James Allen (Paul Muni) has just returned home from fighting in the first World War. Not wanting to settle into a dull, monotonous life, he decides to travel, working odd jobs in construction. He has no desire to work in a factory like he did before the war, and he hopes that his experience as a military engineer will bring him riches in the construction industry.
But when James falls on hard times and is forced to live in a shelter, he gets tied up in a plot to rob a local diner. Though he went to the diner with the intention of having dinner and had no idea of his acquaintance’s criminal plans, he receives a long jail sentence and is forced to join the ranks of a chain gang.
So he turned down a steady factory job because he didn’t want a routine, and he finds himself living a routine life again as a member of the chain gang. Still desperate to find a sense of freedom, he manages to escape from the gang and run off to Chicago. But he’ll soon learn the hard way that he can’t run from his past forever.
This pre-code crime drama known as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang was released in 1932 by Warner Bros. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, based on the serialized autobiography of Robert Elliott Burns, a real-life chain gang escapee and World War I vet. Starring alongside Muni are Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Preston Foster, Allen Jenkins and many other familiar faces from the early ’30s.
This is a film that had an incredible impact on the American public, and I’m very glad to have it in my collection. According to the Time magazine archives, which contain a few articles about this film from the early ’30s, the public was horrified by Robert Elliott Burns’ story. Many began to question the entire American legal system, and due to the public’s reaction to the film, Robert Elliot Burns and others like him were able to appeal their convictions. Many of them, including Burns, were released from their sentences as a result.
Watching this film in 2013, it’s easy to see why audiences in 1932/’33 were horrified by the film, and some may even be disturbed by it today. The American justice system is still seen as unfair and cruel by many people, and James Allen’s initial wrongful conviction is sure to provoke thought from the viewer. The film’s release led to a little bit of reform during its time, but is our legal system any more fair now, nearly a century later, than it was in the post-World War I period?
The film’s success in provoking both thought and emotional response from the viewer is thanks in large part to Paul Muni’s fantastic performance in the film’s leading role. Muni is fully absorbed in his character. There is no scene in which the viewer questions his authenticity or sees him simply as a Hollywood man playing a gritty role. He allows the audience to become fully absorbed in James Allen’s journey.
Historical significance and fantastic lead performance aside, the film has a lot more to offer. It moves along at a quick, steady pace, never allowing the audience a single moment of lost interest. It’s a gritty, engrossing crime drama that is on par with all of Warner’s best. It’s also beautifully photographed, and has a bit of typical pre-code sauciness thrown in for good measure.
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is a film that can easily be added to my list of favorite discoveries in 2013. It isn’t a perfect film — the ending is a bit abrupt and some of the supporting performances aren’t quite as convincing as Muni’s — but it’s fantastic. The score: 5/5!