Saturday, May 2, 2009

The lurid title

TCM's Essential movie for this week is I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, airing tonight at 8:00 PM ET. The title makes the movie sound shocking -- and it certainly was when it was released in 1932. Today, it stands as a monument to the social commentary Warner Brothers gave us in the early 1930s.

Paul Muni stars as James Allen, a young man returning home from World War I. Having served in an engineering battalion in the war, he's seen that there's more possibilities for him in the world, and he doesn't want to be stuck in the old job he had before the war. So, he sets out on his own, only to find out that the economic situation isn't so great. After taking a series of temporary construction jobs around the country, he gets hoodwinked by a friend who gets him entangled in the robbery of a burger joint, for which he gets five years' hard labor on the chain gang.

The chain gang is absolutely brutal, and Allen vows to escape, which he eventually does. He makes his way north to Chicago, where he becomes a highly respected engineer. The only problem is that he falls in love with the boss' daughter, and he's already got a wife (played by Glenda Farrell). She blackmails him by telling him that she'll turn him in, but he calls her bluff. The only thing is, it wasn't a bluff, and Allen gets sent back to jail in the original jurisdiction, after an agreement that will allow him to get out after a symbolically brief sentence. Unfortunately for him, the authorities want to make a point about not escaping, and so abrogate that agreement, forcing Allen to try to escape again....

Amazingly, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is based on a true story. Robert Burns, the fugitive who wrote the book on which the movie was based, made his way to Hollywood incognito to be a consultant on the movie, giving the movie a more realistic feel (although with Hollywood, you can never be quite certain how much of it is the unvarnished truth). Audiences and authorities picked up on this, as the movie was hugely controversial when it was released. Even though the state in which Allen is put on the chain gang is not mentioned in the movie (from the map montages, it looks as though St. Louis was his last stop before getting arrested), Burns was a fugitive from the Georgia authorities, and it was widely believed that the movie was about Georgia -- so much so that Georgia tried to prevent the movie from being shown in their fair state. It's easy to understand why, because I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is a blistering indictment of the prison system. Muni gives an outstanding performance, earning an Oscar nomination (but losing out to the equally outstanding Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII). Glenda Farrell is as good as always, and the rest of the cast and crew do a good job, but this is Muni's movie all the way.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is available on DVD should you miss tonight's showing. One final note: it wasn't the only chain gang movie released in 1932. A few months early, RKO put out Hell's Highway starring Richard Dix, which is a very interesting movie in its own right (not available on DVD), although not nearly as good as I Am a Fugitive Form a Chain Gang.

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