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