I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

"Excellent"

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang Review


I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang probably can't take full credit for the reform of harsh prison conditions across the South in the 1930s, but there's no doubt it played a part. Its message is powerful, but luckily it's delivered by way of a dark and thrilling story that's all the more gripping because it's based on a true story. Warner Brothers took a risk with this one ("Banned in Georgia!!!"), but it paid off. Chain Gang is a minor classic that touches on all sorts of big American themes of class and justice.

James Allen (Paul Muni), a returning World War I veteran, is one of the unluckiest people you'll ever meet. His first problem: returning WWI vets were guaranteed none of the upward mobility that vets of later wars were granted. There were no G.I. Bills for these guys. Returning to his old job as a clerk in a factory, Allen knows he's changed, but his job hasn't. He stares dreamily out the window at a bridge being built and realizes that he wants to become an engineer to continue the kind of work he did in the Army.

But that dream will have to wait. Allen hits the road in the hopes of finding his way in the construction industry, but times are tough, and his situation becomes increasingly desperate as the money runs out. He even tries to sell his war medals, only to have a shop owner show him that hundreds of other vets have already had the same idea. Harsh.

Soon he's nothing more than a well-educated hobo, riding the rails and looking for a hot meal. One night he goes to a diner with a buddy, but the guy decides to rob the joint. When the cops arrive, Allen is nabbed, and Southern justice being what it is, he's quickly sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.

Yikes. Chain Gang makes the brutality of prison life obvious without being lurid about it. The obligatory whipping scene happens off camera, but you can hear the sounds as you study the faces of the convicts who are listening. It's a chilling moment. Allen decides to escape and gets another con to hammer off his shackles. In one of film history's great escape scenes, Allen shows just how smart he is as he outfoxes the bloodhounds, gets a barbershop shave right next to a cop who's talking about him, and eventually makes his way to Chicago to start life over as "Allen James." Clever pseudonym.

But now more bad luck. Allen falls for his blond landlady, the vicious Marie (Glenda Farrell). As he quickly builds a career as an engineer and makes good money, Marie starts to spend it and demands that he marry her. He agrees only when she discovers his secret past and blackmails him. When he meets a much nicer woman, the lovely Helen (Helen Vinson), Marie goes nuts and snitches. Despite the intercession of powerful friends and government officials, Allen agrees to return to the South and complete 90 more days on the chain gang in exchange for a pardon.

Of course as soon as the chains are on the officials renege, telling him he'll have to spend a year in prison, so Allen decides to escape again, this time accomplishing the feat with the help of dynamite. The bridge builder blows up a bridge in order to be free, but now he's a fugitive, destined to live a life in the shadows. Prison has turned him into a criminal.

Paul Muni (who played the original Scarface in the same year) may come off as a little overwrought, but who wouldn't be tense given the trials of his character? It's a strong performance, and one that you'll long remember. His final fadeout into the shadows, a crazed look in his eyes, is a searing image. In real life this story had a happier ending. How unusual and interesting for Hollywood to take an upbeat finale and turn it into something dark.

Richard B. Jewell offers a commentary on the DVD.

Back on the chain gang.



I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Facts and Figures

Run time: 92 mins

In Theaters: Saturday 19th November 1932

Distributed by: WARNER BROTHERS PICTURES

Production compaines: Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fresh: 21

IMDB: 8.1 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer: Hal B. Wallis

Starring: as James Allen, as Marie Woods, as Helen, Noel Francis as Linda, Preston Foster as Pete, as Barney Sykes, as The Judge, as Bomber Wells, as The Warden, Hale Hamilton as Rev. Allen, Sally Blane as Alice, Louise Carter as Mother, Everett Brown as Strong Prisoner

Also starring:

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