I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) Starring: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Preston Foster, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Screenplay by Brown Holmes and Howard J. Green. Based on the autobiography, I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang! By Robert Elliott Burns. Run Time: 93 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Crime, Drama
Of all the studios in Hollywood, Warner Bros. might be considered the grittiest back in the early 30’s. This is the studio that popularized the gangster genre with films like Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931) and would make stars out of Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart. Darryl F. Zanuck, the then head of productions at Warners, started making films that were “ripped from the headlines.” These films were usually made cheaply, had Warners’ signature realistic aesthetic and dealt with issues effecting working class people. The most famous of these was “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.”
Based on the book I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang, written by Robert Elliott Burns, himself a World War I veteran who escaped from a Georgia prison camp. His memoirs were an expose on the cruelty of the chain gang system. The book was released in 1932 and quickly turned into a movie.
|The book the movie is based on, written by Robert Elliott Burns.|
At the beginning of the film, we first see Sergeant James Allen (Paul Muni) on the ship back home, where the men of his platoon are discussing post-war life. After his stint in the Engineering Corp., Allen wants to get into construction. But waiting back home for his train, is not only his mother (Louise Carter), his brother Reverend Robert “Clint” Allen (Hale Hamilton), his old girlfriend, Alice (Sally Blaine), but also his old boss, Mr. Parker (Reginald Barlow).
|Sgt. James Allen, newly returned from World War I.|
Parker offers Jim back is old job at the Kumfort Shoes factory and even though he’s restless, he accepts the tedious job at the insistence of his family, especially his brother. But try as he might to fane interest in his job, Jim’s attention is drawn to a nearby bridge that is under construction. He finally convinces his mom that he should be allowed to chase his dream.
He first goes to Boston, where he loses his job during a cutback in crew. We watch as he tries is luck in New Orleans, where he can’t get work and onto Oshkosh, Wisconsin where he finds only a short term job driving a logging truck. By 1924, he makes it to St. Louis, he is sinking into poverty and tries, unsuccessfully, to pawn his war medals. The pawn broker shows him a drawer full of similar ones.
Jim’s journey takes him to the South, which is sort of painted with a wide brush as we’re not shown where in particular he actually lands. At a flop house, he makes the acquaintance of Pete (Preston S. Foster), who promises Jim he can talk a lunch wagon cook into a hamburger. The proprietor reluctantly agrees, but while the burgers are on the grill, Pete sticks the man up. Pointing a gun at Jim, who doesn’t want to cooperate, he tells him to empty the cash register, which only has $5 in it. But the police arrive before Pete makes the door and he is shot and killed in a barrage of gun fire. Jim tries to run, but he is caught, tried and convicted to ten years hard labor.
|Jim falls in with Pete (Preston S. Foster) who promises the hungry |
Jim a free hamburger, but gets him arrested instead.
Again, there is never a state mentioned, but Jim ends up in County Camp No. 2 on the chain gang. It is a brutal life, with wake up at 4:20 AM. When Jim is a little slow his first day, one of the guards knocks him to the floor and hits him in the face with his own chain. Breakfast is a plate of grease, fried bread, pork fat and sorghum (think grain). After being loaded onto the back of a truck, the prisoners are taken out to break rocks. Jim befriends another convict Bomber (Edward Ellis) and asks about a big black man, named Sebastian (Everett Brown) who seems very accurate with his sledgehammer. Bomber tells him the guy never misses.
|Jim makes friends with Sebastian ( Everett Brown) who is very accurate with a sledgehammer.|
At 8:20 PM the gang is brought back to camp, where they can wash up in communal tubs and get a second meal, much like the first. As an added incentive, the Warden (David Landau) comes around to whip the prisoners who didn’t try hard enough that day. One that gets picked on is Red (James Bell) who is obviously ill. When Jim makes a disparaging remark about picking on Red, the Warden punishes him instead. Not a great first day to say the least.
|Warden (David Landau) uses a whip to keep the prisoners in their place.|
Four weeks later, on June 5, one of the prisoner’s Barney (Allen Jenkins) is paroled and another Red, is taken out in a coffin. Those are the only two ways to leave. Bomber tells Jim. The thought that he has 9 more years and 48 weeks to go sends shivers through Jim and he plans his escape. When the guards aren’t looking, Jim asks Sebastian to strike his shackles, misshaping them so he can slip them off. They pass inspection and Jim waits his opportunity. Bomber gives Jim all the money he has $7 and Barney’s address in Stanton, which is supposedly a nearby town. Jim plans to make his escape the next Monday.
