I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932, Mervyn LeRoy)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

If ever a single film encapsulated how much has changed artistically and commercially in Hollywood since the 1930s, it must be Mervyn LeRoy’s startling Warner Bros. drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The film is not only remarkable for how undiminished and hard-hitting it remains in its immediacy and scathing social consciousness — even good, elemental creations like Paramount’s Underworld and MGM’s The Big House feel comparatively staid — but in the devastating and indisputable case it accidentally makes that America’s most popular and visible artform was once capable of politically charged, rousing communication that has since been shut out of the realm of possibility. The studio films of today have never felt more hopelessly neutered than they do when confronted with a brash force of nature like this. Warner Bros., of course, was widely seen as the primary habitat of earnest, gritty Hollywood populism, and while its ability to probe and shock, to present the Depression-era world of its audience with relative honesty, would be cut at the knees by the Hays code within two years, Chain Gang exists along with the likes of Five Star Final and Employees Entrance as living evidence of an anti-authority, anti-institutional stance that struck a chord then and seems unheard-of now. Can you imagine the response of the Fox News chuds to a film in which a prisoner on a chain gang is the hero, the guards and cops and state prison infracture itself the unequivocal enemies?

The film loosely retells the true story of writer and WWI veteran Robert Burns (renamed James Allen for the film), fashioning itself as a kind of Les Miserables narrative with the prison authorities and the scourge of corrupt chain gang bosses and legal officials standing in for an absent Jalvert. James is wrongfully accused of a robbery — he takes money out of a cash register, but only at gunpoint, while he’s waiting for a promised free hamburger! — and sentenced to ten years on a chain gang in the Deep South. When he can take no more, he manages a daring escape and carves out a life for himself as an engineer and community pillar in Chicago; when he’s recaptured it becomes politically and socially expedient for him to serve further limited time in exchange for a pardon, but he is again swindled and must find his way back out. Like the book, the unflinching film was nearly revolutionary in its exposure of the inexcusable conditions and abuse in such prison environments, and helped initiate a sea change in the American attitude toward prisoners and the criminal justice system, and specifically — though the film doesn’t directly address this — the inherently evil for-profit prison infrastructure, referred to here as “the Prison Commission.” (Burns was subject to penal labor, or convict leasing, from which can be drawn a direct line to today’s private prisons.)

Prison narratives today, even when critical, are comparatively glib; without resorting to Gothic overexaggeration, director LeRoy and screenwriters Howard Green and Brown Holmes present a nightmare world that feels honest and lived-in, and the film’s steadfast suspicion of authority and anti-police, pro-prisoner, even pro-sex work message may owe a great deal to the Depression and the attendant sympathy toward those suffering the desperations of poverty, but have a bold righteousness one can’t help but find refreshing in modern context. (On top of everything that takes place behind bars and in chains, the film features a nonjudgmental, realistic, empathetic scene involving its hero being provided time by a prostitute that would be virtually unimaginable now — for all the social progress we’ve obviously made since 1932, it’s alarming in the best way to see a woman in this profession treated nochalantly as a human being without shaming her or her client.)

Paul Muni worked closely with Burns in crafting his performance; he could be a bit of a ham at times but this is the ideal role for him, just the right balance of articulate angst that leads him on a personal journey after the war in the first place (he doesn’t want to be tied to an office job anymore and wants to do things he actually cares about; when explaining this in a single monologue, the script achieves in a couple of pages what it takes the entirety of Edmond Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge to utterly fail to get across) and everyman bafflement at the plight he’s ultimately handed. More than anything else, his grit and honesty lend credibility to the film’s realism and narrative sweep; we identify deeply with him as the story seems repeatedly to escape his grasp. He thinks on his feet, but never in a way that beggars belief; good and bad fortune are things he seems to stumble into, as they are for most of us. The robbery-raid that lands him in jail is harrowing in its sickening, confusing quickness, an early indicator of the movie’s relentless pacing that takes us to hell and back and to hell again across many sad and wasted years in a matter of an hour and a half, and from that moment on if not earlier, his shock and determination, fear and resignation become ours. For that reason the film is almost overwhelmingly exciting and breathlessly suspenseful, which makes its most horrific moments, the finale in particular, that much stronger; it is a thriller that denies us the relief of escapism.

If I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang has a weak point, it’s in its most Hugo-like sequence, the midsection when Allen changes his name, falls backward into a marriage with a blackmailer and gets a well-paying job as a foreman for a construction company. It doesn’t lack credibility — the events in the film are remarkably similar to those that actually befell Burns, although he became a magazine editor rather than an engineer — except for the characterization of his landlord and eventual wife Marie, whose entrapment of him and apparent role in his capture require her to be too much of a cardboard cutout, whose motives for courting, marrying and finally punishing him are difficult to comprehend outside of misguided suspicion of the mythical female “gold digger.” (Glenda Farrell does have a lot of fun with the part; the film in general is full of small but striking roles for women, somewhat impressively for a 1930s prison movie.) The only other serious flaw is one of missed opportunity; LeRoy briefly touches on the camaraderie felt between white and black prisoners on the chain gang; one scene (memorably parodied by Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run) has the men all singing Negro spirituals together, while the key sequence of Allen’s first escape requires the participation — willing but skeptical, quite understandably so — of a black prisoner strikingly portrayed by character actor Everett Brown, unfortunately uncredited. The scene shows them communicating as equals across racial lines, an almost nonexistent sight in Hollywood movies of this period, with their common status as prisoners clearly evening out the sociological, institutional gaps separating them, a dynamic it would have been fascinating to see further investigated. (Again, a lesser filmmaker, Stanley Kramer, would make a clumsier job of expressing this kind of conflict and change in a feature-length film, The Defiant Ones, than LeRoy does in just a few minutes.)

Like all of the best pre-Code features, Chain Gang inadvertently exposes the inefficiencies not just of Hollywood filmmaking today but of the Hays Code period that began depressingly soon after its release, which certainly circumvented many American films’ attempts at undiluted social relevance for the next two decades. The ending illustrates LeRoy and the writers’ refusal to comfort or forgive their audience, and there would probably not be another studio picture with quite so uncompromisingly bleak a closing moment until roundabout Vertigo. With the chilling closing dialogue — “How do you live?” “I steal!” — and the terrifying image of Muni’s dimly lit, wide-eyed face being swallowed by the darkness illustrating the bleak, insurmountable cycle of the criminal life, the film suggests that neither Allen’s period redefining himself in Chicago nor even his status as a fugitive and escapee changes the bare fact of existence for any prisoner, which is that once you are “inside,” you truly are there for life. It would be impossible to completely crawl out from underneath the brutality we witness. It’s doubly impossible for Allen not to remain a prisoner, even in supposed “freedom.” The living nightmare depicted herein of individuality taken away, of servitude to either systematic oppression or just to fear, makes as strong a case as any film could for the cruelty and ineffectiveness of the system that — don’t kid yourself — we still live under today. Moreover, I submit that this emotional essence of the film would be unchanged if the hero were shown to be guilty. Unless you are sporting a “blue lives matter” bumper sticker, it must surely concern you that we as citizens all live permanently under the system of dumb luck, even if some of us are safer than others: dumb luck that they haven’t caught you yet and decided that you’re next. I hope for your sake that they never do.

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