I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a 1932 American pre-Code crime-drama film directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Paul Muni as a wrongfully convicted man on a chain gang who escapes to Chicago. It was released on November 10, 1932. The film received positive reviews and three Academy Award nominations.
|I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang|
|Directed by||Mervyn LeRoy|
|Screenplay by||Howard J. Green|
|Based on||I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!|
by Robert E. Burns
|Produced by||Hal B. Wallis|
|Edited by||William Holmes|
|Music by||Bernhard Kaun|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
The film was written by Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes from Robert Elliott Burns's 1932 autobiography of a similar name I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! originally serialized in the True Detective magazine. The true life story was later the basis for the television movie The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains (1987) starring Val Kilmer.
American sergeant James Allen returns to civilian life after World War I. He has served with distinction, earning a medal from Allied governments for his bravery, but his war experience has made him restless. His mother and minister brother feel that he should be grateful for a tedious job as an office clerk. When he announces that he wants to enter the construction industry and improve society as an engineer, his brother reacts with outrage, but his mother regretfully accepts his ambitions. He leaves home to find work on any sort of project, but unskilled labor is plentiful and it is hard for him to find a job. Wandering across the eastern half of the country, Allen sinks slowly into poverty. In an unnamed Southern state (the events upon which the film was based took place in Georgia), Allen visits a diner with an acquaintance, who forces him at gunpoint to participate in a robbery. The police arrive immediately, the acquaintance is shot and killed, and Allen foolishly runs and is caught.
Allen is tried and sentenced to prison at hard labor (though the film offers no explanation why a witness doesn't testify in Allen's defense). He is quickly exposed to the brutal realities of life in a chain gang; the work is agonizingly difficult, the living conditions subhuman and the guards and overseers cruel and contemptuous to the (segregated) black and white prisoners alike. Allen makes friends among the members of the gang, most notably Bomber Wells, an older murderer and veteran of many chain gangs. The two conspire to stage a breakout. While working on a railroad, Allen receives assistance from Sebastian T. Yale, a powerfully built black prisoner who damages Allen's shackles by hammering them with Allen's ankles still inside. The next day, while on a bathroom break, Allen slips out of his chains and runs. Armed guards and bloodhounds give chase, but Allen evades them by changing clothes and hiding at the bottom of a river. He makes it to a nearby town, where he is given money for a train ticket and a room for the night by a friend of Bomber's.
Allen makes his way to Chicago, where he obtains a job as a manual laborer and uses his knowledge of engineering and construction to rise to a position of importance within a construction company. Along the way, he becomes involved with his landlord, Marie Woods. Allen quickly grows to loathe Marie, but she discovers his secret and blackmails him into an unhappy marriage within which she spends extravagantly and carelessly cheats on him. Trying to forget his troubles, he attends a high society party at the invitation of his superiors and meets and falls in love with a younger woman named Helen. When he asks his wife for a divorce, she betrays him to the authorities. Allen describes the chain gangs to the press and his plight becomes nationwide news. Many common citizens express their disgust with the chain gangs and their sympathy for a reformed man such as Allen, while editorials written by Southerners describe his continued freedom as a violation of "state's rights." The governor of Illinois refuses to release Allen to the custody of the Southern state, so its officials offer Allen a deal: return voluntarily and receive a pardon after 90 days of easy clerical labor. Allen accepts, only to find that the state's proposals were a ruse; he is sent to a chain gang, where he languishes for about a year.
Reunited with Bomber, Allen decides to escape once more. The two steal a dump truck loaded with dynamite from a work site. While leaning out of his seat to taunt pursuing guards, Bomber is shot and gravely wounded. He takes some of the dynamite, lights it, and throws it at a police car, causing a small landslide. Shortly afterwards, Bomber falls from the truck, and he is dead once Allen realizes what has happened. Allen then uses more of the dynamite to blow up a bridge that he has just crossed, allowing him to make a close escape from the police. Allen once again makes his way north, evading a massive and relentless manhunt. Months later, he visits Helen in the shadows of a Chicago street to wish her a permanent goodbye. Tearfully, she asks, "Can't you tell me where you're going? Will you write? Do you need any money?" Allen repeatedly shakes his head as he backs away. Finally, Helen says, "But you must, Jim. How do you live?" Allen's face is barely visible in the surrounding gloom as he replies, "I steal," disappearing into the darkness.
- Paul Muni as James Allen
- Glenda Farrell as Marie
- Helen Vinson as Helen
- Noel Francis as Linda
- Preston Foster as Pete
- Allen Jenkins as Barney Sykes
- Berton Churchill as the Judge
- Edward Ellis as Bomber Wells
- Sally Blane as Alice
- Louise Carter as Mrs. Allen
- Hale Hamilton as Rev. Allen
- David Landau as the Warden
- Jack LaRue as Ackerman (uncredited)
- Walter Long as Blacksmith (uncredited)
Development and productionEdit
The film was based on the book I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! (1932) written by Robert Elliott Burns and published by Vanguard Press. The book recounts Burns' service on a chain gang while imprisoned in Georgia in the 1920s, his subsequent escape and the furor that developed. The story was first published in January 1932, serialized in True Detective mysteries magazine.