Jim gets the chance, when he’s allowed to take a bathroom break in some bushes. There is struggles, but manages to get the shackles off his ankles and makes a run for it. He dodges bullets and bloodhounds. On the run, he steals a pair of pants and a shirt from a clothes line and quickly changes, trying to throw the dogs off the scent. But they keep coming. Hiding underwater in a pond and using a reed to breath, Jim manages to elude capture.
|Jim manages to shed his shackles and escape.|
In Stanton, he uses the money to buy new suit and hat and to get a shave. A local policeman comes into the barber’s and tells him that they’re still looking for the escaped convict and that he won’t get out of town. Jim looks up Barney, who offers him a place to sleep and Linda (Noel Francis) to keep him company.
|The recently paroled Barney (Allen Jenkins) (r) arranges for Linda (Noel Francis) ) (l) to spend the night with Jim.|
The next morning, Jim buys a ticket to Chicago, but there is a delay and he has to wait. While eating as many hot dogs as he can, he watches as the Chief of police and a posse of men arrive at the train station. Boldly walking on the train, he hears the police chase after a hobo who had been stowed away. He later learns from the conductor that the police thought the hobo was the escapee. Jim watches as the train conductors seem to discuss him, but nothing comes of it.
Jim arrives in Chicago, where as Allen James (see what he did there), he gets a job as a day laborer for $4 a day. Jim is shown to be a creative thinker and he gets promoted to foreman where he make $9 a day. When he goes looking for a new apartment, he meets landlady Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell) who takes an immediate shining to him. She even lowers the rent to entice him to take the room.
|Landlady Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell) has her sights set on Jim and once she has him won't let him go.|
Jim makes steady progress at work and by 1927 he is a surveyor making $12 a day. He is involved with Marie and studying Civil Engineering at night. But Marie is jealous of anything that takes time away from her. Jim, for his part is not that enamored with her, so by the time he’s the Assistant Superintendent making $14 a day, he’s planning on moving out and leaving her behind.
But Marie won’t go away easily. She’s opened a letter from Clint in which he discusses Jim’s escape and Marie uses this information to blackmail Jim into marrying her. While Jim is working his way up to Superintendent, Marie is home drinking and cavorting around. When she is out of town with friends, Jim takes a call meant for her from a drunk, named Sammy, asking for Marie. She’s apparently stood him up on their date. When he’s told she’s not in, he warns Jim not to tell her husband he called.
At the Club Chateau, while at a party thrown by his boss, Jim meets Helen (Helen Vinson). They start talking and hit off, deciding to sneak out of the party together and go for a drive. When Jim asks her if they can stay out later, she tells him “I’m free, white and 21” and has no place to be.
|Jim might be married to Marie, but he's in love with Helen (Helen Vinson).|
Months go by and Jim tries to convince Marie to give him a divorce. But Marie likes the gravy train and says no. When he persists, she threatens to call the authorities on him. He calls her bluff and she calls the police.
While Jim is in a meeting with members of the Chamber of Commerce, the police arrive to arrest him. But authorities in Chicago refuse to extradite him. (I don’t think cities get to decide such things). While he’s still in custody, Jim is asked and tells about the conditions on the chain gangs, even writing an article about it while behind bars.
Even though the governor is not likely to sign extradition papers, the southern state makes Jim a deal. If he gives himself up, reimburses the state for their expenses in finding him (which come to $350) and serves 90 days in jail they’ll pardon him. They sweeten the deal by saying he’ll be a trustee and not have to do hard labor. Hoping to clear himself and get on with his new life with Helen, Jim agrees to the deal. He returns to the southern state, but quickly finds out the devil is in the details. His lawyer tells him that Jim didn’t help himself by publicly criticizing the chain gangs. Rather than a relatively cushy job, Jim has been assigned to hard labor with the hardest chain gang in the state. The only familiar face to him is Bomber, who had been assigned to this end of the road gang after he, too, tried to escape.
Jim puts in his 90 days, but despite Clint’s pleading with the pardon board, they deny the request. Jim is naturally outraged, but Clint tells him the board did agree to pardon him after a year. But after a year, they deny his request again. And that is the last straw.
