I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. (1932)
(Released: 2005 by Warner Home Video)
Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia
“Doesn’t a man ever break loose?”
“There’s too many breaks against you! You gotta beat the chains, the bloodhounds – and a bunch o’ guards, who’d just as soon bring you back dead!”
Based on the true-life experiences of fugitive Robert E. Burns, “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, is one hell of a film!
Returning WW I hero James Allen (Paul Muni) is enthusiastic about applying the engineering skills acquired in the military to civilian life. Alas, there are not enough jobs for the returning forces, and Allen wanders the USA in search of his dream situation – facing rejection at every turn. In desperate straits, he even tries to pawn his Medal of Honor, only to find others have done so before him.
A notable moment finds him lathered-up in a barber shop, when a policeman enters… and discusses the pursuit of Allen with the very barber servicing Allen. Quick-thinking Allen requests a hot towel to further shield his face from the two and escape narrowly! On the run, he is temporarily sheltered by a former chain gang mate, played by Warner Bros. contract player and character actor Allen Jenkins, the proprietor of a brothel.
His travels as a fugitive lead him to Chicago, where, reversing his name to “Allen James”, he works his way up from laborer to respected engineer and solid citizen. Along the way, his landlady Marie (Glenda Farrell) moves in on his success to become his wife – eventually in name only – taking full advantage of Allen’s stature and earnings potential, while continually carousing, drunken with other men.
Meeting the “right girl”, Allen proposes divorce to Marie but wayward wifey is not about to give up the gravy train, particularly because she feels Allen is still on the way upward. Learning of his fugitive status by intercepting a letter from his brother, Marie blackmails Allen, threatening to turn him over to the police.
From here it gets considerably worse for Allen, but we’ll avoid further spoilers.
“I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” is directed by Mervyn Le Roy, who had previously directed the iconic “Little Caesar” (1930) for Warner Bros. It is a hard, adult-oriented film for the time, preceding the censorship of the Hollywood Code that would soon follow. It is even said to have resulted in certain prison reforms, particularly in the state of Georgia, which Warner Bros. left unnamed in the movie – but was explicitly named in the writings of chain-ganger Robert E. Burns.
Paul Muni, fresh off his success as “Scarface” (1931) for Howard Hughes, came to Warner Bros for this film. I often sing (…or would that be “sing-sing”?) the praises of Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart in these reviews, but Paul Muni was spectacular in both “Scarface” and “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”! I wonder why he isn’t regarded as a bigger star today.
Lastly, Paul Muni isn’t exactly the first “movie star” to escape from a Chain Gang, as Mickey Mouse did so in a 1930 cartoon aptly titled “The Chain Gang”. This short featured Peg Leg Pete as the primary prison guard, and the “alleged” first appearance of Pluto, as a bloodhound on Mickey’s trail.
“I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” also influenced television productions decades after its release. Most notably is THE FUGITIVE (1963-1967), given Richard’s Kimble’s assumed identities, employment and social situations, narrow escapes, and general apprehension toward each and every day. David Jansen’s Kimble, like Paul Muni’s James Allen, was a hounded innocent man on the run.
LOST IN SPACE did a superb send-up of this concept, titled “Fugitives in Space” (1968), with Dr. Zachary Smith and Major Don West unjustly sentenced in a galactic “Instant-Trial” to a prison planet – and forced to work, in 100-plus degrees, on a Chain Gang! Indeed, the WHISTLE SOUND EFFECT that signals activities in “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” appears to be the same one used in “Fugitives in Space”! …You’ll only find stuff like this here, folks!
As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.
Extra Features: I think I’ve been spoiled by the regular inclusion of “Warner Night at the Movies” in such packages! Surprisingly, though it is a prime specimen of Warner Bros. filmmaking of that early ‘30s period I’ve come to love so much, “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” does not offer “Warner Night at the Movies”! I shouldn’t consider this to be such a serious “CON”, but I do! …As I said, I’m spoiled.
