Filmsite Movie Review
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)
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I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) is a gritty, uncompromising, critical, and combative look at the unjust and barbaric treatment of criminals in a southern state's prison system following World War I. The harsh and grim melodramatic film was one of the first of Warner Bros.' films of social conscience, reform and protest during the early 30s (at the height of the Depression-era). The film reflected the dire effects of the Great Depression on the common man in its story of a WWI veteran who faced unemployment, was unjustly convicted of a petty robbery, and then twice served and escaped from a southern chain gang as a hunted fugitive during the 1920s. One of the film's taglines described his second escape:

"Six sticks of dynamite that blasted his way to freedom...and awoke America's conscience!"

A few other prison films had already been released before this short, 90 minute film: the classic The Big House (1930) about brutish prison conditions, Howard Hawks' Criminal Code (1931), Ladies of the Big House (1931), and director Rowland Brown's Hell's Highway (1932) (the first of the hard-hitting chain-gang films - deliberately released by RKO's producer David Selznick a few months earlier).

And many later men-in-chains films have paid homage to this one by borrowing various plot elements in different ways: Blackmail (1939) with Edward G. Robinson, Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958) with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as escapee prisoners chained together, and Cool Hand Luke (1967) with Paul Newman as a recalcitrant prisoner. Val Kilmer starred in a made-for-TV movie re-creation, The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains (1987), about a man sentenced to work on a chain gang after WWII for a petty crime.

Director Mervyn LeRoy (who had directed the early great gangster film Little Caesar (1930)), delivered this pure and straight-forward film to expectant audiences. It starred stage actor Paul Muni, already known for playing a very different kind of character - a remorseless, tough, and psychopathic criminal named Tony Camonte in director Howard Hawks' Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932). [Note: A character actor, Muni played many biographical personalities during his long award-winning career, i.e., Louis Pasteur in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), Emile Zola in The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and President Benito Pablo Juarez in Juarez (1939).]

The film earned three Academy Award nominations (with no wins): Best Picture (it lost to Cavalcade), Best Actor (Muni lost his second nomination to Charles Laughton for his performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII), and Best Sound.

This powerful, stark film was adapted by Sheridan Gibney (uncredited), Brown Holmes, and Howard J. Green, and based on the writings of Robert Elliott Burns (a pseudonym chosen by his ghostwriting brother Rev. Vincent G. Burns), first serialized in True Detective Mysteries (from January - June 1931), and then published as a sequel in March 1932, and as a novel of almost the same name (I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang) by Vanguard Press. The film is remarkably faithful to the incredible true-life, autobiographical misfortunes and experiences of Burns:

