By Carley Johnson
Director Mervyn LeRoy’s filmography feels like an emotional pendulum: from fluffy escapism, (Gold Diggers of 1933) to family fantasies (he produced The Wizard of Oz, 1939) to sand-and-sandal epics (Quo Vadis, 1951) to aisle-rolling laffers (Mister Roberts, 1955). He also happens to have made the most unforgettable social comment films of the Depression era, first with 1931’s envelope-pushing crime drama Little Caesar and then 1932’s searing, sobering I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
The film has all the earmarks of a Warner Bros production—the home of The Public Enemy and Little Caesar and all the other ‘gangster’ films that put the studio squarely on the map. But I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, however, is not a gangster picture. It is a gritty, uncompromising, all out attack on America’s judicial system, made all the more damning by the fact that it is a true story.
Decorated WWI vet James Allen, played by the magnificent Paul Muni, is wrongly accused of robbery and sentenced to 10 years hard labor in Georgia’s chain gang system. Fueled by the gravity of the injustice, Allen escapes and makes it all the way to Chicago where he enters the workforce under a false identity, and his skills in construction bring him considerable success. His secret, however, is not safe: his opportunistic gal pal finds out about his past and blackmails the increasingly respectable (and wealthy) Allen into marriage. It is inevitable, of course, that Allen finds real love and his threats of divorce lead his wife to turning him over to the police.
He is promptly arrested, and a raging battle follows between his resident state of Illinois, and the state of Georgia. Initially, Allen is confident in the state of Illinois and is certain of his release. The public is on the side of their respected citizen, and Allen voluntarily returns to Georgia to serve a 90-day term of token service in order to receive a pardon. Upon arrival, Georgia’s officials reveal their intent to make an example of Allen and he is thrown into penal barracks and his hearing is suspended.
Allen escapes, thrillingly, a second time (an escape act that many a film has tipped its hat to—most notably 1967’s Cool Hand Luke.) This time there is no re-entering the workplace for Allen. Newspapers publicize him as a convict who must be captured. Allen becomes a casualty of corruption: a criminal created by the justice system whose only means of survival is, as the riveting, closing line of the movie proclaims, to steal. He now is a fugitive from a chain gang.
The film blacks out, leaving the viewer reeling over the blazing indictment on the chain gang system. (It is said that the now famous, pulse-pounding finale was a mistake: the dramatic fade-out owing itself to a bulb that simply went out just as Muni uttered his final words.)
Paul Muni’s portrayal of James Allen has been widely acclaimed for its extraordinary realism—and any words that I could add would be merely superfluous. Muni actually spent time with the real life James Allen, Robert Burns, who was a technical advisor on the film. Muni’s otherworldly power as an actor lies in the nuance of his performance—his adroit control of character makes his transformation from noble citizen to scavenging outcast entirely believable and thoroughly heartbreaking. To call him dynamic is an egregious understatement.
The film is a direct product of its time: Allen is the archetypical “forgotten man”— the war vet whom society has no pity on– and the film’s existence would not really have been possible if made even two years later when the movie Production Code began enforcing its puritanical strangle on creative content.
Chain Gang portrays American justice as evil incarnate. And the scenes of Muni’s torturous labor, and malicious treatment by the prison wardens, are harrowing to even the most jaded modern viewer. Even now, more than 80 years on, this film still puts to shame most every film to come out of Hollywood daring to expose the American judicial system–Chain Gang is the definitive indictment on social injustice and a rousing, high example of social commentary.
Watch I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, and many other of the great Paul Muni’s films, today on Turner Classic Movies as they celebrate the actor’s work as part of their annual Summer Under the Stars.