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I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)
Returning veteran James Allen, rejecting a return to the old factory grind, degenerates into a hobo. Innocently involved in robbery, he is railroaded onto an incredibly brutal chain gang. Finally escaping, he makes his way to Chicago, where he finds success in the construction industry...and grasping girlfriend Marie, who threatens to expose him if he doesn't marry her. When he meets and falls for Helen, things go from bad to worse.
Paul Muni ... James Allen
Glenda Farrell ... Marie
Helen Vinson ... Helen
Noel Francis ... Linda
Preston Foster ... Pete
Allen Jenkins ... Barney Sykes
Berton Churchill ... The Judge
Edward Ellis ... Bomber Wells
David Landau ... The Warden
Hale Hamilton ... Rev. Allen
Sally Blane ... Alice
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Codecs: XVid / MP3
I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (Warner Brothers, 1932), expertly directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is one of those rare movies released during the early 1930s to really stand the test of time. Although not the very first film to deal with prison injustice and harsh conditions, this is probably the best of its kind. Based on the story by Robert Burns, a war veteran who twice escaped from a chain gang in Georgia, it seems likely that Warner Brothers would be the only movie studio willing to take risks dealing with a social protest story, but here it is. And while actors like Spencer Tracy or James Cagney might have taken up such a challenge for the role, playing it to conviction, as fate would have it, Paul Muni has turned out to be the best and only choice.
The photoplay focuses on a World War Army veteran named James Allen (Paul Muni), who served his country, earning his medals and now respect of his small community. Regardless of being offered back his old job, he decides to find himself by drifting from state to state, job to job, until he finds something to his liking. Along the way, Jim innocently becomes involved in a robbery by a guy named Pete (Preston Foster). A shoot out occurs by the police, killing Pete and arresting Jim. Because the money was found on his person, the judge (Berton Churchill) sentences Jim to ten years of hard labor in a chain gang prison camp. Due to harsh conditions in a living hell, Jim makes a successful escape, becoming a model citizen over the years rising to the top of his profession in a construction firm, only to be betrayed by his gold-digging wife, Marie (Glenda Farrell) for wanting a divorce so he could marry Helen (Helen Vinson), a socialite. Because of his expose to the media, Jim finds he'll never be given his promised freedom after serving 90 days. He makes his second daring escape into the new world now hit by the Great Depression. In spite of his new found freedom, he finds he'll always be chained for life as a wanted fugitive.
Not exactly a family oriented movie, "I Am a Fugitive" is a dark and very realistic drama told in documentary style with a touch of "film noir." It includes violence, though mostly taken place off screen, such as the flogging of the convicts who groan out their pain. Unlike other chain gang movies, this one doesn't feature punished convicts being placed in sweat boxes for long periods of time. While Paul Muni would achieve success in later years for his biographical dramas, winning an Academy Award as Best Actor for "The Story of Louis Pasteur" (Warners, 1936), his role as the doomed Jim Allen, victim of circumstance, is obviously his best and most remembered performance. What makes Muni so different from the other screen actors is that Muni doesn't just play a character, he BECOMES that character.
Full of memorable scenes too numerous to mention, the one that stands out is the scene where Jim, after being brought back to the chain gang on a promise for parole and release within a year, is awaken from his bed by one of the guards to be told that his appeal has been denied and that he will have to serve out his original ten-year sentence. Hearing this, Jim, with unshaved face and looking fairly dirty, looks straight into the camera with tears slowly flowing through his eyes with the expression of disgust and betrayal, making fists with his hands before resting down his head on the pillow. As for the prison escapes, they are well staged, with the second escape more exciting than the first.
Taking support in this hard-hitting drama are Louise Carter (Mrs. Allen); Sally Blane (Alice); Allen Jenkins (Barney, a fellow convict); Edward Ellis (Bomber Wells, Jim's cell-mate); David Landau (First Warden); Edward McNamara (Second Warden); Noel Francis (Linda, the lady of the evening who makes Jim's night's lodging "comfortable") and James Bell as the ill-fated convict who suffers from stomach pains. When the movie played on local television back in the 1960s and 70s, it was presented under a shorter title, "I Am a Fugitive," but when distributed to video cassette in the 1980s, its complete title was restored. Other than Paul Muni's Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for his performance as Jim Allen, the movie was honored the Best Picture award, losing "Cavalcade" (Fox, 1933).
After all these years, "I Am a Fugitive" remains a fast-pace man-on-the-run drama, which holds interest throughout its 93 minutes of screen time, and not so easily to forget once it is all over. With the chain gang system being virtually a thing of the past (younger viewers might ask, "What is a chain gang?"), the movie is a curious look back as to how prison conditions were like in the early part of the twentieth century, and how the judicial system has changed since then.
In a society known for freedom and justice, how is that justice truly measured and meted out? When an individual's very life hinges on a verdict of innocent or guilty, is there such a thing as an objective call? Or is a person's life subject to mere perception; a subjective evaluation of `facts' assimilated through a filter of bloated egos and personal agenda? All questions that many, perhaps, would prefer not to have answered, nor indeed, even asked at all. Those who are so secure in the absolutism of our justice system that they will willingly defer to the establishment in all matters, and with a clear conscience. The `system,' after all, is infallible; or at least good enough, isn't it? Good enough, that is, when it's being tested on `someone else.' But what if that glitch in the system becomes personal? What if `you' are the one who falls victim to a miscarriage of justice, and your voice becomes impotent, grinding your pleas into so much pulp beneath the wheels of a machine to which you are nothing more than another insignificant cog? It's a situation examined in the absorbing drama, `I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang,' directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and starring Paul Muni.