  • In mid-1919 after returning from the warfront, an idealistic, down-on-his-luck WWI veteran (Burns) found only low-paying jobs, and his previous job (paying $50/week) had been filled. His welcome home as a returning serviceman was sobering
  • Unemployed, hungry, and drifting around the country by 1922, he was sentenced to hard labor on a Georgia chain gang after engaging in a $5.80 grocery store robbery in Atlanta with two other destitute men
  • He escaped from the Campbell County Prison Camp in June 1922 after serving a few months of a six- to ten-year sentence. As in the film, his shackles were bent by a sledgehammer wielded by a black inmate, and he fled through the woods and down a river toward Atlanta to evade officials
  • During seven years of freedom in Chicago, he lived a highly-respected and honorable life. He became a public speaker and a writer. Burns founded and became editor-in-chief of The Greater Chicago Magazine and earned an annual income of $20,000 dollars
  • The fugitive was betrayed by his estranged first wife (an Hispanic divorcee), who disclosed his identity in 1929 to the Georgia authorities when he asked for a divorce (after he had fallen in love with another woman)
  • Despite support from many prominent individuals (including the governor of Illinois), he voluntarily returned to Georgia after being assured that he would be given a full pardon in just a short time (90 days)
  • The state authorities in Georgia didn't keep their promise - they soon returned him to the chain gang in LaGrange to serve out the remainder of his original prison sentence. Parole board hearings ignored requests for an appeal
  • He worked for a year on the chain gang, and then escaped - less dramatically - a second time in September 1930, through assistance from a sympathetic local store owner
  • He again went North after evading numerous manhunts, became a tax consultant in New Jersey, and wrote a series of magazine articles of his harrowing experiences on the chain gang
  • Warners' acquired the rights to the book for $12,500 in early 1932. Production head Darryl Zanuck hired fugitive Burns as technical advisor and consultant to the screenwriters - with protection from Warner Bros. on the studio lot in Hollywood/Burbank. Burns used the name Richard M. Crane to disguise himself
  • Only three weeks after the film was released in mid-November, 1932, Georgian officials learned of his whereabouts in New Jersey and arrested him as a fugitive. Governor A. Harry Moore, the first of three NJ governors, officially refused to extradite him
  • At the same time, the milestone film received the year's Best Film honor from the National Board of Review
  • Newspapers in Georgia were in an uproar over the endorsement, carried headlines such as YANKEE LIES, and two prison wardens sued Warner Bros. for libel in the film (their suit was dismissed by the Fulton County Superior Court)
  • Eventually, reform of the chain gang system was successful. By 1937, chain gangs had been outlawed in Georgia. In the mid-40s, Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall proposed to be Burns' lawyer if he would return and settle the matter. Burns voluntarily and courageously returned to the state in 1945, where the Georgia Pardon and Parole Board commuted his sentence to time served and restored his civil rights. But he was not officially given a full pardon (because he had admitted being guilty for the holdup).

In the realistic film, to appease southern film exhibitors and the state of Georgia, there is no mention or hint of the state of Georgia (it was omitted from the title of the picture), but it's clear that the character is imprisoned in a southern state (with large numbers of blacks on the chain gang) and its penal system were being implicated. The film was actually banned in Georgia.

Plot Synopsis

After the credits, the film opens with snapshot portraits of each of the sixteen major cast members with their character names. A World War I veteran Sgt. James Allen (Paul Muni) is returning home from the war on a troop ship that docks in New York. The papers report their heroic arrival: "SUNSET DIVISION RETURNING HOME TODAY." The soldiers are pleased to be at the end of bunk inspections. For his future, Allen is planning on using his military's technical training to get "some kind of construction job...being in the Engineering Corps has been swell experience and I'm makin' the most of it." Ironically, one of the soldiers remarks: "Well, we'll be readin' about you in the newspapers, I'll bet." Allen doesn't plan to return to his "old grind" in a factory job.

After a triumphant parade of marching GI's in the city, he travels by train to his small hometown of Lynndale, where his Mother (Louise Carter), his pretty girlfriend (?) Alice (Sally Blane - actress Loretta Young's sister), and brother Rev. Clint Allen (Hale Hamilton) are waiting to embrace him. Factory owner Mr. Parker (Reginald Barlow) also is there promising to restore Jim's old factory job. Later in the Allen home, Allen's prissy brother sits down and wants to hear "all about the war." But his single-minded concern is to have Jim accept Parker's guarantee of a job offer to take up where he left off. Because he wants to build bridges as a master engineer instead of returning to his unexciting, clerical job in a shoe factory, Jim explains his new attitude to his family:

The Army changes a fellow. It kinda makes you think different. I don't want to be spending the rest of my life answering a factory whistle instead of a bugle call. I'll be cooped up in a shipping room all day. I want to do something worthwhile.

The Rev. excuses Jim's ungrateful attitude as tiredness:

Rev.: ...after a good night's sleep, you'll be ready to take up where you left off at the factory. A soldier of peace instead of a soldier of war.
Jim: I don't want to be a soldier of anything. You see, Mom. I want to get out, away from routine. I had enough of that in the Army...I've been doing engineering work in the Army and that's the kind of work I want to do now. A man's job where he can accomplish things, where he can build, construct, create, do things.
Rev.: That sounds very nice, but after all, a job in the hand's worth two in the bush.

