Tuesday, September 24, 2013

20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang?!?

On Sunday morning, TCM ran I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, which I blogged about back in May 2009. Immediately following was the Vitaphone two-reeler 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang, which has been released to DVD as an extra on one of the releases of the Muni film.

20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang is part parody, with a title obviously being taken in part from the Muni film, but with the 20,000 number presumably having been cribbed from 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which was also made at Warner Bros. not long before this short. The short begins with a scene taken straight out of the Muni film, with a bunch of men working on the chain gang and having the shackles around their ankles broken so they can try to escape. Sure enough, four of the convicts do try to escape, surprising a bunch of pretty young things frolicking at a picnic, and stealing the picnicers' soda straws so that they can do the old "hide underwater in the reeds" and use the straw for breathing so that the authorities won't find us. Really, you'd think the searchers would find any escapee trying this, but it's the movies, so they almost never do. One of the jokes here involves an escapee dipping his toe into the water and finding it too cold for his liking. Really. There's also the non-bloodhounds the police are using in their search.

Anyhow, back at the prison, the warden is facing the prospect of a visit from the oversight commission; think the sort of thing the James Cagney sits on in The Mayor of Hell. Invariably in those 1930s movies, such a commission means there's a problem with the treatment of the prisoners, and dammit, we don't want anybody to find out. So what's a warden to do? Why, turn the prison into something that looks like it came out of one of those Hollywood musicals in the days just before Busby Berkeley started influencing musicals. The short turns from parody into... well, I'm not quite certain how to describe it.

20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang is an interesting curio. I don't know that I'd call it good, because some of the humor is pretty dumb, and I'm not a fan of the early-1930s style of singing and musical number presentation that we get in a short like this. It would be easy to find the material offensive: I mean, making light humor out of brutal chain gang conditions? Yet, comedy worked with something like the TV series Hogan's Heroes in a POW camp, so there's no reason why it couldn't work here if the material were slightly more intelligent. Unfortunately, it's a bit too much of a one-note joke.

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