Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang

Long after crap like “Public Enemies” is gathering dust in the $5 bin in Wal-Mart, audiences will continue to be enthralled by “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” (1932), one of the most potent and gut-wrenching social dramas of the Depression era. Based on a non-fiction best selling book, the film is raw, violent, and blatantly sexual, and was an enormous hit in 1932. It's power still resonates.

James Allen (an Oscar-nominated Paul Muni) returns from World War I with a severe case of wanderlust. He doesn’t want the safe job offered him upon his return. Rather, he wants to try his hand at engineering. He goes off and finds it hard to land a job. One night he gets invited out for a hamburger by a fellow drifter (Preston Foster). When Foster attempts to rob the diner, Allen is thought to be an accomplice and sentenced to 10 years on a chain gang.

The scenes of brutality and inhuman conditions on the chain gang are hard to stomach. They’re pretty raw and outraged so many people that it is said the film helped lead to reforms in chain gangs throughout the South. I don’t know if that is true or not.

However, the film was one of the first and best in the long tradition of social dramas produced by Warner Bros. As I’ve said before, the studio was the most street-smart and socially conscious of the major studios. After all, would any other studio have ended their musical “Gold Diggers of 1933” with its unforgettable Busby Berkeley ode to neglected WWI war heroes, “Remember My Forgotten Man?” Not hardly.

Chain gang food consists of nothing but fried grease, Allen is punished for merely wiping sweat from his brow, permission is asked to use the nearby bushes for bathroom breaks, and brutal punishment is meted out for the merest infraction by the chain gang’s cruel taskmasters.

Allen concocts a plan of escape and succeeds. This is an exciting sequence, beautifully shot and edited as Allen is chased through the swamp by blood hounds held by shotgun-wielding guards.

Allen starts a new life for himself as a laborer and works his way to becoming a noted engineer. His past catches up to him thanks to ungrateful wife Marie (the great Glenda Farrell). The harpy-like Marie practically forces Allen to marry her to keep his secret and when he wants a divorce, look out.

He works out a plea bargain to return to the chain gang for a year as a clerical employee. Once down there, the state reneges on its deal and he’s sentenced to a decade on the chain gang. Allen isn’t going to take it anymore and escapes via a very exciting chase sequence involving a truck loaded with dynamite that for thrills could hardly be bested today.

The film ends with an unforgettable final scene – and final line – making this not only one of the greatest films of 1932, or the 1930s, but of all time. Society is rudely slapped in the face with “Chain Gang’s” final two words.

Really, it’s a remarkable film. Director Mervyn LeRoy gets a lot of snickering today mainly for his later M-G-M days, such as “Madame Curie” (1943) and “Quo Vadis” (1951). But an artist should be judged by his best work, not his worst, and there’s no denying his ferocity and talent in his early Warner Bros. films.

“Five Star Final” (1931) and “Two Seconds” (1932), both starring Edward G. Robinson, are crackerjack entertainment (and why, oh why aren’t these on DVD?) and “Three on a Match” (1932), the story of three childhood friends who grow up to lead very different lives, is one of the great Pre-Code movies. Many of LeRoy’s compositions in “Chain Gang” are striking, especially of the men working in the hot sun, silhouetted against the white granite rock.

Muni is great. It’s one of his best performances, more natural and nuanced than some of his later portrayals. I’m not knocking those later portrayals, like Emile Zola or Louis Pasteur. He’s enormously entertaining to watch in those. But the early Muni is what I prefer. That same year he attained even further cinematic immortality in “Scarface”, one of the greatest, and most gloriously bombastic, of the 1930s gangster movies.

A funny thing happened while I was watching “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” I started watching it and after what I thought was a few minutes happened to glance at the time counter on the DVD player. I was stunned to see that more than 40 minutes had passed. The movie clocks in at 92 minutes, races like a bullet and not a second of footage is wasted.

I really appreciated this as the day before I had sat through the enjoyable though bloated “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” and wished Harry had been a good 20-25 minutes shorter. That’s never a problem with Warner Bros. 1930’s dramas and “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” stands as a shining beacon. Show it to someone who thinks old black and white movies are boring and watch that prejudice slip away.

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