When they see an opportunity, Jim and Bomber steal a truck that has just delivered more rocks to the chain gang. With the dump truck bed still up, the guards can’t shoot them and with dynamite in the cab, Bomber manages to slow the pursuit down by blasting the road behind them. But they are not out of the woods yet. Bomber, who has been shot and is hanging out of the truck falls to the road. When Jim stops to check on him, he finds Bomber dead. Using dynamite, Jim blows up the bridge they’d just crossed while the warden’s car is crossing. Jim manages to escape. .
|Jim and Bomber (Edward Ellis) steal a truck and escape the chain gang.|
But this time he has committed a crime and can’t go back to Chicago and pick up his life. He must live on the run. One night, Allen stops Helen on the street, but he remains in the shadows. Jim tells her he is leaving forever. She asks, "Can't you tell me where you're going? Will you write? Do you need any money?" James repeatedly shakes his head in answer as he backs away. Finally a completely distraught Helen asks, "How do you live?" In the film's final line, and one of the most famous closing lines in American film, Jim replies, "I steal", By that time, he’s already disappeared into the shadows. The last sounds we hear are Jim running away.
|Helen: "How do you live?"; Jim: "I steal".|
Sort of depressing, right? The film is credited with further exposing the terrible conditions of chain gangs and was mentioned as helping the book’s author, Burns avoid extradition to Georgia. While Burns was eventually pardoned by the Georgia governor in 1945, chain gangs continued until 1955, when they were pretty much phased out around the country. No surprise, Georgia was the last one to give up the practice. Chain gangs made a brief comeback in the 1990’s, when everyone was getting tough on crime. There is still one place where you can be put on a chain gang, Maricopa County, Arizona, but it’s voluntary. So while the film and the book it was based on did expose the practice, they really didn’t lead to the end of it.
But that’s not really Hollywood’s problem.
The lead actor, Paul Muni, received an Academy nomination for the role. Muni, born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had lived in the U.S. since he was seven and had been acting since the age of 12. Most of his acting, until he was 31 was in Yiddish theater in New York City. Known for his make-up skills, he finally made it to Broadway in 1926, playing an elderly Jewish man in the play We Americans.
Three years later, he was signed to Fox and received a nomination for Best Actor for his first film role, that of James Dyke in The Valiant (1929). But the film was not a boxoffice success and neither was his next film, Seven Faces (1929). So it was back to Broadway until 1932, when he returned, making a splash first in Scarface (1932) and then Fugitive. Scarface aka Scarface: Shame of the Nation, is considered, with Public Enemy and Little Caesar as one of the seminal gangster films of the 1930’s. A Howard Hughes produced, Howard Hawks directed, Ben Hecht written film, it is the basis for the much more bloody 1983 remake which starred Al Pacino and spawned the too oft quoted “say hello to my little friend.”
Muni would not make a lot of films in Hollywood, but he seemed to get nominated whenever he did. He made about two dozen films and received six nominations for Best Actor and won once, for the title role in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936). It should be noted that one of his nominations for Black Fury (1935) was a write-in and isn’t considered an official nomination by the Academy.
As an actor, Muni became known for the biographical films. In addition to Pasteur, he would play the French writer in The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and the Mexican president who resisted the French occupation of Mexico in Juarez (1939). In his last film, The Last Angry Man (1959), like in his first, Muni would once again be nominated as Best Actor for his role as Dr. Sam Abelman.
Mervyn LeRoy, the film’s director had only recently made a splash in Hollywood, having the year before directed Robinson in Little Caesar. LeRoy, who would also produce movies, worked in a variety of genres. While he started at Warner Bros.(he was Harry Warner’s son-in-law) , he would move to MGM and be named head of production there in 1938 following the death of Irving Thalberg in 1936. In the 1950’s he would move back the Warner Bros.
|Meryvn LeRoy, directed I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.|
As a director, LeRoy was responsible for such films as Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Tugboat Annie (1933), Waterloo Bridge (1940), Johnny Eager (1941), Random Harvest (1942), Madame Curie (1943), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Little Women (1949), Quo Vadis (1951), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), Mister Roberts (1955) and The FBI Story (1959) to name a few. He would also produce as well as direct part of The Wizard of Oz (1939). He is also credited for discovering such actors as Clark Gable, Loretta Young, Robert Mitchum and Lana Turner.
While I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is not a feel good film, it is worth watching if only for the contemporary portrayal of life in the 1930’s. While perhaps more ripped from the bookstore shelves than from the headlines, the film does tell a compelling story about what can happen to a man wrongly accused of a crime.