As titles go, this 1932 Warner Brothers picture is hard to beat–and even eighty years later, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang remains as attention-grabbing and unforgettable as its title, besides being a historically and socially significant little movie. Made early enough to benefit from the comparative freedom of the pre-Code days, and late enough to benefit from film’s transition to the “talkies” stage, the movie is remarkable for its compelling narrative, unfortunately one solidly grounded in fact. The movie is based on the real-life story of Robert E. Burns, whose autobiography was adapted into a screenplay and directed by Mervyn Leroy. While the film caused a certain degree of controversy, it is said to have been influential in reforming the penal system, while also securing an eventual pardon for Burns himself.
The film opens as James Allen (Paul Muni, who rose to fame based on his performances in this film and the same year’s Scarface) returns to his small home town after serving with distinction in World War I, with a medal to prove it. His mother and clergyman brother wish him to return to his humdrum office job in the local shoe factory, but James dreams of continuing in the engineering work he explored during the war. While he works in the factory for a short time, he soon decides it is unendurable, explaining to his mother that he is tired of taking orders at work as he had in the military, and wants to work on his own account, for something meaningful. Having received her blessing, he travels the country, taking odd jobs here and there in construction, but he is often laid off as companies cut back and work becomes increasingly hard to find. One night, in a fifteen-cent-a-bed flophouse, he meets a man (Preston Foster) who forces him to help him hold up a hamburger stand. Although innocent, James is caught in a web of circumstantial evidence when the police arrive upon the scene, and he is sentenced to hard labor in a brutal Southern chain gang.
The cruelty of the chain gang–both in its general structure and in the sadism of the officials–is vividly, painfully presented, a series of scenes which have lost not one iota of their power to shock and outrage despite the passage of the years. Despite the enormous risks involved, James manages to escape after several months, and (after choosing one of the stupidest aliases in the history of the world) manages to rise in the circle of Chicago engineering due to his hard work and innovative ideas. Along the way, however, he is trapped into marriage with his greedy young landlady and sometime romance, Marie (Glenda Farrell), who discovers his secret and blackmails him into matrimony despite his lack of feelings for her. She proves to be a terrible wife; James falls in love with a bright society girl (Helen Vinson), but when he asks for a divorce, Marie refuses and eventually alerts the police about him. James is promised a pardon by the authorities if he turns himself in and serves ninety days of labor, yet once he has been gathered back into the hell of the chain gang, he finds that the state has no qualms about going back on its word…
It’s a painful picture to watch, and also a model piece of storytelling. While the bulk of the scenes are quite short, they all convey their central message with clarity and economy. And despite some pre-Code realism here and there, even the tawdrier scenes are more or less tastefully handled. The performances, while not all exempt from the earnest heaviness of some 1930s acting techniques, are effective overall, with some good turns by supporting players, especially on the distaff side. Muni, who received a Best Actor nomination for this role, verges a little on the melodramatic at times, but if one is going to be a touch melodramatic and get away with it, this is the role to do it in.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was one of the first of Warner Brothers’ “social-minded” pictures, and in its unflinching and dramatically compelling approach to what was then a legal institution, it laid the foundation for Hollywood’s sometimes dubious but often praiseworthy involvement with social issues. The picture’s timing is also interesting, given the economic turmoil of the Great Depression and the growing number of hoboes and unemployed men who travelled up and down the country in search of work, as James does (and his real-life counterpart Robert Burns did). While chain gangs figured prominently in other notable films (including but not limited to Sturges’ 1941 Sullivan’s Travels, Rosenberg’s 1967 Cool Hand Luke, and the Coen Brothers’ 2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou?), it is fair to say that this is the movie which lies behind them all, an eloquent plea for recognition of human dignity even in convicts, a presentation of the cruelty which too often fills men placed in positions of absolute power, and a grim picture of a man who lived in cold fact what the audience hopes will only be its worst nightmare.