I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)
Friday, February 1st
Sergeant James Allen (Paul Muni) has returned home from the World War I, the war that was to end all war. He is hopeful in his dreams to have a new life, new job, and new direction for the future. After several disappoints of trying to make his way as an engineer he travels to the deep south of the United States. It is there he is implicated in a crime that he did not commit, and sentenced to serve ten years hard labor on a chain gang. Allen is able to escape and makes his way to Chicago. In Chicago he becomes successful in the construction business, and begins a new life. He starts an affair with owner of the boarding house (Glenda Farrell) he is living in; she discovers his secret past and begins to blackmail him into marrying her.
Allen has now fallen in love with Helen (Helen Vinson). When he approaches his wife for a divorce she betrays his and notifies the authorities of his true identity and past. Allen is led to believe that he will be offered a pardon if he turns himself in. This ruse allows for his recapture and his being sent back to the chain gang. Allen is able to escape again and visits Helen a last time to say goodbye. He then walks away leaving it unknown as to which direction he will choose to restart his life again.
There are varying stories concerning the final scene of the film when light cuts off on Muni’s character as he walks away after uttering his final and most famous line, “I steal.” One story has that the sudden darkness was due an electrical failure at the studio. Director, Mervin LeRoy viewed the scene in the daily rushes and liked how it looked and didn’t reshoot the scene. The other story is LeRoy always had this affect in the script. Either way it happened the sudden darkness on Muni’s character as he walks away leaves you with an ominous feeling about the characters future after the events of the film and his mistrust of society.
Paul Muni and the picture were both nominated for Academy Awards. Muni had previously been known for his work on the stage had recently transitioned to films, his theatrically mastery allowed for the new talking film medium to be taken as a serious art. Audiences would now start flocking to theaters for the performances rather than novelty. After his performance in this his fourth feature film, Muni was signed to a long term contract with Warner Brothers Studio, where he would star in additional autobiographical films.
Warner Brothers during the pre-code era was known for realistic crime dramas, often focused around the gangster underworld. Under Darryl Zanuck the studio became focused on socially realistic storylines often taken from the headlines of the day. The 1932 book I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang! fits this Warner Brother mold. The autobiographical book was written by Robert Elliot Burns, about his experience with the chain gang system in Georgia and subsequent effects on his life. His book was serialized in True Detective Mysteries and published in 1932. Though the film studio was sued by Georgia chain gang warden, J. Harold Hardy for vicious, brutal, and false attacks against him, the film leaves the location of the prison unnamed. In a time before the studio production code, film goers would typically complain about sex and violence in movies, it was this films depiction of the barbaric chain gang system that caused outrage in audiences. The film also allowed for Burns’ story to reach a greater audience than his book could ever do at that time. The greater public could now be visually exposed on a mass scale to cruel and inhuman acts. The brutality towards prisoners caused a catalyst for prison reform; however, the chain gang system was not abolished till 1937.