HERS WAS THE KISS OF JUDAS… HE WAS CRUCIFIED ON THE CHAIN GANG!
Warner Bros. had qualms about producing this picture. Sure, it didn’t turn a gangster into a leading man as certain other pre-Code films did at the time, but the studio believed that the violence would not be acceptable. They also thought that the movie would not go down well in the Deep South. In fact, not only was this film a major hit and made a lot of money, it also had a real-life impact.
Returning from World War I
Sergeant James Allen (Paul Muni) returns from Europe after serving in World War I. He finds a job as an office clerk, but it makes him restless; he wants to be an engineer, but his family think of him as ungrateful. James hails from a culture where you never ask for more, never aspire to greatness. He leaves his home to find work elsewhere, but times are tough. James’s life changes the day when he meets a fellow and is accidentally drawn into his scheme to rob a diner. The judge sentences him to 10 years of hard labor. He joins a Georgia chain gang where there isn’t much of a difference between the convicts and the jailers.
One day, James finds the right time to escape and makes his way to Chicago. Will he be able to finally make his dreams come true in the Windy City?
Still a convict at that time
The film was based on Robert E. Burns’s account of life in a Georgia chain gang and how he made his way to Chicago where he created a new life for himself. When the book was published, and the movie was made, Burns was still a convict on the run from the state of Georgia. He was involved in the production of the film, advising Muni (who took his job very seriously, also meeting with prison guards, even if Warner did stop him from interviewing anyone still working on Georgia’s infamous chain gangs). That same year, Burns was arrested once again in New Jersey, but the governor refused to extradite him to Georgia. There was a public outcry against the penal system and its many injustices, as depicted in this film. Still, it wasn’t until 1943 that Burns and the governor of Georgia at that time, Ellis Arnall, met and agreed to have his sentence commuted to time served.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang both thrilled and shocked audiences on its premiere. Mervyn LeRoy was a perfect choice to direct, even if he and Muni failed to hit it off when they met (they later became friends). He had just turned Little Caesar (1931) into a hit and his hard-boiled approach to the world of gangsters made him well-suited to this story, even if the leading character is no villain. The brutality of the chain-gang system certainly comes across and in the film’s final twenty minutes, when James escapes for the second time, LeRoy delivers a literally explosive chase, one of the movie’s highlights.
Muni is memorable as the unfortunate James, a war veteran who frequently deserves better, and Glenda Farrell (who was also in Little Caesar) chews the scenery as Marie, the woman who lets James rent a room at her boardinghouse and subsequently blackmails him into marrying her. This melodramatic aspect of the story is not the film’s strongest ingredient, but Farrell does make more of an impact than Helen Vinson as the woman James falls in love with.
The movie will always be remembered for using a real-life story as an example of questions we must always ask ourselves when we talk about law and order: what do you reasonably have to do to pay for your crimes and how do we make sure that the people who work in the penal system are honest and well-educated? But the film’s entertainment value must not be forgotten either; the finale, where a tormented Muni retreats into the shadows, is unforgettable.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang 1932-U.S. 93 min. B/W. Produced by Hal B. Wallis. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Screenplay: Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes. Book: Robert E. Burns (”I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!”). Cast: Paul Muni (James Allen), Glenda Farrell (Marie Woods), Helen Vinson (Helen), Preston Foster, Edward Ellis, Allen Jenkins.
Trivia: Roy Del Ruth was first offered to direct. James Cagney was reportedly considered for the lead role. Remade as a TV movie, The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains (1987).
Quote: “I steal.” (Muni’s last words)
Last words: “‘Fugitive’ caused both myself and Jack Warner plenty of problems. The wardens of the Georgia chain gangs weren’t too happy for obvious reasons and tried to stop the picture from being shown. It did one thing, however. The chain gangs were taken off the roads in Georgia. But Warner and I were told not to come there again. I don’t think that warning still holds though.” (LeRoy, several decades later, “The Making and Influence of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”)