I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

“I’ll be a model prisoner if it kills me!”

A decorated World War I veteran (Paul Muni) disappoints his parents by wanting more out of life than his small-town factory job, and sets off in search of engineering work. After a series of hard times, he is accidentally implicated in a fatal robbery committed by an acquaintance (Preston Foster), and sent to work in a Southern chain gang. Life as a prisoner is so unbearable that Muni seeks help from a fellow inmate (Everett Brown) in breaking his chains and escaping, and soon makes a reputable life for himself under a new identity. However, when his scheming landlady (Glenda Farrell) forces Muni to marry her and exposes his past, he’s on the lam once again, ending up back in prison with hope of parole. Will he finally achieve justice?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Escape
  • Ex-Convicts
  • Falsely Accused
  • Fugitives
  • Mervyn LeRoy Films
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Paul Muni Films
  • Preston Foster Films
  • Prisoners

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that Warner Brothers’ adaptation of an autobiographical serial story by Robert E. Burns — directed by Mervyn LeRoy — is not only “one of the earliest social-protest films” but “one of the strongest”, given that “Muni’s hardened, desperate face and his angry, scratchy voice are powerful reminders that decent men could be destroyed by the injustice and insensitivity that had come to characterize America”.

He writes that the “ending is shockingly depressing”, and that the film “is daring, not only because of its socially conscious theme but also because of its pre-Code depiction of sex”.

However, while this film is almost universally lauded as a classic, I’ll admit to finding it both somewhat dated, and over-acted by the Oscar-nominated Muni. Most powerful are the graphic scenes of chain gang life, which we take for granted now after multiple cinematic depictions inspired by this one — i.e., Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run (1969), among others — but otherwise, everything about the screenplay too-neatly telescopes corruption, injustice, and hard knocks. The film does deserve points for not pulling any punches, and also for Sol Polito’s impressive cinematography — but otherwise, it’s primarily worth viewing for its historical significance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An effectively bleak depiction of chain-gang subsistence

  • Sol Polito’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a one-time look for its historical significance. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Movies of the Year in Alternate Oscars, where he also nominates Muni as one of the Best Actors of the Year. Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1991 by the Library of Congress.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


2 thoughts on “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

  1. First viewing. A once-must, for its place in cinema / social history – but be prepared for a rather depressing watch, esp. (as noted) the conclusion.

    I don’t find the film dated and, oddly, Muni (to me) seems less prone to over-acting in this performance, esp. once the film really starts to kick in. (In general, Muni does have a tendency to be a bit much, so I was surprised to find that he didn’t particularly seem over-the-top this time out.)

    Glenda Farrell is rather impressive here in her (ultimately) cold and calculating portrayal.

    The depiction of the cruel ‘justice’ of the South comes off as credible.

    Note: I found it slightly amusing that, after his initial escape, Muni switched his name from James Allen to (of all things) Allen James. That’s not exactly a surefire way to conceal an identity (even though he wasn’t re-captured because of it).

  2. A definite must for it place in history as well as a well made and acted film. I also share the thought that Paul Muni can overdo a role, but I think his performance is perfect in this film. And for a 1932 film, the ending and tone throughout was very bold, and I feel it still it holds up really well. The film was gripping from beginning to end, and I was amazed it didn’t seem too dated and definitely not stagnant. Will I watch again -not sure, but this is mainly due to the pessimistic ending – the film didn’t make the lead out as a criminal (which some would have done), or give him a happy, Hollywood ending. Instead, it seemed right (or as right as it could be in 1932). Also in volumes of the 1001 films you must watch before you die books.

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