Directed by Mervyn LeRoy: Born 1900 in San Francisco, both parents Jewish, but according to LeRoy by the time he came along they had been in the city for a couple of generations and were so were “assimilated to the point of complete absorption.” Mervyn is present for the 1906 earthquake, which destroyed the family home and his father’s store. At the age of 12 he becomes a newsboy, hawking papers from street corners. “I saw life in the raw on the streets of San Francisco. I met the cops and the whores and the reporters and the bartenders and the Chinese and the fishermen and the shopkeepers. When it came time for me to make motion pictures I made movies that were real, because I knew at first hand how real people behaved.” In 1916 he joined another vaudeville wannabe, and they became LeRoy and Cooper: Two Kids and a Piano. They traveled the country for three years before LeRoy wound up in New York broke, and swallowed his pride and asked for help from his cousin Jesse Lasky, who had quit vaudeville and become one of the earliest movie moguls, chief of Famous Players-Lasky. Cousin Jesse gave him a train ticket to Hollywood and a note to the studio, and so began LeRoy’s movie career. He started at the bottom and worked his way up, and in 1924 was hired as a gagman by director Alfred Green. LeRoy worked on a bunch of silent comedies, most of them starring the delightful comedienne Colleen Moore, and in 1928 got his first directorial assignment. No Place to Go, starring Mary Astor. It came in on time, under budget, and earned a profit. LeRoy said he made 75 movies, and all of them turned a profit.
He directed Little Ceasar (1931), one of the great gangster films, and another five movies that same year. In 1932 he directed another now-notorious Pre-Code, Three on a Match, as well as our feature today. He also directed other memorable Pre-Codes such as Gold Diggers of 1933 and in 1934, Heat Lightning, a terrific movie featuring two of the actors in today’s movie, Preston Foster and Glenda Farrell and starring Aline MacMahon and Ann Dvorak. We may see it at the end of the course. LeRoy continued to work until 1965, making films like Mister Roberts and Gypsy.
Doherty differentiates between prison movies and chain-gang movies, of which today’s is the most famous. “Not every Hollywood prison was an oasis from the barren vistas of the Great Depression. If the big house offered a kind of security against the cold winds on the outside, the chain gang system of penology warned of lower circles of hell within America. Sensational and all-too-true reports of brutality and torture in the rural prison system of the Deep South splashed across the headlines of tabloid papers in the North throughout the 1930s, especially when some unfortunate inmate died in a sweat box or from a beating. Given the stark barbarism of the chain gang system the penal preachment yarn could afford to be uncompromising and outspoken I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) “will make us some enemies,” admitted an unapologetic Jack Warner, but he stood behind the taglines (“Warner Bros.’ defiant masterpiece will have a conscience-stricken America talking in its sleep!”). Preaching the abolition of the chain gang system was a safe sentiment, not a controversial position.”
There were other chain gang movies—RKO’s Hell’s Highway (1932) and Universal’s Laughter in Hell (1933).
I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang was a bestseller by Robert E. Burns (though the preface of the edition I have claims Burns’s brother, a clergyman, was the actual author), who was hiding in the shadows when the film was made. Burns sneaked into Hollywood to consult with the scriptwriters, and he flinched at every sound like the hunted man he was. It would be well over a decade before he was finally pardoned by the state of Georgia, and in the years between he made his home in New Jersey where he married and lived a peaceable life. The state petitioned for his extradition and a public meeting was held with 1,000 of his New Jersey neighbors attending. The overwhelming support convinced the governor to refuse to extradite, and Burns remained in the state until his pardon was finally secured by the recently elected progressive Georgia governor, who was doing his best to reform the chain gang system.
The script is good—the storytelling is economical and LeRoy gives us the information we need without clubbing us over the head with it. Sol Polito’s cinematography is beautiful, and only a few years after sound had imprisoned the camera in a soundproof booth it has also escaped and follows James Allen (Muni, who received an Oscar nomination for this film) on not one but two taut escape sequences. Audio is also used effectively: We are past the strange, staticky silence of the earliest talkies and sounds of all kinds are used to heighten the drama—train whistles, the baying of hounds, the singing of the prisoners and clatter of the hammers on the rocks, the sounds of the chains clanking, the jazz in the brothel.