Despite Jack L. Warner's and Darryl F. Zanuck's personal interest in adapting Burns's book, the Warner Bros. story department voted against it with a report that concluded: "[T]his book might make a picture if we had no censorship, but all the strong and vivid points in the story are certain to be eliminated by the present censorship board." The story editor's reasons were mostly related to the story's violence and the uproar that was sure to explode in the Deep South. In the end, Warner and Zanuck had the final say and approved the project.
Roy Del Ruth, the highest-paid director at Warner Bros., was assigned to direct, but he refused the assignment. In a lengthy memo to supervising producer Hal B. Wallis, Del Ruth explained his decision: "This subject is terribly heavy and morbid...there is not one moment of relief anywhere." Del Ruth further argued that the story "lacks box-office appeal," and that offering a depressing story to the public seemed ill-timed, given the harsh reality of the Great Depression outside the walls of the local neighborhood cinema. Mervyn LeRoy, who was at that time directing 42nd Street (released in 1933), dropped out of the shooting and left the reins to Lloyd Bacon.
LeRoy cast Paul Muni in the role of James Allen after seeing him in a stage production of Counsellor at Law. Muni was not impressed with LeRoy upon first meeting him in the Warner Burbank office, but Muni and LeRoy became close friends. LeRoy was present at Muni's funeral in 1967 along with Muni's agent.
To prepare for the role, Muni conducted several intensive meetings with Robert E. Burns in Burbank to learn how Burns walked and talked, in essence, to catch "the smell of fear." Muni stated to Burns: "I don't want to imitate you; I want to be you." Muni set the Warner Bros. research department on a quest to procure every available book and magazine article about the penal system. He also met with several California prison guards, even one who had worked on a Southern chain gang. Muni fancied the idea of meeting with a guard or warden still working in Georgia, but Warner studio executives quickly rejected his suggestion.
The final lines in the film, "But you must, Jim. How do you live? I steal" are among the most famous closing lines in American film. Director Mervyn LeRoy later claimed that the idea for James' retreat into darkness came to him when a fuse blew on the set, but in fact it had been written into the script.
According to Warner Bros. records, the film earned $650,000 domestically and $949,000 foreign, making it the studio's third-highest success of 1932-33 after Gold Diggers of 1933 and Forty Second Street.
Impact on American societyEdit
The film is among the first examples of cinema used to garner sympathy for imprisoned convicts without divulging the actual crimes of the convicts. American audiences began to question the legitimacy of the U.S. legal system, and in January 1933, the film's protagonist Robert Elliott Burns, who was still imprisoned in New Jersey, and a number of other chain gang prisoners nationwide in the U.S., were able to appeal and were released. In January 1933, Georgia chain gang warden J. Harold Hardy, who was also made into a character in the film, sued the studio for one million dollars for displaying "vicious, brutal and false attacks" against him in the film.
Awards and nominationsEdit
Academy Award Nominations:
National Board Review Award:
- 1932 – Best Picture
- 1991 – National Film Registry
- "Screen Notes". New York Times. November 10, 1932.
- Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 13 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
- Marr, John. "True Detective, R.I.P." Stim.com. Retrieved January 26, 2016.
- McGee, Scott (2014). "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang". Turner ClassicMovies. Turner Entertainment Networks, Inc. Retrieved August 10, 2014.
- "Complete National Film Registry Listing | Film Registry | National Film Preservation Board | Programs at the Library of Congress | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved November 16, 2020.
- Kehr, Dave. "U.S. FILM REGISTRY ADDS 25 'SIGNIFICANT' MOVIES". chicagotribune.com. Retrieved November 16, 2020.
- "A Fugitive From Georgia's Prison System; I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang. By Robert E. Burns. Introduction by the Rev. Vincent G. Burns 257 pp. New York: The Vanguard Press. . New York Times, January 31, 1932. (Retrieved April 28, 2017.)
- Lawrence, Jerome. "Chapter 16" Actor, The Life and Times of Paul Muni. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1982
- O'Connor, John E. "Introduction: Warners Finds Its Social Conscience." I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Ed. John E. O'Connor University of Wisconsin Press, 2005
- "States & Cities: Fugitive". Time. December 26, 1932. Archived from the original on January 14, 2009. Retrieved May 4, 2010.
- "States & Cities: Fugitive Free". Time. January 2, 1933. Archived from the original on January 14, 2009. Retrieved May 4, 2010.
- "Milestones, Jan. 16, 1933". Time. January 16, 1933. Archived from the original on January 14, 2009. Retrieved May 4, 2010.
- "The 6th Academy Awards (1934) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved August 7, 2011.
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- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang at IMDb
- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang at the American Film Institute Catalog
- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang at the TCM Movie Database
- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang at AllMovie
- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang at Rotten Tomatoes
- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang at TV Guide (1987 write-up was originally published in The Motion Picture Guide)
- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang at Virtual History
- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang essay by Daniel Eagan in America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry, A&C Black, 2010 ISBN 0826429777, pages 198-200