I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis,
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a movie starring Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, and Helen Vinson. Wrongly convicted James Allen serves in the intolerable conditions of a southern chain gang, which later comes back to haunt him.
  • 8.2 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Robert E. Burns, Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes, Sheridan Gibney, Writer:
  • Mervyn LeRoy, Director:
  • Producer:

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Trailer:

10 / 10

"How Do You Live?"

In a society known for freedom and justice, how is that justice truly measured and meted out? When an individual's very life hinges on a verdict of innocent or guilty, is there such a thing as an objective call? Or is a person's life subject to mere perception; a subjective evaluation of `facts' assimilated through a filter of bloated egos and personal agenda? All questions that many, perhaps, would prefer not to have answered, nor indeed, even asked at all. Those who are so secure in the absolutism of our justice system that they will willingly defer to the establishment in all matters, and with a clear conscience. The `system,' after all, is infallible; or at least good enough, isn't it? Good enough, that is, when it's being tested on `someone else.' But what if that glitch in the system becomes personal? What if `you' are the one who falls victim to a miscarriage of justice, and your voice becomes impotent, grinding your pleas into so much pulp beneath the wheels of a machine to which you are nothing more than another insignificant cog? It's a situation examined in the absorbing drama, `I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang,' directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and starring Paul Muni.

James Allen (Muni) returns home from WWI to find his old job in a shoe factory awaiting him. But James is a changed man, with aspirations of doing something meaningful with his life; and he wants to put the experience he received in the Army-- in the Engineering Corps-- to use. He wants to build things-- bridges, roads-- useful things. And toward that end he sets out and scours the East Coast from north to south looking for work, but jobs are scarce. Finally, having taken to `walking the ties,' the rail leads him into St. Louis, just another out-of-work bum in the eyes of society. There he meets up with a guy named Pete (Preston Foster), who tells James he knows where they can get a hamburger as a hand-out. The trusting and somewhat naive James goes along, only to find himself on the wrong end of a stick-up gone bad.

From that point, the justice system moves swiftly, and James Allen finds himself sentenced to ten years at hard labor on a chain gang. His offense? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong guy.

Based on the autobiographical story by Robert E. Burns, and written for the screen by Sheridan Gibney and Brown Holmes, LeRoy's riveting film is an inditement of the justice system-- specifically the brutality of the chain gangs-- but also of a society too smug and filled with self-righteousness to realize how fragile and tentative the freedoms we enjoy really are. America is the greatest country in the world-- a veritable bastion of freedom-- but those who would throw out their chests while holding up the Constitution, citing whichever amendment it is that suits their personal agenda, should be made to walk a mile in the shoes of Robert Burns/James Allen. Or for a start, be required to watch this film.

Released in 1932, this film is devoid of the melodrama common to many films of this era, and instead presents the story in very realistic terms, the meaning of which is indisputable. Like Hitchcock's unnerving 1957 film, `The Wrong Man' (also based on a true story), this film is not only disconcerting, but down-right scary when you stop to consider the implications of it. It also evokes a sense of Kafka's `The Trial' (also made into a movie in 1963 by Orson Welles), but without the abstractedness; unlike `The Trial's' Joseph K., James Allen knows exactly what's happened to him and how. What he can't understand is `Why.' Nor would any rational man, betrayed by the very society in which he placed his implicit trust, understand.

Paul Muni gives a dynamic, stirring performance as James Allen, capturing all of the confusion, exasperation, pain and anguish of his inexplicable situation, all of which you can see in his expression, in his eyes and in his body language and demeanor. You feel the darkness into which he is forced to descend, and with him you share that sense of hope fading away more with each passing day. From the tension of the moment when he first attempts to `Hang it on the limb,' to what is one of the most haunting endings ever filmed, you're right there, living it with him. It's a powerful, truly memorable performance by Muni.

The supporting cast includes Helen Vinson (Helen), Noel Francis (Linda), Allen Jenkins (Barney), Berton Churchill (Judge), Edward Ellis (Bomber Wells), David Landau (Warden), Hale Hamilton (Rev. Robert Allen), Sally Blane (Alice), Louise Carter (Allen's Mother), James Bell (Red), William Le Maire (Texan), Edward Arnold (Lawyer) and Willard Robertson (Prison Commissioner). In no way does this film exaggerate the situation it depicts; it doesn't have to. In the end, `I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang' is a wake-up call of sorts, a warning to those who take personal freedom for granted or place too much trust in a flawed system mired in bureaucracy. That a film made in 1932 can still have such an impact today says more than enough about how good it is. And once you've seen it, you'll never forget that final, haunting scene, and James Allen's final words. I rate this one 10/10.

10 / 10

Still powerful

Paul Muni comes back from the war (WWI) a hero. He's offered his old job back but declines it--he wants to make it on his own. He inadvetantly gets involved in a stickup and is (unjustly) sent to a chain gang for 9 years. The prisoners there are treated horribly--beaten by sadistic guards and forced to eat wretched food. After a few months Muni has had it. He escapes, changes his name, makes a living for himself and is very successful. But his past begins to catch up on him...