James Allen (Muni) returns home from WWI to find his old job in a shoe factory awaiting him. But James is a changed man, with aspirations of doing something meaningful with his life; and he wants to put the experience he received in the Army-- in the Engineering Corps-- to use. He wants to build things-- bridges, roads-- useful things. And toward that end he sets out and scours the East Coast from north to south looking for work, but jobs are scarce. Finally, having taken to `walking the ties,' the rail leads him into St. Louis, just another out-of-work bum in the eyes of society. There he meets up with a guy named Pete (Preston Foster), who tells James he knows where they can get a hamburger as a hand-out. The trusting and somewhat naive James goes along, only to find himself on the wrong end of a stick-up gone bad.
From that point, the justice system moves swiftly, and James Allen finds himself sentenced to ten years at hard labor on a chain gang. His offense? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong guy.
Based on the autobiographical story by Robert E. Burns, and written for the screen by Sheridan Gibney and Brown Holmes, LeRoy's riveting film is an inditement of the justice system-- specifically the brutality of the chain gangs-- but also of a society too smug and filled with self-righteousness to realize how fragile and tentative the freedoms we enjoy really are. America is the greatest country in the world-- a veritable bastion of freedom-- but those who would throw out their chests while holding up the Constitution, citing whichever amendment it is that suits their personal agenda, should be made to walk a mile in the shoes of Robert Burns/James Allen. Or for a start, be required to watch this film.
Released in 1932, this film is devoid of the melodrama common to many films of this era, and instead presents the story in very realistic terms, the meaning of which is indisputable. Like Hitchcock's unnerving 1957 film, `The Wrong Man' (also based on a true story), this film is not only disconcerting, but down-right scary when you stop to consider the implications of it. It also evokes a sense of Kafka's `The Trial' (also made into a movie in 1963 by Orson Welles), but without the abstractedness; unlike `The Trial's' Joseph K., James Allen knows exactly what's happened to him and how. What he can't understand is `Why.' Nor would any rational man, betrayed by the very society in which he placed his implicit trust, understand.
Paul Muni gives a dynamic, stirring performance as James Allen, capturing all of the confusion, exasperation, pain and anguish of his inexplicable situation, all of which you can see in his expression, in his eyes and in his body language and demeanor. You feel the darkness into which he is forced to descend, and with him you share that sense of hope fading away more with each passing day. From the tension of the moment when he first attempts to `Hang it on the limb,' to what is one of the most haunting endings ever filmed, you're right there, living it with him. It's a powerful, truly memorable performance by Muni.
The supporting cast includes Helen Vinson (Helen), Noel Francis (Linda), Allen Jenkins (Barney), Berton Churchill (Judge), Edward Ellis (Bomber Wells), David Landau (Warden), Hale Hamilton (Rev. Robert Allen), Sally Blane (Alice), Louise Carter (Allen's Mother), James Bell (Red), William Le Maire (Texan), Edward Arnold (Lawyer) and Willard Robertson (Prison Commissioner). In no way does this film exaggerate the situation it depicts; it doesn't have to. In the end, `I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang' is a wake-up call of sorts, a warning to those who take personal freedom for granted or place too much trust in a flawed system mired in bureaucracy. That a film made in 1932 can still have such an impact today says more than enough about how good it is. And once you've seen it, you'll never forget that final, haunting scene, and James Allen's final words.
A very early Warner Bros. social drama--and one of their best. It's pretty strong stuff. I remember originally seeing this on TV back in the 1970s and really being shocked by it. It's not graphic but what you hear is even worse then being shown it (the whippings in particular). It also shows a law system that doesn't give a damn about how they treat their prisoners. They should be treated like dirt--and are! The story moves quickly and Muni is just superb. This movie made him and you can see why. Also it has one of the most depressing endings I've ever seen in a motion picture. It hit me hard back in the 1970s and still works today. Muni's haunted face and the final line are harrowing. A true classic--a must-see.
# The film was based on the true story of Robert E. Burns. It sticks basically to the facts except for two instances: Burns actually did steal the $5.29 in order to eat, and he finally succeeded in evading the Georgia legal system with the help of three New Jersey governors. Burns actually slipped into Hollywood and worked for a few weeks on the film, but ultimately the stress and risk were too much, and he fled back to the safety of New Jersey. The book and film helped bring about the collapse of the brutal chain gang system in Georgia. Warner Bros. took a big chance on the film, as social commentary was not normally done in Hollywood pictures. However, this film was a critical and financial success and helped establish Warners as the studio with a social conscience--it also helped save the financially ailing company. Even though Georgia was never specifically named in the film, numerous lawsuits were filed against the studio, the film was banned in Georgia, and the studio's head and the film's director were told that should they ever find themselves in Georgia they would be treated to a dose of the "social evil" they so roundly denounced.
# The final fade came as an accident. Director Mervyn LeRoy had planned to go to a blackout after the final line. During rehearsals, a light blew, taking the fuse with it. The resultant slow fade, starting just before the final line, was so powerful that Leroy decided to shoot the film exactly that way.
# Atlanta, Georgia - Monday, October 10, 1939: Action bought by Vivian Stanley, a member of the Prison Commission of the State of Georgia, against Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., Vitagraph, Inc. and local exhibitors, Wilby and Holden, was won by the defendants when a verdict was rendered in the latter's favor in the Superior Court of Fulton County here. Plaintiff brought the suits trial of which commenced some three weeks ago, for $100,000 charging libel because of the content of the (1932)Warner feature, "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang."