Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
- Standing: Nominated for Best Picture (Outstanding Picture) of 1932/1933
- Type: Pre-code, crime, drama
- Other AA Nominations: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Paul Muni), Best Sound Recording (Nathan Levinson)
- Other AA Wins: 0
- Director: Mervyn LeRoy
- Studio/Producer: Warner Bros. / Hal B. Wallis; The Vitaphone Corporation
- Cast: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis, Edward Ellis, Preston Foster, Allen Jenkins, Sally Blane
- Production Notes: Cinematography by Sol Polito and music by Bernhard Kaun. The screenplay by Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes was adapted from Robert E. Burns’ 1932 autobiography I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!
- Viewing Order: 31 / 270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
After returning home from World War I, Sgt. James Allen (Paul Muni) opts for the life of a grifter doing odd jobs instead of settling down into a stifling hometown desk job, as his family wishes he would. One fateful night, he becomes the unwilling accomplice in a robbery when an acquaintance forces him at gunpoint to hold up a burger joint. Caught and tried, he is sentenced to a decade in prison with hard labor in a rural Southern town. Unable to accept this unjust fate and years more of inedible food, unwarranted beatings, and sadistic prison guards, Allen crafts an escape and goes on the run to Chicago with help from friend and fellow inmate Bomber Wells (Edward Ellis).
After evading the police, Allen creates a new life for himself, becoming a success in the construction industry and a credit to his community…but his troubles are far from over. His cash happy and devious sometimes girlfriend Marie (Glenda Farrell) finds out his secret and blackmails him into marriage, sensing her ticket up the social ladder as Allen becomes more and more valued in his profession. The loveless marriage drives him into the arms of sweet and innocent Helen (Helen Vinson), but Marie refuses to divorce him and their quarrel prompts her to turn him in. Back in custody, Allen is hopeful that with public sympathy on his side and now being a valued member of his community, he will be pardoned. He is tricked into returning to the jail, under the promise that his pardon will be forthcoming. When he realizes that he was duped and the vengeful Southern police force he humiliated have no intention of letting him go, he has no choice but to plan another escape…
In the end, the once falsely accused thief realizes that justice and honesty can do nothing for him and if he wants to survive, he must embrace a life of crime…
Behind the Scenes:
Robert Elliott Burns, author of I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!, the 1932 autobiography the film was based on, wrote the book while he was on the run, after escaping for the second time in 1930. He was still considered a fugitive at the time of the film’s release (in November of 1932) and was re-arrested a month later, but not extradited (this time public sympathy worked, probably thanks to the film’s more massive reach). Burns’ sentence was later commuted to time served.
Why was it nominated for Best Picture?
The film’s undeniable criticism against chain gang labor forced people to question whether this was a just and humane system of punishment. The immensely powerful ending of the film seemed to reverberate through the masses and additionally made people wonder if chain gang labor was even effective in preventing crimes or if it would just breed more hardened criminals. These little seeds of doubt, planted in a film one may see for fun on a day off from work, illustrate the power that film can have for initiating and fueling social reform. The film (and book) would be credited as an influence for chain gangs being scrapped for other forms of punishment and reform in the years that followed.
On a more surface level, audiences found the film thrilling. The sound quality and technique (especially that of the clanking chains) was praised in all of its soul draining effectiveness.
1932 and 1933 were still years where musicals reigned supreme and the top grossing films of the year tended to go this route. Warner Bros’, the studio emerging as the one most likely to churn out gritty “I saw it in the headlines” fare didn’t shy away from this trend either (their top hits of 1933, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, and 42nd Street were all musicals), but I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang did well monetarily for the studio and gave audiences something more to chew on than choreography.
How does it hold up today?
Extremely well. Considering that issues of justice in the legal system have never quite been (and probably never will be) outmoded, this film is easy to connect with and get riled up by.
- IMDb rating= 8.2 out of 10 (with approximately 11,000 ratings)
- Rotten Tomatoes rating= 96% fresh by critics (24 fresh votes vs 1 rotten) and 91% fresh user ratings (out of approximately 3,000 ratings)
Would this be my pick for 1932/1933 Best Picture?
There’s an excellent chance. Once again (see The Big House), a prison film has totally surprised me. Though I still generally prefer my 1930s to be littered with sassy dames, double entendre, and slinky gowns, I am loving being caught up in the grittier side. This film blew me away.
*My full 1932/1933 ranking will be updated after all films from the year are watched