A very early Warner Bros. social drama--and one of their best. It's pretty strong stuff. I remember originally seeing this on TV back in the 1970s and really being shocked by it. It's not graphic but what you hear is even worse then being shown it (the whippings in particular). It also shows a law system that doesn't give a damn about how they treat their prisoners. They should be treated like dirt--and are! The story moves quickly and Muni is just superb. This movie made him and you can see why. Also it has one of the most depressing endings I've ever seen in a motion picture. It hit me hard back in the 1970s and still works today. Muni's haunted face and the final line are harrowing. A true classic--a must-see.

Be warned--some non-cable TV prints cut out the final line!

7 / 10

More Facts For Fans Of This Film

Since the movie ends somewhat abruptly, I was interested in what happened to this character in real life, so I did some research. For those interested, read on:

The man, whose real name was Burns, lived quite awhile in New Jersey, wrote the book with this same title, even smuggled himself into Los Angeles for two weeks to help with the movie, using an assumed name and acting very skittish. He then went back to New Jersey. The state of Georgia, home of these chain gangs, tried to extradite him but New Jersey wouldn't give him up.

Regarding the film........

"Powerful" was a word describing this movie when it came out over 70 years ago, and it still holds true today. It was based on a true story and if injustice bothers you, this film will be disturbing. It certainly was to me, at least the first time I saw it.

I've seen it several times and am always mesmerized by Paul Muni's performance. Just the expressions on his face alone are fascinating. The other members of the cast are so-so, but it's Muni's movie anyway.

10 / 10

Masterpiece that keeps influencing as much as it enthrals.

Being a man who has a very unhealthy penchant for any film that deals with incarceration, it is with great elation that I can proudly proclaim this to be one of the greatest films of the genre. I had to finally give way and import the film on Region 1 to see what I was missing, boy was it joyous to see how this film has influenced some of my favourite film's of all time.

This is one tough movie, it pulls no punches and the only surprise is that it was made in 1932, that the film is a grizzled masterpiece is down to the astute direction of Mervyn LeRoy and a quite brilliant performance from Paul Muni in the lead role of James Allen. Based on the real life writings of Robert Elliot Burns, the film is a harsh kick in the guts about the brutal penal system that existed when most of us were mere glints in our Father's eyes. It is part of a Warner Brothers controversial classic's box set that is available on Region 1, and its place on any controversial classic list is worthy.

The film had major impact on reviews of the penal system, it caused uproar in Georgia (the film never mentions Georgia, but they knew it was about them), law suits followed and Robert Elliot Burns himself was constantly pursued by the authorities despite the state being privy to the actual facts of his case. I wont be boorish with the details as it is well documented across the net and those who haven't seen the film really need to address that issue. This picture strips it down to a primal story that begs a viewing from anyone interested in the genre - or actually for those interested in brilliant cinema from a golden era - period! 10/10

9 / 10

A true classic AND a brave indictment. Excellent!!!

Without a doubt, this is one of the finest films I have seen. Paul Muni's performance is so good, it's practically indescribable. I thought he was extremely believable as the unduly accused and convicted James Allen. This story will rip your heart out, and rightly so. The film is very well done in every way, down to the smallest detail (best example of this: the disgusting looking prison food ? if you can call it that). The use of newspaper headlines is extremely effective, as well as the very realistic scenes in the prison and work yard, and the whole environment in which Allen must live. The viewer can almost feel Allen's pain as the other inmate hammers away at his leg chains to give him a glimpse of hope toward freedom. However, even the scenes of Allen's life on the outside still evoke a sense of foreboding. This is a very powerful film.

I saw it as part of the Essentials series on Turner Classic Movies, and Robert Osborne said that the real-life protagonist on whom this film is based acted as a consultant. Since he was still on the run, however, he was not credited. The whole situation is so sad, and this sadness and feeling of oppression hang over the film with such realism, that sometimes it is as though you are watching Allen's life caught on videotape, instead of a motion picture. It is extremely gripping and downbeat, with a killer ending. The fact that it's a true story just adds to the pervasive feeling of doom. Way ahead of its time, and a brave picture to make in its indictment of the justice system. WOW.

TWO FAVORITE MOMENTS: 1) Allen looking directly at the policeman in the barbershop with a determined, steely glare, as if suddenly realizing that he will not be recognized, and simply defying the cop to recognize him. The barber doesn't recognize him either, even though the cop and barber have just been describing Allen. This scene, I am sure, meant to emphasize the incompetence of the police and justice system, without using any words to do so. Fantastically done. I am in awe.

2) Chain gang inmate Barney Sykes (played by supreme character actor Allen Jenkins), finally released from jail, is offered a ride from the prison staff, who are carting the coffin of a dead inmate off the grounds. Very matter-of-factly, as though he has done this before (and thus demonstrating the de-humanizing effects of prison life) Sykes hops up onto the back of the truck and sits right on the coffin. Upon seeing this out the window, the other inmates ruminate on the fact that there are only two ways to leave the chain gang ? `get let out, or die out.'

I will not give the ending away, but if it doesn't move you to tears, I don't know what will. Haunting.

My ONLY (minor) problem with the film is that all of the ladies in Allen's life look so similar, I could barely tell them apart!

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!!! See it.