To appease them and follow their pre-determined plan, Jim starts work at the Parker Manufacturing Company ("The Home of Kumfort Shoes") the next day. A factory whistle blows as the day begins in the shipping room, where Jim is positioned by a window to check the flow of shipments. Instead of seriously concentrating on his work, Jim watches as a bridge is being built in the distance, and takes long lunch breaks "loitering around that new bridge." Over dinner one evening, Jim's brother mentions Mr. Parker's disappointment over his job performance: "You haven't shown him anything. You know your duty is to your job." But independent, freedom-loving Jim can't concentrate on the job and wants out to go "somewhere, anywhere...just where I can do what I want to":

It's not the kind of work I want to do...It's too monotonous...No one seems to realize that I've changed, that I'm different now. I've been through hell. Folks here are concerned with my uniform, how I dance. I'm out of step with everybody. I was hoping to come home and start a new life - to be free, and again, I find myself under orders, a drab routine, cramped, mechanically even worse than the Army. And you, all of you, trying your darndest to map out my future, to harness me and lead me around to do what you think is best for me. Doesn't it occur to you that I've grown? That I've learned that life is more important than a medal on my chest or a stupid, insignificant job.

His mother encourages him to follow his heart if that will make him happy: "He's got to be happy. He's got to find himself."

A map charts Jim's train journey from the Mid-Atlantic states to New England (North of Boston) to find construction work. But after a short stint, he is laid off ("last in, first out"). So he crisscrosses the country to find steady work. He travels by steamer down the East Coast, across the Lower Gulf states and the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans (where no jobs are available), and then by train North to Oshkosh (and Lake Winnebago) in Wisconsin. There, he drives a truck in a lumbering company - his "first job in four months." But the job is short-lived and he must again hit the road.

Appearing increasingly like a transient, penniless bum, he travels by rail to the St. Louis area. In a pawn shop, he offers to give up his Belgian Croix de Guerre, but the owner already has a drawer case full of medals from other unemployed, vagrant veterans. Spiraling downward, he now walks the railroad ties with his dusty shoes into the South (the map fades away when it reaches Tennessee), where he beds down in a flophouse. [The film never identifies his location - Georgia.] A sign advertises:

Beds --- 15 cents
Meals --- 15 cents
Baths --- 5 cents

A fellow drifter-tramp named Pete (Preston Foster), who is playing solitaire, proposes going to a lunch-wagon/diner for a handout of hamburgers. Hungry and destitute, Allen responds to the hustler:

What would I say to a hamburger? Oh, boy. I'd shake Mr. Hamburger by the hand and say, 'Pal, I haven't seen you in a long, long time.'

Pete persuades the reluctant cook in the empty diner to toss two greasy hamburgers (covered with onions) on the grill. And then to Jim's surprise, Pete suddenly pulls a gun on the cook. At gunpoint, he also orders Allen to "get that dough out of the register. Go on, do as I say." The unwilling accomplice stuffs the $5 dollars from the till into his pocket, as Pete rips out the phone lines and shouts to the cook: "Don't start yellin' for the cops." But the police have already been alerted and kill the gunman. Allen panics and flees out the side door, and is implicated when caught with the cash, although he pleads with them: "I didn't do nothin'."

He is an innocent man, but unfortunately in court, he is dealt a harsh punishment from the Judge (Berton Churchill): "I see no reason for leniency since the money was found on your person. Futhermore, upon detection, you attempted to escape which would, of necessity, increase the seriousness of your offense." In accordance with the laws of the state (unidentified), Allen is sentenced to prison at hard labor for ten years for the $5 robbery. The pounding of the judge's gavel transitions to the clanging sound of a blacksmith's hammer placing shackles on his ankles. Wearing the horizontally-striped uniform of a prisoner on a chain gang, he is assigned to hard labor in County Camp No. 2 - a primitive, forbidding labor camp with armed guards and a stockade.

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