Classic Film Alert on May 2nd

On May 2nd two must see films will be making rare appearances on the Fox Movie Channel and TCM.  First up is Jules Dassin’s classic film noir “Thieves Highway” on Saturday May 2nd at 11:30AM and again on May 13th at 9:45AM on the Fox Movie Channel.

Released on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection “Thieves Highway” is Dassin right in the middle of his best period with “The Naked City” and “Brute Force” behind him and “Night and the City” and “Riffifi” still to come. This was Dassin final American film until his rare 1968 film “Up Tight”,  a black cast remake of  “The Informer.”

Here’s a review I wrote for Halo-17.






Later that same day, TCM will broadcast the 1932 classic prison drama, Mervyn LeRoy’s  “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” at 8PM. A repeat broadcast is scheduled for June 20th at 7:15AM.  Based on a true story this is one of Warner Brothers classic social dramas that they did so well back then.

Here’s a quick link to the review I wrote a short while back.





Don’t miss the chance to see this two classic works.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) Mervyn LeRoy


    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.

fugitve-lc0a    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.fugitvestill

    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?”

“I steal.”

  fugitive-lc  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.

    fugitve-vhs-large1    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.

Attached here are a couple of TIME magazine articles from 1932 and 1933 on Robert Elliott Burns.

Scarface (1932) Howard Hawks


    Howard Hawks “Scarface” follows the typical rise and fall of a gangster, similar to the two other gangster classics of the period, “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy” however, here the bodies pile up much quicker and a lot more violently. There is more action and shooting in the independently shot “Scarface”,  than in both of the studio system films combined. Even for a pre-code film “Scarface” is strong stuff. There is plenty of sexual innuendo, including a strong hint of incestuous interest by Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) toward his sister Cesca (Ann Dorvak). Tony is perversely possessive of his sister scaring off a boyfriend after catching them kissing. “I don’t want anyone puttin’ their hands on you!” he tells her. At one point during this exchange he even violently rips part of her  dress. Cesca however, is too free-spirited to accept being sheltered by the dominant Tony. She is well aware that he acts more like a jealous lover than a brother. This abnormal relationship will come back to haunt them both later in the film.scarface

   Tony however, does not mind hitting on someone else’s sister or mistress as we discover when he meets his boss Johnny Lovo’s (Osgood Perkins) mistress, Poppy (Karen Morley).  The first time they meet, Poppy is sitting at a dressing table in a flimsy dressing gown. When introduced by Lovo to Tony she cannot be bothered to cover up an exposed thigh from his wandering eyes.

   With all the bodies piling up and the sex, the censors came down hard on “Scarface.” Produced by Howard Hughes, “Scarface” was the last of the three seminal gangster films to released in the early 1930’s. Originally scheduled to be released in 1931 the film came out in March of 1932 due to a protracted censorship battle with the Will Hays Office and various State Film censorship boards including the powerful New York State Board. The censors felt there was too much glorification of gangsters in recent films like “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy.” scarfaceposter5They were demanding that the violence in “Scarface” be toned down and the lead character, Tony Camonte, be punished and condemned for his deeds. This  forced a second ending to be filmed long after the film wrapped. Muni and director Hawks were long gone by the time second ending was filmed. In this alternate version Muni is never seen (alternate ending is included on the DVD as an extra).  Additionally, a subtitle, “The Shame of a Nation” was added as well as an introductory text condemning the gangster lifestyle, blaming the government and demanding that something be done. Still after all this, some censors refused to let the film be released. Finally, producer Hughes scrapped the revised ending and released the film as originally shot in States with lenient film censorship boards. Subsequently, the world premiere was held in New Orleans. When the film was eventually released in New York, it was a censored version that both the critics and the public saw. In Chicago, the film was not released until 1934. Due its limited distribution and its late release toward the end of the first wave of the great gangster film cycle “Scarface” did well at the box office however, not as good as the earlier released films. About 1947, the film was pulled from distribution and became unavailable for public viewing except for some poorly chopped up bootleg versions floating around the underground market. In 1980, now owned by Universal, the uncensored version was finally shown in New York State at a special showing as part of the New York Film Festival. 

scarface1    While loosely based on the life of Al Capone (Capone was originally upset with the film’s likeness but eventually changed his mind and even had a personal copy of the film), the film’s realism was enhanced by screenwriter Ben Hecht’s familiarity with the Chicago underworld, and such real life Chicago mob figures as North Side gang leader, Dion O’Banion and Capone himself. Many scenes depicted in the film are based on actual events; the killing of “Big Louie” Castillo by Camonte (Paul Muni) was based the killing of boss “Big Jim” Colosimo.  Later on, Camonte has the North Side gang leader O’Hara killed in his flower shop mimicking the Capone ordered assassination of Dion ‘O’Banion his flower shop, and the resulting retaliation by the O’Banion gang when they shot up a restaurant where Capone was eating at the time, was recreated  by Hawks in its violent entirety. Still, there was much that was fiction also. The incestuous attachment Camonte has to his sister, screenwriter Ben Hecht used the Borgias, the infamous Italian Renaissance family as a blueprint, and the ending is pure imagination. Unlike the fictional Camonte, Al Capone died of syphilis and not by police bullets.  

    Looking at the film today, it still holds up as one of the most violent and best gangster films of its era. This is especially true if compared to “Little Caesar”  that today seems to move along at a creaky pace despite a strong performance by Edward G. Robinson.  What also contributes to the films modernity is Hawks use of the X motif, which shows up at various times during the film, mostly when someone is killed or about to be killed. The X, of course, looks similar to the scar on Camonte’s face. While parts of the screenplay are dated, the script contains a lot of dark and witty humor. Karen Morley as Poppy provides numerous sharp lines of dialogue mostly directed at Tony. 

    scarface2Paul Muni plays Tony as a not too bright thug, with an eye for the good things in life (power, gaudy clothes and women). Despite a bad Italian accent and a propensity for overacting Muni strikes the right balance as the crazed power hungry gangster with an unnatural attachment to his sister. The beautiful Ann Dorvak, who began an affair with director Howard Hawks during the filming, is vulnerable yet determined and sexy as Cesca, especially when she performs a seductive dance for Rinaldo (George Raft). Hawks would use her again in his next film, “The Crowd Roars.” Karen Morley portrays Poppy, Johnny Lovo’s mistress, with a cool sensual feistiness. For George Raft, this was well known territory. At one time the former ballroom dancer worked for real life bootlegger Owny Madden. The coin flipping that became his trademark and was parodied in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot” was actually, used as an attempt by Hawks to calm Raft’s nerves while filming. Boris Karloff who previously worked for Hawks in “The Criminal Code” got the small part of Gaffrey, the new head of the rival gang.        

    “Scarface” remains one of the most violent and provocative of all gangster films managing to overcome some creaky dialogue, chew biting performances, by Muni and Boris Karloff, and some unfortunate attempts at misplaced humor by Vince Barnett as Angelo one of Tony’s incompetent henchmen.

    “Scarface” was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry and is part of the film catalog in the Library of Congress.