#259) I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

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#259) I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

OR “Orange Is the New Black & White”

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Written by Howard J. Green & Brown Holmes. Based on the autobiography by Robert E. Burns.

Class of 1991

The Plot: James Allen (Paul Muni) has just returned home from World War I, and declines a desk job at the family business to pursue his dream of being a civil engineer. He travels the country for employment, but work is hard to come by, and soon he is out of money. After being arrested during a robbery he was forced to participate in, James is sentenced to a chain gang, where he endures hard labor for months on end. After a year, James escapes to Chicago and makes himself a successful engineer/model citizen. But will his past come back to haunt him?

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Muni and director LeRoy, and cites the film’s influence on the prison genre.

But Does It Really?: “Chain Gang” is another one of those movies that I’ve heard of, but couldn’t tell you why it’s a classic. It turns out the film’s slip from the shortlist of classics isn’t necessarily its own fault. There’s nothing wrong with the film; it’s quite good actually. It’s just been eclipsed over the years by better movies: “The Great Escape”, “The Shawshank Redemption”, and the definitive chain gang film: “Cool Hand Luke”. There’s some great work being done throughout, especially by Paul Muni, but there have been so many other classics in the last 85 years that this movie gets lost in the shuffle. “Chain Gang” is worth a watch, but definitely not as a double feature with “Cool Hand Luke”. Give it a chance to work on its own.

Everybody Gets One: The film’s main takeaway is the man himself: Robert Elliott Burns. “Chain Gang” is very faithful to his real life story. Like James Allen, Burns was a WWI veteran who couldn’t find work, was caught up in a diner robbery, and escaped from a chain gang. He became the editor of Greater Chicago Magazine and started publishing a serial that would become his memoir “I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang!” After his second escape, Burns spent a few weeks in Burbank helping Paul Muni prepare for the film, and even contributed some dialogue to the screenplay.

Wow, That’s Dated: Chain gangs, that’s your big one. Chain gangs were commonplace in the South for most of the late 1800s/early 1900s, but were eventually phased out by the mid-‘50s. Alabama, however, tried to bring back chain gangs in the ‘90s, which means it’ll probably come back again soon. Stupid cyclical nostalgia trends.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Chain Gang” was nominated for three Oscars at the 6th Academy Awards. Paul Muni lost Best Actor to Charles Laughton in “The Private Life of Henry VIII” (the first instance of an Oscar going to a foreign film) and Best Picture that year went to “Cavalcade”. You know, that classic. Most bizarre is the film’s third nomination: sound engineer Nathan Levinson faced such competition as…himself for “42nd Street” and…himself for “Gold Diggers of 1933”. But the winner for Sound Recording turned out to be the only non-Levinson: Franklin Hansen for Paramount’s “A Farewell to Arms”.

Other notes

  • Having clips of your cast during the opening credits is a massive spoiler. Great, now I know this movie has a judge, a warden, AND a Texan!
  • Another pre-code gem: the Texan says someone’s gonna be “S.O.L.” if they mess with him. And he ain’t talking about the Satellite of Love.
  • Who dreams of getting into construction work? What are you, one of the Village People?
  • While James is riding the rails, he should say hi to those Wild Boys of the Road.
  • This movie got me to wondering when we switched prison uniforms from black and white stripes to orange jumpsuits. Turns out we were already phasing out the stripes around the time of this film, with the intention of making the uniforms more rehabilitative than punishing. At one point we tried out denim, as seen in “Cool Hand Luke”.
  • Mervyn LeRoy seems to be having fun cutting from the prisoners to the horses. Nice metaphor.
  • James’ escape is still pretty suspenseful and exciting to watch. But why the occasional under-cranking? Could Paul Muni not run?
  • At one point James is reading “Civil Engineering” by J.J. Robertson. Any relation to J.K. Robertson? Is he a team player?
  • So much of this film’s transitions are paperwork. Newspapers, contracts, letters. Is this movie applying for a Real ID?
  • Paul Muni kinda looks like Glenn Ford.
  • “How do you live?” “I steal.” Great final exchange, but like the film in general, its standing as one of the great film endings has been surpassed by many later films.
  • The moral of this movie: Never turn down a desk job. Your dreams will lead to nothing but a life of crime.

Legacy

  • The success of the movie (as well as the book) led to the eventual abolition of the chain gang system in America. Robert Burns was pardoned in the state of George in 1945.
  • Robert Burns’ real story was made into the 1987 TV movie “The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains”. Apparently the 1987 equivalent of Paul Muni was Val Kilmer.

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