This review is in conjunction with The Pre-Code Blogathon being hosted by Shadows and Satin and Pre-Code.com. Please visit their sites for a full list of all the wonderful contributors to this fine blogathon.
I was scouring the internet for a good quality poster of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (which I don’t think ever I quite found) when I landed on a movie poster site. The site was of the opinion that the film we’re talking about today, which was made in the middle of the Pre-Code era, was dated. While obviously not made last week, I couldn’t disagree more. Obviously it was made in black and white; there’s a certain early sound quality in the way its shot and recorded; the dialogue is very much of its time; and its star was probably at his movie height in the 1930s – making some of his most notable works like Scarface (1932, the same year as Fugitive), The Story of Louis Pasteur (which, in 1937, was nominated for Best Picture and won Muni his first and only Oscar), The Good Earth (which was nominated for Best Picture in 1938 and also earned Muni another nomination as Best Actor), and The Life of Emile Zola (which did win Best Picture in 1938 – my review can be found here – and a fifth nomination for Muni as Best Actor). So it does fit squarely into the 1930s. However, its messages about the cruel treatment of prisoners and the corrupt legal system of the time are no less important today.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was based on the true story of Robert Elliot Burns. Burns was a World War I veteran who, after being unable to get a livable wage upon his return home, was sentenced to 6 to 10 years hard labor in 1922 for aiding in the armed robbery of a grocery story (from which he and his accomplices stole $5.81). Burns was eventually able to escape the Georgia chain gang. He went to Chicago and became a legitimate member of society as the editor and publisher of the Greater Chicago Magazine. Despite his status as a honorable man of society, he ran into more trouble because of his past crime.
So that I don’t ruin the entire movie for you, I will stop here. I will only add that in 1932 he wrote and published a book about his time in the Georgia prison and the harsh treatment he and others received. Upon discovering the book (I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang), Warner Bros. decided to make it into a film. It was written by Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes. Burns was an adviser on the film for, I believe, a couple weeks. He worked under an assumed name but left the production for fear of being caught by the police.
There are differences between what actually happened to Robert Elliot Burns and what happens to Paul Muni’s character James Allen in the Warner Bros. film. Allen doesn’t willingly aid in armed robbery in the film and his interest is in engineering and not writing. Other changes are made throughout but the movie follows Burn’s story closely.
It’s not a happy story. It’s an dramatic and often dark emotional ride. We have Allen and his fellow prisoners being beaten mercilessly after a hard 16 hour-day when they under-perform or misbehave, one man even dying from over-exhaustion. We have the horrible meals made up of grease and slop. We have what seems like endless prison terms that will drive a man crazy. But what I found more overwhelming was the tension. From the moment Allen gets arrested and thrown in prison to the final shot of the film, there is an almost unbearable amount of tension. Will Allen survive in prison? Will Allen’s escape attempt be successful? Will he get caught again once he does make it out? Will he make it out of this movie free and alive? And a host of other questions I dare not ask for risk of spoiling the whole thing. I was yelling at the screen at various moments and practically biting my nails off I was so engrossed in the action. The prison break itself is a master stroke.
Besides not shining the best light on guards and law officials, the one scene that I’m sure would have to be watered down, if not thrown out completely, if this had been made two to three year later, is when Allen gets to a Chicago safe house run by a former prisoner of the Georgia chain gang, Barney. Allen is relaxing a little, he’s made it this far without being caught. Barney says he’ll send someone up to make sure Allen is “comfortable.” Linda (played by Noel Francis, who was a former Ziegfeld girl and was well-known for musicals and tough girl parts) walks in with an air of Mae West minus the humor and with all the sexual undertones. She says to Allen that if she can help with anything, to let her known. A very provocative stare between the two follows before he says there’s nothing at all she can do for him. After she’s pours herself a drink, while he stares intently at her legs, she says she knows what’s on his mind. She sits on his lap and tells him he’s among friends. Fade out. What we have is a scene that shows practically nothing but suggests a lot. We talked about tension before. Well, the sexual tension in this scene should be noted as being particularly Pre-Code.
Muni, who’s becoming a quick favorite of mine, is stilted in the beginning when Allen is returning home after the First World War. Once he decides he doesn’t want to go back to his job of routine, that he wants to become an engineer, and inner conflict comes into the picture, he’s great. We see, as his problems build and build, the slow deterioration of a man. His will is being broken link by link. By the end, he’s the mere shell of the person who first occupied the beginning frames of this movie. We see a man who was once upstanding, honest, and hardworking, who continues to be so once he escapes prison, who desperately attempts to hold onto his hopes and optimisms, but nevertheless is transformed into this guy who’s willing to break the law because he has to to survive. I don’t know if it was the intent, but I saw some of the “prison takes small time offenders and makes them far, far worse” point of view in this movie. This all comes to a head in the film’s final shot, which is, to put it lightly, haunting. It’s also one of the best closing shots of any movie, and Mervyn LeRoy and his cinematographer Sol Polito deserve endless praise for its brilliance.
In 1943, Georgia governor Ellis Arnall credited I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, the movie and the novel, as instrumental in reforming conditions in the southern chain gangs. If you haven’t seen this powerful film yourself yet, I would highly recommend you do so as soon as possible.