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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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