I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (United States, 1932)

January 19, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang Poster

With a title like I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, one might be forgiven expecting an exploitation flick, but this relic from the pre-Code era is actually a damning indictment of the American justice system during the interwar period. Although filmed in the midst of the Great Depression, the movie, which is based on a true story, transpires a decade earlier and illustrates, among other things, how the letter of the law can trump justice. Over the years, this has become a common theme for motion pictures but I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was one of the first to openly challenge the penal system. It's also one of the few movies to address the plight of returning war veterans - another subject that has become commonplace in modern movies but was largely ignored (unless one considers William Wyler's tremendous The Best Years of Our Lives, which didn't arrive until after World War II).

The film opens with soldiers returning triumphant from The Great War. In a brief introductory scene, they discuss their hopes and plans for the future. The protagonist, James Allen (Paul Muni), rhapsodizes about changing his life. He no longer desires the day-by-day drudgery of a desk job. He wants to work with his hands building things. After a patriotic homecoming, he discovers that everyone wants him to go back to "the way he used to be," as if he hadn't undergone a life-changing experience overseas. Eventually, he quits his job and wanders the country in search of a more fulfilling occupation. Unskilled labor, however, is plentiful, making it a challenge to find steady employment. James ends up broke and down on his luck in the South. That's when bad fortune finds him.

The pivotal moment in Allen's life results from being in the wrong place at the wrong time as he becomes a reluctant accomplice to a robbery. Allen is arrested and the judge comes down hard on him, sentencing him to ten years' labor on a chain gang. After only a short period of incarceration, seeing and experiencing the brutality of those who endure the daily grind, Allen decides to escape. After his gambit proves successful, he makes his way to Chicago where he re-invents himself as a construction worker whose ethics and intelligence allow him to progress quickly up the promotion ladder. Allen hasn't been able to shake his past completely, however. Marie (Glenda Farrell), the woman who runs the boarding house where he lives, learns his secret and uses it to blackmail him into marriage. Their union is unhappy and, after Allen falls for another woman, Helen (Helen Vinson), Marie betrays him to the authorities. The supposed "deal" he is offered for turning himself in turns out to be a sham and Allen soon finds himself back where he started: working on a chain gang. His second escape doesn't have nearly as optimistic a resolution and leads to one of film noir's most memorable last lines. After Allen tells Helen she'll never see him again, she asks him how he lives. As he disappears into shadow, leaving the screen black, he whispers, "I steal."

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was based on an actual case and gained credit for raising public awareness of the inhumanity of chain gangs. The film is unsparing in its attack on the American judicial system. Allen is given a heavy sentence for essentially being a bystander to a crime. Then, after escaping, despite having turned his life around and become a model citizen, he is tricked into turning himself in and forced back onto the chain gang. In the end, his ordeal has transformed him into the one thing he never truly was: a criminal. The movie illustrates that prison isn't really about "rehabilitation"; it's about punishment, plain and simple.

Because it was produced prior to the enforcement of the Hays Code, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was able to present a darker world view than was the case with films released only a few years alter. While there's nothing that today would be seen as objectionable, the movie's unsubtle sexual references and grim ending wouldn't have been permitted under the Code.

For all its eye-opening candor, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang has its share of failings, at least one of which is a function of the period in which it was made. There isn't a single "real" woman in the film. The female characters are all one-dimensional types. Marie is a Jezebel; Helen is an Ideal. Neither has any true personality; they represent plot points and, as such, are fundamentally uninteresting. This is more of a nuisance than a significant drawback; audiences in the '30s probably wouldn't have noticed it. Society has changed in the past 80 years, however, and things like this are evident. Lively, well-developed female characters were rare indeed in cinema of this era.

The other problem with I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang relates to the haste with which the final act unfolds. Until Allen's second incarceration, the pacing is well modulated. However, perhaps because of running length considerations, the end game is rushed. The film moves through Allen's second imprisonment and escape with undue haste, treating it more as an afterthought than an integral part of the overall story. One could argue that, in a sense, this material is a post-script and that the real narrative ends when the judicial system condemns him to serve out his sentence, wiping away all the good and constructive things he accomplished in his "new" life.

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang enjoyed some Oscar recognition, being nominated for three awards (although not winning any): Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Sound Recording. For Paul Muni, whose riveting portrayal of Allen stays with the viewer, 1932 represented the year in which his Hollywood career took off. A successful stage actor prior to shifting to the big screen, Muni captured the public's attention with star turns in Scarface and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. His Best Actor nomination confirmed him as a desirable performer. During the 1930s and 1940s, Muni was much in demand and, by the time he retired in 1959, he had earned six acting nominations (winning one, for The Story of Louis Pasteur). Memorably, he played the title character in Best Picture winner The Life of Emile Zola.

Director Mervyn LeRoy was one of Hollywood's early giants of the sound era, with a career that spanned more than three decades, beginning in the early 1930s and ending in the 1960s. I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang represented one of his first major successes and would pave the way for future triumphs like 1943's Madame Curie, 1949's Little Women, and 1952's Quo Vadis. In total, 19 of LeRoy's efforts received at least one Oscar nomination, although he never carried home a Best Picture or Best Director statue. In addition to his duties behind the cameras, he was also a successful producer. LeRoy's career showed great breadth. He could transfer his talents from a dark, gritty noir effort like I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to a musical like Million Dollar Mermaid to a crowd-pleaser like Mister Roberts. His versatility contributed to his long and productive career but perhaps no scene he shot remains as memorable as the closing one in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang with Muni fading to black.

The National Film Registry's decision in 1991 to include I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang may have saved it from obscurity. In truth, with the exception of its treatment of female characters, the movie has held up well. Its themes remain relevant and its depictions of brutality, while not on par with what one can see today, retain an edginess often absent from Golden Age Hollywood pictures. For modern audiences, one of the chief fascinations with I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is to observe the way it contemporaneously represents the interwar years. Flaws aside, this is both an important and an engaging motion picture whose preservation allows it to be seen and appreciated more than eight decades after it was first shown to audiences.

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (United States, 1932)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis, Preston Foster, Allen Jenkins
Screenplay: Robert E. Burns, Howard J. Green & Brown Holmes
Cinematography: Sal Polito
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Mature Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1