Tommy Connors (Spencer Tracy) is headed to prison for robbery and assault, but confident he can easily bust out if he needs to. He underestimates Sing Sing and its warden, Paul Long (Arthur Byron).
Tommy has a smooth-talking lawyer on his side, Joe Finn (Louis Calhern). Joe meets with Warden Long the day Tommy arrives to begin his sentence and tries to bribe Tommy’s way out of punishment.
But Paul Long is not a warden who can easily be bribed. He runs the prison without influence from lawyers or politicians, and firmly believes that Tommy deserves his sentence.
Tommy and the warden find themselves at odds, but eventually begin to earn respect from one another. Things may go sour for Tommy, though, when his girl Fay Wilson (Bette Davis) finds herself in trouble outside of the prison’s walls.
Michael Curtiz directs 1932’s 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. The film was later remade as Castle on the Hudson and is adapted from a book by Lewis E. Lawes, real-life warden of Sing Sing prison. It is the only film to co-star Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy.
20,000 Years in Sing Sing offers an interesting and unglamorous look at life inside of a prison. According to Gene Ringgold’s The Films of Bette Davis, Weekly Variety called it “one of the best” films to showcase this setting upon release. The New York Times also gave a positive review for the film’s fast pace and strong performances.
I have to agree with that praise for the performances. Tracy is the anchor of the film, another example of his characteristically great work. The supporting cast, particularly Bette and “warden” Arthur Byron, are also strong.
The focus may be on Tracy’s character of Tommy Connors and the prison experience, but the romance between Tommy and Fay adds greatly to the film. The conflict erupting from their relationship allows for a deeper exploration of the justice system than a simple portrayal of “life on the inside,” or an inmate butting heads with the warden.
It’s a surprising and even a little bit heartbreaking turn of events that could only happen in a pre-code! *Spoilers* The fact that Fay is not made to pay for her crime would not have ever passed a later inspection by the censors. That Tommy is punished for the crime, a crime that could be argued as self-defense, calls the death penalty into question. *End spoilers*
In Whitney Stine’s “I’d Love to Kiss You…” Conversations with Bette Davis, Bette admits that she and Spence were “smitten” during filming. She also says that Spencer Tracy and George Arliss were the two co-stars she found most encouraging and supportive in the earlier years of her career. “One of my greatest dreams in later years was that we could find a really great script to do together,” Bette writes in Mother Goddam.
Shame they weren’t able to share the screen again, but 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is a good watch, both Tracy and Davis playing big roles in the film’s success. Watching it also made me want to read the source material, so if I manage to track down a copy, stay tuned for a comparison/review!