Wednesday, August 17, 2011

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

When Governor Al Smith of New York asked Lewis E. Lawes to become the new warden at New York State’s most troublesome maximum security prison, Sing Sing, I doubt anyone thought that the position would make a great spot for creativity of a film idea. Inspired by the novel written by Lawes, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing would provide precious work experience for director Michael Curtiz and stars Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis. A bitter prison drama produced by Warner Bros. owned First Nation Pictures, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing provides a story of hope and disappointment in prison reform and the failure within the ugliness of the human condition.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing is a prison drama about a life in a maximum security prison where the warden shares good faith in a promising prisoner, but ultimately is let down. A youthful 32 year-old Spencer Tracy plays the confident criminal Tommy Connors sentenced to serve five to thirty years in the prison. Though tough, the Warden (Arthur Bryon) begins to gain respect for Connors. When Tommy’s dear and loyal girlfriend Fay (Bette Davis) is severely injured in a car wreck, the Warden shares good faith in Connors allowing him to visit his love with promise that Tommy will return later that night. While on Tommy’s visit with Fay, the Warden is disappointed to hear Connors being part of murder of a man trying to con Fay. Despite believing that Connors would not come back after murder, Tommy returns to Sing Sing as promised, saving the Warden’s job, but ultimately resulting in Connors execution for the murder actually committed by Fay, who was only trying to get Tommy out of prison sooner.

The picture is a small film with good artistic vision. With the authenticity of filming in and around the real life Sing Sing, thanks to original novel writer and still warden Lewis E. Lawes, the picture carries with it a grittiness, drama, and heart. Obviously drawing on the real life events that were witnessed by Lawes, the picture feels genuine. The character of Tommy Connors is tough, but it is drawn out in the story that it is all a front and in fact he is soft and kind inside. Despite Lawes being the warden in real life, the warden in the film is not rectified for his faith in Connors. Though showing heart and goodwill, we the audience, as well as the warden, are left with disappointment after having faith in the good in Tommy, but understanding that the law is above it all. Tracy’s performance is different from the performances of actors in usual crime dramas of the day, but the then little known Tracy gives the character great emotion surrounded by his tough exterior.

The Hungarian director Michael Curtiz was a model director of the Warner Bros. stable, providing up to four movies a year after his arrival to America six years earlier. A veteran director of over 50 films in Europe as well as over a dozen pictures in his new home land, Curtiz was still not a well known name. His artistic vision is seen clearly in this film, especially in the creative opening title sequence with the montage of prisoners performing their daily duties with superimposed numbers floating in front of them stating the years they must serve before dramatically presenting the main title of the film. The performances he gets out of Tracy and the little known actor Arthur Byron clearly put across the emotions intended in the story, providing all at the same time the feelings of regret, faith, disappointment , joy, sense of commitment, and sorrow. With work in films like this we can see how his resume will grow to include all-time classics such as Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and White Christmas.

Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis were yet infants to the world of Hollywood at this time. James Cagney was first slated to play Tommy Connors, but he was in the middle of a contract dispute with Warner Bros. allowing Tracy to take the role and play the role with a different twist then Cagney would have. Tracy was a stage actor who gained respect just two years prior and this film, though not a monumental film by any means, would help him manifest his craft and assisted him get more roles in the future. Bette Davis believed herself to be one of Hollywood’s finest stars (very prima donna), but after an unsuccessful time with Universal she landed in Warner Bros., providing her many roles before she fulfilled being the big star she always thought she was. Also worth noting in the film is Louis Calhern, a then character actor for Warner Bros., but would be better known in his future work in the 1950s.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing is a modest picture with little expectation, and pretty much met that level of success. It is a good movie for the casual audience of the day, propelling something along the lines of one today channel surfing and stopping of a crime drama show. It is entertaining, and helped fill your time, but never really grabs you and is rather forgettable. The story would be remade by Warner Bros. in 1940 in Castle on the Hudson. The real highlight of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is the early work of both director Curtiz and star Tracy before they both become Academy Award winning personalities.

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