredric March and Kim Novak in the roles.
Jerry (Fredric March), a 56 year old lonely widower, is a successful businessman in the garment district in New York and 24 year old Betty (Kim Novak) is working there as a receptionist and part-time model. Betty is newly divorced and uncertain about her future. The story centers on their romance and eventual decision to marry, the ups and downs in any relationship and specifically about one with a wide age difference. One of the more uncomfortable scenes is when Jerry meets Betty’s mother who it turns out is approximately the same age as he is. Later there is an even more painful confrontation with his family, which includes his daughter, a year younger than Betty, and his single over protective nagging sister. Everyone seems to have an opinion though the one thing everyone is in agreement on is that they are against the marriage. If all that is not enough there are the couples own insecurities, Jerry’s jealousy when she talks to younger men or will she leave him in a few years? Betty anxieties are over her newly divorced husband, a musician who wants her back, and then there is her father fixation. In the end, despite all the objections from family and their own uncertainties they realize they love each other and maybe just maybe, they have a chance.
Fredric March is excellent as Jerry who at 56 feels that life has passed him by. Family and friends tell him that he should relax in his old age and take it easy. Jerry feels like everyone is ready to put him out to pasture until he starts dating Betty who makes him feel alive again. He tells everyone he’ll have enough time to take it easy when he’s dead! (Jerry would liked Warren Zevon’s song, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead). You absolutely believe March in this role, the struggles and fears that he is facing at this particular junction in his life. Kim Novak also does a fine job as the young and insecure Betty whose father dumped his family when she was young. Conflicted about the breakup of her marriage she finds comfort and security with Jerry. She brings a nice vulnerability to Betty that makes her real. Throughout her career Novak has been underrated as an actress. She holds her own here with a magnificent cast that includes Lee Grant, Martin Balsam, Albert Dekker and Glenda Farrell. There are also some nice location scenes of New York’s garment district and other areas circa the late 1950’s.
One aspect that I found interesting is how old the actors look considering the age they are portraying. Fredric March who was 62 at the time portrays a man who is 56. Albert Dekker’s character was 59 ( he was 54 in real life), however both men look closer to being in their late 60’s maybe even in their 70’s. Compared to some of today’s actors equivalent in age like Dennis Quaid (55) or Jeff Bridges (59) or Harrison Ford (66) they looked much older than the ages they are portraying. Lifestyle? Healthier living? Whatever it is, people do look a lot young today than their counterparts of forty or fifty years ago.
Delbert Mann began his career during the Golden Age of Television drama. When people discussed directors from the Golden Age of Television who came to film in the late 50’s and early 60’s the names usually consist of John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn. Delbert Mann is rarely mentioned yet his filmography in those early years is pretty impressive. His debut film was Marty, which as previously mentioned won a few Oscars. That was followed by The Bachelor Party in 1957, Desire Under the Elms, Separate Tables, Middle of the Night and Dark at the Top of the Stairs. All of these were adaptations of stage plays except for Marty and The Bachelor Party. In the 1960’s Mann had success with two Doris Day comedies, That Touch of Mink and Lover Come Back. He made a few more films including Mister Buddwing and The Pink Jungle before going back to television in the 1970’s and 1980’s. While no auteur, Mann was a solid actor’s director and always told a good story.
Pauline Kael called “I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. “One of the best of the social-protest films–naive, heavy, artless, but a straightforward, unadorned story with moments that haunted a generation” The state of Georgia banned the film for gross exaggeration. The 1932 film is at least partially responsible for reform of the prison system.
Mervyn LeRoy had already directed Edward G. Robinson in “Little Caesar” the year before, and just finished up “Three on a Match” when he was assigned to film “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang”, a brutal dark chilling, tightly paced look at what prison life was like, primarily in the South. Warner Brothers was known for its gritty socially conscience films and LeRoy was one if it main proponents. Based on the true story of Robert Elliott Burns who wrote his autobiography (I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang) with a screenplay by Brown Holmes and Howard J. Green.
Paul Muni is James Allen a recently discharged World War I veteran returning to his middle America small town where he is greeted by his mother, brother and girlfriend. His mother and brother want James to go back to his factory job but no one seems to understand how war changes a man. His brother Chris, a reverend, sees James as being ungrateful when Mr. Parker, his former boss at the factory, offers him his job back and James doesn’t want it (there was no G.I. Bill at the time). His brother encourages him to take the job and be “a soldier of peace instead of a soldier of war.” James does not want to be a soldier of any kind, he’s restless and wants to find himself, maybe be an engineer, which he learned something about while in the Army. Reluctantly, James succumbs and goes back to the factory but it just isn’t working out. He soon leaves and heads to New England, gets a job but is quickly laid off. He makes his way down south, then back up North and then South again to New Orleans eventually ending up in Georgia (not explicitly stated) out of work, riding the rails and penniless. James is pounding the pavement when he meets another out of work vagrant, Pete (Preston Foster), who convinces him they can get a couple of burgers for free at a local dumpy diner. Once inside the diner, Pete pulls out a pistol and tells James to take the money from the cash register. James is surprised by the turn of events but does as he is told. As they make their way out of the diner, the police, somewhat magically, come busting through, shoot Pete, and capture James as he tries to escape.