Warner Bros removed “Georgia” from the title to accommodate the strenuous objections of the state to the film being made at all. Georgia also let it be known that the director would be arrested on sight should he put one foot in the state.
LeRoy manages to convey the horror, inhumanity, and brutality of life on the chain gang without showing anything explicit; the whipping scene actually soft-pedaled the reality, in which the men’s pants were pulled off. In the movie LeRoy shows us Muni’s face as he watches another prisoner’s beating, his face framed by bars as he sees what we cannot. We hear the screams and see from Muni’s face that he is terrified but determined. And when his beating comes we retreat into the barracks where his fellow prisoners lie on their beds silently listening to the sound of the leather strap, Muni makes no sound.
A fine piece of cinematic storytelling develops character and then shows what the horrors of the “justice” system do to that character: James Allen is an engineer who lives to build. When he blows up the bridge, we see in his deranged joy what he has been brought to: it is James Allen who has been destroyed.
Some of the actors:
Paul Muni, born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund, 9/22/1895 in Lemberg, Austria-Hungary (now Lviv, Ukraine); died 1967, Montecito, California. Muni had made his stage debut at the age of 12, playing an 80-year-old man, in a Yiddish theater production. He did not play an English-language role until 1926, when he was 32 and made his Broadway debut. Muni split his time between stage and screen and showed no interest in being a movie star—for him it was all about acting. His powerful performances in this and in Scarface (also 1932) assured him of starring roles, but he ran afoul of the studios, who didn’t often give him roles he thought worth playing. In 1936 he convinced Warner Bros. to depart from their ripped-from-the-headlines approach and star him in The Life of Louis Pasteur, for which he won an Academy Award for best actors. Muni followed that in 1937 with The Life of Emile Zola, and in 1939 with Juarez. In 1946 he returned to the role of gangster in the comedy Angel on My Shoulder. Muni continued to work in the theater, originating the role of the lawyer (based on Clarence Darrow) in Inherit the Wind in 1956. Failing eyesight forced him to retire in 1959 after starring in The Last Angry Man in 1959, for which he received his final Oscar nomination.
Glenda Farrell was a popular actress who worked in many comedies and dramas in this era and for decades to follow. She was almost a female Lee Tracy, a wisecracking, wised-up tough gal. She could play other kinds of roles but often appeared as less-vicious variants of her role here.
Preston Foster started out as an opera singer, came to Hollywood in 1929 and at first played bad-guy roles like this one but within a few years would be playing much richer, more complex parts in movies like The Informer and Annie Oakley. You may remember him from the TV series Waterfront (1954-’55), in which he played Cap’n John Herrick.
Allen Jenkins studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and worked in stock before playing the gangster in Blessed Event, a role he reprised in the movie. Per AllMovie, Jankins “made so many pictures that he was sometimes referred to as ‘the fifth Warner Brother.’ ” Jenkins as a member of the “Irish Mafia” along with James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, and Frank McHugh. Like many actors from this era Jenkins also worked in television in the ’50s and ’60s, including voicing the character of Officer Dibble in Top Cat (1961).
Edward Ellis: Born in 1870, the child of theater professionals, he was an actor, playwright, and producer on Broadway before he started his film career. He appeared in 38 films but is best remembered as Clyde Wynant, the murder victim in The Thin Man (1934) and as Shirley Temple’s uncle in Little Miss Broadway (1938).
Other Pre-Code prison films:
The Big House (George W. Hill, 1930)
The Criminal Code (Howard Hawks, 1931)
20,000 Years in Sing-Sing (Michael Curtiz, 1933)
Hell’s Highway (Rowland Brown, 1932)
Laughter in Hell (Edward L. Kahn, 1933)
The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era, by Frank Miller and Robert Osborne
I Am a Prisoner from a Georgia Chain Gang, by Robert E. Burns
Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immortality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, by Thomas Doherty
World Film Directors Volume One 1890-1945, edited by John Wakeman