Wednesday, March 23, 2011

20,000 Years in Sing Sing

For some reason, TCM doesn't play the prison drama 20,000 Years in Sing Sing very often. It's coming up at 6:00 AM ET tomorrow.

Spencer Tracy, on loan from Fox, plays Tommy, a big shot who's been convicted and sent to Sing Sing prison. He expects to have an easy spell, but he finds that the warden and the people running the prison aren't going to treat him any differently from the other prisoners. If he doesn't want to wear the prison uniform? Fine -- he can sit in solitary instead. The warden is relatively progressive as wardens go, however, thinking prisoners can be rehabilitated, and coming up with some unorthodox means of rehabilitating them. In Tommy's case, that has to do with his girl on the outside, Fay (played by Bette Davis). Tommy learns that Fay is ill, and the warden actually gives Tommy a furlough to go see Fay, on Tommy's word that he'll return. And he does intend to return, until he sees what's happened to Fay. While he's been away, his lawyer Joe Finn (Louis Calhern), has tried to make a move on Fay. And when Tommy protests, he and Joe get in a scuffle that results in Fay shooting Joe dead. Naturally, everybody is going to suspect Tommy, which is a problem not only for him, but for the warden as well....

20,000 Years in Sing Sing is, to be honest, more interesting than it is great: if you want a great early talkie prison movie, The Big House is the one to watch. But there are quite a few things that make 20,000 Years in Sing Sing interesting. First is the fact that it's loosely based on real experiences. Or, at least, it's based on a book written by the warden of Sing Sing prison, which carries the same title as the movie. Second is the the movie's impressive title sequence, which has a long line of prisoners marching, with their sentences superimposed over their heads. It's a sequence that does an effective job of showing the dehumanization the prison brings about in those who have been imprisoned. Third, it's the only time Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis made a movie together, and that alone makes the movie worth watching.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing is part of the Warner Archive Collection, so you can watch it, although at a bit higher price than a lot of other movies.

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