Southern justice is quick and tough and James is swiftly sentenced to 10 years on a chain gang. The scenes of prison life are harsh, up at 4:30AM, breaking rock in the hot until they return to their dirt infested barracks around 8PM at night. Those prisoners who did not put in a good days work are beaten by the warden with a thick leather strap. The food is slop consisting of pig fat, grease and fried dough. As time goes by, James can’t take it no more and decides to escape. He gets Sebastian, a black prisoner, who has a deadly accurate swing with a sledgehammer, to smash his chain ankle restraints against a rail, making them loose enough for him slip off, which he does when he escapes the next day.
James makes his way to a small nearby town where he meets up with Barney (Allen Jenkins) a former chain gang mate who gives him shelter for the night along with a friendly woman, Linda (Noel Francis), who’s willing to provide James with a good time for the evening. The next day, James makes his way out of town sneaking passed the law and heads up to Chicago where he gets a job at a construction site. He also finds a small apartment where a young, beautiful and ambitious Landlady, Marie (Glenda Farrell) gives him a reduced rate on the rent because she is attracted to him. At his new job James, now calling himself Allan James, quickly works his way up the corporate ladder to foreman position and then up to a surveyor while studying to become an engineer. Marie is bored with James who is always studying, and now that he is making more money, wants a better apartment and plans to move out until Marie informs him he isn’t going anywhere except back to prison unless he marries her. They are soon married though the marriage goes south quickly. Out of boredom, Marie is cheating on James and he meets a young woman, Helen (Helen Vinson), who he falls in love with. When he later pleads to Marie for a divorce, she threatens to call the police and soon after does as we see two detectives arrive at his office to arrest him.
A deal is arranged where he will serves 90 days back in Georgia, in a clerical position and then will be pardoned. At first, he is reluctant to accept the deal; however, after talking it over with Helen, he agrees to go back.
As one would expect, the spurned Southern prison officials do not hold their part of the bargain. James finds himself back on the chain gang; his expected pardon after serving 90 days is denied and later on indefinitely denied. James manages to escape again, and after a year on the run makes his way back to where Helen lives just to let her know he’s okay. He can’t stay they are after him. He lives in the dark, he runs, he hides. She finally asks as he disappears into the dark “How do you live?”
Not without minor faults,” I Am a Fugitive From A Chain Gang”, is still a powerfully strong piece of social medicine. The kind of relevant film Warner Brothers did so well in the 1930’s. Far from running away from the tough issue, Warners seemed to embrace them and provide realistic looks at what they were like. In fact, the film feels more like a 1930’s depression era film that one that takes place soon after World War I. Whether Warners realism was due to social consciousness or just grabbing the newspaper headlines of the day and turning them into lurid films to draw audiences, and their money, is irrelevant. Many of these films turned out well on both counts. The film’s look at what life is like inside the prison system is downright gruesome making “Cool Hand Luke” look like a pleasant weekend at a vacation resort. Men are beaten, one scene shows a prisoner, standing in the hot sun tied to a post. The food, and the term is used loosely, is putrid and any humane treatment was left at the prison gate. These scenes inside the camp are some of the most powerful and disturbing in the film.
An interesting concept was the modernity of James Allen’s thinking after getting out of the Army. His mother and Reverend brother want him to go back to his factory job however; James doesn’t want to be tied down to a boring job he has no interest in. His brother calls him ungrateful for not accepting his former bosses offer to get his job back but James wants something more exciting and wants to find himself. His mother actually uses these words after she comes around to his way of thinking. Finding oneself is such a modern notion I was somewhat surprised to hear it spoken in a1932 film. Most people back then were too busy trying to survive to worry about “finding themselves.” Of course, if James had stayed at his boring job, and not went looking for himself he would have not ended up on a Chain Gang.
The film does have some questionable scenes. The character of the Marie, the Landlady, who seems so anxious to give James a reduced rate enticing him to take the apartment, one has to ask why. While James is ambitious, there are no signs yet that he would be a success, or was it that Marie is just attracted to him. Marie seems almost desperate to keep him there and it is never clear why. Then there is the scene with Helen, the good time girl his former prison mate Barney provides him with for the night. James seems almost reluctant to accept her advances and keep shying away. For a heterosexual male who has been deprived of female companionship for a long time he is strangely unenthusiastic about accepting her advances. Overall, these are minor quibbles and certainly do not distract from what a gripping powerful film.
At the time of the filming, Robert Ellis Burns was still a fugitive and Warner Brothers did not list him in the credits of the film though he acted as a consultant. After the film’s release, Burns was arrested in East Orange, New Jersey where he was operating a Toy Store. Unlike Burns book, the film never mentions which state Allen is incarcerated though most people and the state of Georgia realized it. Certainly chain gang warden J. Harold Hardy did when in early 1933 he sued (source: TIME magazine) Warner Brothers and Vita phone for one million dollars for “vicious, untrue and false attacks” as depicted in the film.
Finally, a few words about Paul Muni, who gives an extraordinary performance here. He received his second Academy Award nomination for his role here though he lost to Charles Laughton for his performance is “The Private Henry Life of Henry the VII.” Muni was a brilliant and eccentric perfectionist who gave detailed characterization to his parts creating unforgettable roles. John Baxter in his book “Hollywood in the Thirties” states, the film was originally set up to be a gangster melodrama, cashing in on Muni’s recent success with “Scarface” It was LeRoy who transformed the film to an attack on social injustice.
Mark you calendar, “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” will be on TCM on May 2nd at 8PM. Don’t miss it.