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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

December 17, 2012

by John Farr

John Farr discusses Mervyn LeRoy’s Oscar-nominated prison movie, starring Paul Muni.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

What It’s About:
Sentenced to ten years on a chain gang for a restaurant holdup he was forced to participate in, hard-luck WWI vet James Allen (Paul Muni) sees his dreams of becoming an architect vanish. Unable to take the vicious, dehumanizing prison routine he’s been condemned to, Allen escapes, holes up in Chicago, and begins a new life. But his past will not desert him so easily.

Why I Love It:
Anchored by Paul Muni’s gut-wrenching performance, Mervyn LeRoy’s socially outraged “Gang” is based on real-life escapee Robert Elliott Burns’s Depression-era memoirs. In fact, LeRoy’s gritty, unflinching depiction of the sadistic brutality of chain gangs proved so unpopular in Georgia, where the practice was perfected, that the state’s governor banned the film! Burns himself helped out with the script, and was eventually pardoned after the film’s release. Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1933, “Chain Gang” set the bar high for future prison movies, and its influence, which extends down to “Cool Hand Luke,” can’t be overstated.

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  • Jerru

    Neal Gabler saluted Paul Muni as a great actor in tonight’s offerering “Angel On My Shoulder,” a weak feel-good fantssy, with a superior cast, a careless director and a star who won’t give anything less than a great performance. But seriously, aside from the talented Brando who never cared to stretch himself or develop as an artist, the gifted Newman who did stretch himself, but who cares about Mr. Bridge. We want to be moved by the hustler, then charmed by the comic hustlers, Butch and the Sting man. Hollywood stars are personnas, not actors. Alec Guinness was a real actor: a mousey bank clerk, then an insane bank robber, a prissy old garden editor, and a tough Scots sergeant-major, big, brawny and ruthless. Guiness is a different man every time. He’s the best screen actor of my time.
    Uta Hagen on the stage could inhabit a role completely. Hollywood movie stars don’t do that.We want to see Cary Grant and James Stewart do Cary Grant and James Stewart every time. Most of the smart ones develop two masks–a comic and a dramatic one. Even Clark Gable had his reliable shtick, and he was splendid at them. But it’s our second tier actors who actually try out new characters–Walter Huston as Sam Dodsworth and the old coot in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. George C. Scott?Too few roles. Perhaps Lon Chaney in his silent films–I could have sworn I heard him speak in “He Who Gets Slapped.” Erich von Stroheim in his silent roles, and in Grand Illusion, Five Graves To Cairo, and the quiet soulful eyed butler in Sunset Boulevard. If you put a gun up against my head and insist that I spit out a result that meets all this:Hollywood–Movie star–different performances, maybe it would be Duke Mantee, the vulnerable fugitive in High Sierra, Rick in Casablanca, Captain Queeg, the gold prespector in Sierra Madre, torn to pieces by greed and terror and Mister Morgan in The African Queen–oh, and Sam Spade and the harassed trucker in They Drive By Night and Philip Marlowe playing an inquisitive little bookworm in The Big Sleep And he did Bugs Bunny so well for years. It would have to be Bogart.