This said, the only other “CON” in this package is James Allen himself – but only in the literal sense. The rest is gold!
The Film: A superb example of Pre-Code Warner Bros. cinema, with little or no scrimping on the “harshness”. Not exactly a “gangster film” like “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy”, as James Allen is more an unfortunate victim of circumstance, but brutally effective nonetheless.
• Paul Muni as “James Allen”.
• Glenda Farrell as “Marie”.
• Helen Vinson as “Helen”.
• Edward Ellis as “Bomber Wells”.
• Preston Foster as “Pete”.
• Allen Jenkins as “Barney Sykes”. (His 6th known role.)
• Noel Francis as “Linda”.
• Hale Hamilton as “Rev. Allen”. (James’ brother.)
Theatrical Trailer for “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”: (Runs 01:33) Cue the on-screen text hype:
“I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang – Another great Warner Bros. hit!”
“Starring Paul Muni, with Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, 56 other important players, more than 2,000 extras!”
…THAT, folks, is a LOT of extras!
Oddly, the LOGO for “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” looks like a bit the logo for the TV series LAND OF THE GIANTS!
"20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang": (19:49) A Vitaphone comedy short satirizing “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”. Usually, such shorts included in Warner film packages are those that were released at or about the same time as the main feature (and may likely have played WITH said feature), but this one was released in 1933 – one year after the film.
The short stars: Jerry Bergen, The Rollickers, Novia, The Pickens Sisters… and The Vitaphone Boys and Girls! (Surely, you remember THEM!) It also employs stock footage from “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” for establishing shots.
A convict who’s supposed to be Paul Muni (…but bears nearly as great a resemblance to Shemp Howard) escapes from a Chain Gang, to be pursued by three POODLES in place of bloodhounds! Like Muni’s James Allen, he marries and soon decides life in prison is preferable. During the period of his escape, prison reforms have gentrified the institution. Our fugitive returns, hoping to get a taste of the “good life” that is depicted on the inside.
…But he is turned away! “We’ve got no room in here for mugs who try to escape!”
Then, he wakes up to find it was all a dream… but, sadly for him, he’s still in prison.
Commentary Track by Richard Jewell: Runs for the entire 01:32:30 of the film. A frequent commentator on matters Warner, this is one of Jewell’s very best commentaries!
• Jewell describes “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” as “One of the most acclaimed examples of Social Consciousness Filmmaking of the 1930s!”
• Unlike fictional James Allen, real-life fugitive Robert E. Burns was not a war hero, but was more of a lost soul and a wanderer
• Paul Muni arrived in the USA from his native Austria at age 7 and, as a performer, was a demanding perfectionist.
• Mervyn Le Roy, proficient at directing early sound films, was also the director of “Little Caesar” (1931).
• Glenda Farrell (Marie) played “Olga” (girlfriend of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) in “Little Caesar” – and the DINER, at which James Allen is framed, was the same diner patronized by Rico and Joe (after their gas station holdup and killing) early in “Little Caesar”.
• Warner Bros. did not name the state of Georgia in the film, nor did they exaggerate the brutal conditions. If anything, they understated the conditions.
• “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” is credited with bringing about certain prison reforms.
• “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” was made in little over a month, and was a “blockbuster” at a time when most films were losing money.
The Extra Features are found lacking only when compared to other Warner Bros. movie packages of the time. “Warner Night at the Movies” is particularly missed, but even that is somewhat mitigated by the presence of the “20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang” satiric comedy short!
True, there is no “making of” or background featurette, but “Welcome to the Big House” (with a running time of 18:30) – and found on the “San Quentin” (1937, starring Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart) DVD set – could just as easily have been slotted into this package. Its look at prisons in our culture and the Hollywood “prison picture” devotes much of its attention to “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” as well. …Get ‘em both, folks! ‘Cause you can never have too much IRON (bars) in your diet!
Now, I’ll be off to prison for such a horrible closing line! See ya!