Friday, July 1, 2011

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

The time between the two World Wars was a period of reinvention for America. Out of the Great War Americans had never seen such prosperity, followed by the carefree 20s, the crash of 1929, and the Great Depression. In there the federal government would even exhibit their power with prohibition. It was as if America was thriving to redefine itself while it attempted to rebuilt from the collapsed economy. Before the production code was instated for Hollywood, the films being produced would sometimes make political statements in order to change how America handled certain aspects of the country. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang would be one of those films, bringing with it awareness of the mistreatment of men, as well as producing a very above average piece of cinema. Warner Bros. (known for producing gritty, true-life stories through the golden age of Hollywood) would once again bring to the big screen the uglier side of civilization, sharing a film inspired by the true-life story of one man that served in and escaped from the dreaded life of a chain gang.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang tells the story of a wrongfully accused man sentenced to a chain gang, it's horrors, his escape, and future run ins with the law. James Allen (Paul Muni) is a war veteran that finds hard times when he returns home. While being present during a small time robbery, James is mistakenly arrested and convicted to serve in a chain gang. Here we seen the harsh condition of the prisoners with the overly difficult labor, poor treatment, poor food, and overall lack of humanity in the conditions that they are forced to survive (because "live" would not be the correct word to use) in. The story continues as James finds a way to escape and begin a good life and prosperous career as a dignified man. He has a mix up with his boarding house owner Marie (Glenda Farrel) who frames him into marrying her after learning of his fugitive history. When James falls in love with a sweet girl, Helen (Helen Vinson), and asks for a divorce, Marie rats out James. He agrees to serve out a 90 day sentence with a promise of a pardon because of his civilized work while ask a fugitive, but when it comes clear that there will be no pardon James escapes again to continue to live life in the shadows.

The film is a very well done story based off the life story of Robert Elliot Burns as seen in his autobiography "I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang." Burns would even be brought to Hollywood to help the picture, before he would return to New Jersey to allude any idea of being caught and returned to Georgia to continue his sentence. The story of Burns was very prominent in the news back in those days as his book and this movie made him well known. Eventually caught in New Jersey, the governor would not release him to Georgia as public opinion was changing. With the help of the book, the film, and the change in America, Burns would eventually be pardoned, but not until 1945.

Director Mervyn LeRoy produces a good picture that creates the many different environments around the James Allen character, beautifully shooting the picture, conveying the moods and emotions that surround our hero. The best known shoot of the picture would be the final one as James Allen returns to Helen after his escape to explain he cannot live with her because they, the police, will be looking for him. Helen asks how will James live as he backs into the shadows and the screen goes dark, we hear James say softly "I steal." Perhaps one of the most well known shots in cinema history, the shot would have a legend of its own for its artistic creativity. Legend has it LeRoy was going to have the lights fade as Muni would deliver the line, but a fuse burnt out during the shooting that caused the line to be said in complete darkness. The shot was so loved that they would keep this happy mistake. Well, that story is nice and all, but the truth is the shot was planned by LeRoy and not a happy mistake. LeRoy was a very creative man, as well as a very good businessman of the movie industry, one day becoming the head of production at MGM, said to have green lit The Wizard of Oz.

The star of the picture was Paul Muni, who had a wonderful year in 1932 with the release of two very successful picture, Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Muni was a stage actor on Broadway that tended to love the stage more than the screen, because of the disliking of the roles offered to him in the pictures. His angular and somewhat grim face made him an easy person to cast in stern roles. Despite his Oscar nominated role in the 1929 film The Valiant, he would not see success and returned to the stage until Scarface. I Am a Fugitive in a Chain Gang would allow him to have a more well rounded character to play, earning him his second Academy Award nomination.

The picture had its political troubles. To avoid issues with states banning the picture (as film exhibition was regulated by the individual states), Warner Bros had the state Georgia excluded from the title of the film, and in no ways is it alluded to that the chain gang was in Georgia. Despite this Georgia for a time did in fact ban the picture, even creating lawsuits against the studio for slander and false depiction. Most charges would be dropped and not harm Warner Bros.

The forecast as the film was being produced had this film to be quite the well anticipated picture. The story of Robert Elliot Burns was growing as the political strife of the justice system in many states that had chain gangs started to be looked very unfavorably on. RKO, a rival movie studio, sought to get in on the action, quickly producing Hell's Highway, which would release just a matter of two months before I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Despite RKO getting out on the market first and producing what many would consider a more realistic and grittier perspective on chain gangs, it would still be the superior production quality of Warner Bros that would win the respect and notoriety. Warner Bros' film would be nominated for best actor (Muni), best sound recording, and best picture. With the help of this picture, the story of Robert Elliot Burns, and even the help of Hell's Highway, chain gangs would be abolished in the states that still utilized them and eventually Burns would be pardoned from his conviction.

It is clear to see that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was an impactful film for its time. With its notoriety, which would include preservation in the Nation Film Registry in the Library of Congress, the picture had a cultural impact on the nation that should not be forgotten. It is hard to understand that we once treated people in our own country this was, but it happened. It is pictures like this that remind us how we as a nation have our demons and how we continue to try to better ourselves. This picture serves as a reminder, as well as a good piece of movie making.

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