Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Time to set the wayback machine for the early 1930s in this installment of Oscar Film Journal, here at!

The Great Depression: one of the darkest periods in American history, when millions were suddenly left in poverty, jobs were scarce, everyday necessities became luxuries, and many were forced to resort to extralegal measures to survive.  And as in Dickensian England, some who weren't lucky enough to escape the consequences would face a Draconian penal system that chewed up and spat out its victims, often leaving them worse off once their debt to society was paid.

Such is the subject of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, the Mervyn Leroy-directed Best Picture nominee from 1932, starring Paul Muni as just such a poor sap.  Chain Gang was adapted from an autobiographical work by war vet-turned-convict-turned-activist Robert Elliott Burns, who found holding down a job near impossible after serving in World War I thanks to his severe shellshock.  Burns became a drifter and was duped into helping rob a grocery store, for which he was sentenced to ten years on a Georgia chain gang, subjected to cruel labor conditions, malnutrition, and physical and mental torture.  Burns escaped, fled to Chicago, and became a successful magazine editor, only to be apprehended some years later and returned to the chain gang system.  He escaped again but was unable to find steady work due to the Depression, and then found new success telling his story and raising public awareness of the appalling conditions prisoners like him were forced to endure.  Burns was fortunate enough to have built such a high profile he'd finally earn a commuted sentence, and never returned to prison again.
The film version of this story changes a few details (including the happy ending), but most of Burns's account remains the same.  It's a powerful narrative, thanks in no small part to an award-worthy performance by Paul Muni, very naturalistic for an era of stylized, stage-inspired acting (Muni's co-star Glenda Farrell turns in a hammy, flapper-esque performance, see?  Now beat it!  Scram!  It's none of yer beeswax!).  This being a pre-Code movie, the filmmakers were able to tackle this compelling social issue with gloves off, showing us in disturbing detail how sadistic and predatory the prison system really was, coupled with how unconcerned those in charge were with rehabilitating prisoners.  Just as the Muni character James Allen receives no lasting benefit for his military service aside from being offered the same go-nowhere job he had before, the penal system gives its ex-convicts no assistance in re-entering society.  A system more concerned with punishing crime than with rehabilitation and prevention is a broken system indeed.

The final scene after Allen's second escape is haunting in its cruel abruptness.  It's been a year since Allen fled the authorities for the second time, and unlike the first, they've been so relentless in pursuing him he has to shut himself in all day and roam the streets by night.  When his intended love interest asks if she'll ever hear from him again, he fearfully and forlornly shakes his head.  She then asks "How do you live?" to which he replies, fading into the shadows, "I steal."  Roll credits.  In a pitiless ironic twist, the abhorrent justice system has turned the once industrious Allen into the very criminal they'd always accused him of being.  O. Henry's got nothing on the dramatic irony of real life.

Chain Gang runs a very lean 93 minutes and I feel like it could've used another 20-30.  In several instances the film glosses over the passage of time in service of storytelling economy, using numerous montages to convey Allen's early search for work (complete with camera pans over a US map to show his ever-changing whereabouts), his time served in prison, and his ascent as a Chicago construction engineer).  The missing passages aren't essential but their absence does make the movie feel a little choppy.  That said, Chain Gang does boldly explore the penal system and class injustice with a brutal frankness Hollywood wouldn't again see until the late 50s and beyond.  Released at the height of the Depression to huge box office receipts, the film and its source material helped change public perception of the chain gang system, eventually leading to the practice being abolished; for all its dated aspects, Chain Gang proved an important cinematic work that left a lasting impact on American society.  

Burns's story almost feels like a companion piece to Solomon Northup's 12 Years a Slave; both involve a real-life protagonist wrongfully imprisoned and forced into a life of hard labor and cruelty, who somehow manages to flee his captors while later raising public awareness of the broken institution he'd escaped.  Chain Gang feels a bit rough and dated at times, but its central message is quite powerful and sadly still relevant 90 years later, in an America marred by prison profiteering and a war on the impoverished.  In a way this is as culturally significant a film as any from the pre-Code era.

I give I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang ***1/2 out of ****.

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