Thursday, August 11, 2011

DVD Review: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. (1932)

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.

Down and out, a flophouse bunkmate invites him to a diner for a meal. It turns out to be a holdup into which Allen is coerced as an unwitting participant. The deceived Allen ends up caught with the loot. He is sentenced to ten years (!) in prison – and hard labor as part of a brutally run chain gang. So hard, that permission must be requested to wipe sweat – or face beatings by the guards.

Strong-willed Allen manages to escape, and spends a lengthy period on the run. To shake the pursuing bloodhounds, he hides at the bottom of a lake – and breathes through a hollow reed, just like they do in cartoons! I’ll never know if this ploy really works but, like all good clichés, it had to come from somewhere – and this is as good a place as any!

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.

The Cast:

• 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.)

Extra Features:

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 is a TRUE autobiography by Robert E. Burns, who is now a FUGITIVE! But fiction has never matched this story for… Dramatic Intensity… Thrilling Love Interest… Terrific Suspense!”

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.

Allen Jenkins is described as “one of the more memorable Hollywood character actors”. He generally played “urban types” in about 175 films.

• Suspenseful as the film is in spots, Jewell wonders what Alfred Hitchcock might have done with “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”. Ratcheting-up the suspense quotient in scenes such as the aforementioned “barber shop scene”.

• “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.


I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” is a prime example of Pre-Code Hollywood crime drama, and a must-see for anyone with even a remote interest in the depression period or crime genre! Paul Muni gives a powerful performance.

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!


Chris Barat said...


I wonder whether the casting of the fugitive as an ex-WWI vet was intended as an explicit reference to the Bonus Marchers... those embittered vets who marched on Washington in 1932 demanding their pension bonuses to help stave off the Depression.


Joe Torcivia said...

That could very well be the case, Chris, though it was not discussed in the DVD’s commentary track. Those tracks are done by contemporary film scholars who, needless to say, were not there at the time. I find such tracks to be valuable in that they frame the events of a film in a perspective that, as a baby-boomer, I simply could not have. But, that is not to say they are completely infallible in their attention to historical detail.

That said, my feeling is that Muni was cast as a decorated WW1 vet (as opposed to the real-life drifter whose story was the basis for the film) to show just how far into the abyss a good man could fall! And that the times were hard, and nothing was ever guaranteed.

As written, the character of James Allen likely achieved the maximum level of audience sympathy, insofar as no one could view the situation he found himself in as being remotely his due.


Jeff said...

Black and white films are among my favorite. The lack of color adds a grittiness that one rarely finds today. I admit that films like the Wizard of Oz or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers would not be as enjoyable in black/white. My point is not that I would like to see every film without color. I do insist that colorized versions of these "gray" films as I like to call them, lose some of their original impact. Take "I am a fugitive from a chain gang" from 1932 for example starring Paul Muni. Hal B.Wallis, the producer, had no option to film the move in color and so there was more dependency on script, acting and sets. The story is about a soldier who returns from serving in WW1 only to find himself caught in the middle of a robbery which in which he does not choose to participate. Nevertheless, he is found guilty of the crime and ends up in a chain gang. After escaping from the deplorable and cruel conditions of prison he becomes the man he is capable of being and contributes to society. Through no fault of his own he ends up back in the same prison despite promises to the contrary. He escapes again with his life ruined and must remain on the run living in the shadows with no rest and no hope for vindication. The story is sad and aggravating. The ending leaves the viewer hating the legal system. It is one of my favorites because of the acting of Paul Muni and the emotions it evokes as he struggles to maintain his humanity.

Joe Torcivia said...


Great observations!

The more I see of these early films, the more I’ve come to enjoy them – and, in most cases, the more I feel they were better for having been filmed in Black and White.

“I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” is a PERFECT example of such a film that would have lost considerable impact, had it been filmed in color. Not that there was an option, mind you, but it sure worked out in the best possible way.

Other films I’ve discussed here, such as “Little Caesar”, “The Public Enemy”, and “The Mayor of Hell”, (Let alone “The Maltese Falcon”!) would apply as well – but “Fugitive” might be the best example of them all.

Black and White photography adds additional “gravitas” (if that is the proper word to use) to things that COULD have been shot in color like TV’s “Perry Mason”, the first three seasons of “The Fugitive”, and even the first season of “Lost in Space”. Add movies as widely variable as the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series and the original “Thing from Another World”, and the list goes on and on.

One film that I’ll be discussing eventually, the 1948 crime drama “He Walked by Night”, was aided considerably by the starkness of Black and White imagery – and, by 1948, it certainly could have been filmed in color.

Conversely, I feel very strongly that films such as “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, “Captain Blood”, Humphrey Bogart’s “Sahara”, and others should have been filmed in color. I guess it just comes down to subject matter and / or location.

And, on the TV side, nothing shouted “sixties whimsy” like the addition of color… Just ask Batman!