I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) Review

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang  Director: Mervyn Leroy (1932)

IAmaFugitivefromaChainGang

★★★★☆

Sergeant James Allen (Paul Muni) returns home from World War I where he quickly falls into the life of a grifter. He struggles to adjust back to civilian life until his mother and brother (who is a minister) secure him his old job at a factory in New Jersey. However, Allen’s true passion is for engineering. He says he longs to work with his hands in construction. He leaves his family and travels around the country from Boston to New Orleans looking for work. He becomes a vagrant as a he travels from city to city. Eventually, he meets a man (presumably in Georgia, though the film never explicitly identifies the state) and the man offers to buy him a hamburger. Upon arrival, this strange man forces Allen to rob the cash register at gun point until the police show up and Allen tries to flee but he is caught. The unknown man is killed in a shootout. James Allen is then imprisoned and sent to work on a notorious chain gang somewhere in the Southern United States, where black Americans are separated from white Americans.

After weeks of harsh labor and brutal beatings, he witnesses a friend complete his sentence and leave the camp. Allen then devises a plan wherein one of the larger black prisoners helps him bend the chains on his legs with his hammer. James then makes a visit to the restroom in the bushes for two minutes and escapes. Allen is chased but not caught and he flees to Chicago where he assumes a new name, reversing his old name to “Allen James,” and he establishes a prominent reputation after years of hard work as an engineering laborer, once his dream job. His landlord falls in love with him and finds out about his secret. Although he does not love her, she blackmails him after discovering his troubled past and they get married. Years later, when Allen falls in love with someone new, she reports him to the authorities and he is offered a plea bargain if he willingly returns to do 90 days of work while they complete his paperwork in good faith. Allen is promised a comfortable desk job, but instead he is returned to an even more dangerous chain gang and his plea bargain is repeatedly refused.

Irate, Allen and a friend, escape the chain gang again by stealing a truck. In the escape, his friend dies, but Allen remains on the lam for than a year before he suddenly reappears one night with his lover. He only visits briefly to say goodbye as he must continually keep moving. When she asks how he will survive, Allen says he will have to steal, and the film fades to black.

This haunting film, based on the true story of Robert Elliott Burns, is an early thriller produced with the intention of exposing the harshness of southern chain gang prisons in the early 20th century. Starring Paul Muni, already famous for his portrayal of Tony in Scarface: The Shame of the Nation which was released during the same year, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang was nominated for three Academy Awards.

In truth, this film is unforgettable. Paul Muni gives a tremendous performance as the indictment of Georgia chain gangs is striking. Predictably, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang was banned in Georgia and its release was followed by a libel lawsuit from the warden of a Georgia chain gang. Upon its release, Georgia officials actually discovered the whereabouts of the true escapee Robert Elliott Burns and he was arrested, but the governor of New Jersey refused to extradite him to Georgia. Burns had been hired as a technical consultant on the film under the assumed name of “Robert M. Crane” in order to protect his continued anonymity.

The Idea of Revenge in the Iliad and the Odyssey

In both the Iliad and the Odyssey we encounter vengeance exacted by the protagonists.

In the Iliad, a poem explicitly about the “rage” or “wrath” of Achilles, we discover the rage that follows from the sorrow for the death of a loved one. In Books XV and XVI, the beloved companion, Patroclus, is killed by Hector of Troy who strips the beautiful armor of Achilles from his body. The Trojans proceed to defile and abuse the body of Patroclus. Upon hearing this news, Achilles is overcome with grief and sorrow, soon followed by rage -a desire to exact revenge upon Hector. His motives are guided by a will for requital. He longs to inflict an equal or greater amount of suffering on Hector. As a warrior, Achilles knows only vengeance, not justice. He is not governed by laws, or nomos, but rather justice belongs to the stronger man. Notably, the victory in the war to conquer Troy does not go to “swift-footed” Achilles, but instead to “long-enduring” Odysseus who devises the famous wooden horse plot to bring destruction to Troy.

However, in the Odyssey we discover vengeance of a similar kind. After 20 long years, Odysseus returns home from his ventures to rocky Ithaca where a cohort of suitors live in his palace, eat his food, and bathe themselves in excess and luxury hoping to court Penelope, his wife. Although, like Achilles, Odysseus is furious with rage, he cloaks himself in disguise as an old beggar. He tells false tales of his adventures:

“Falsehoods all,
but he gave his falsehoods all the ring of truth” (Book XIX 235-236)

Even to his close comrades and loyal supporters, he remains disguised. Revealing oneself is dangerous, threatening to elude the enduring qualities of the king of Ithaca. Even to his own wife, Odysseus’s identity stays hidden until the opportune moment of revelation when he violently destroys the suitors in a bloodbath.

Unlike Achilles, Odysseus has tact. His guile separates him from the wrathful warrior, who is left vulnerable by his exposed heel. Odysseus, on the other hand, is careful not to risk his enduring name by leaving any part of his plot open to exposure. Unlike in the Iliad, where the audience feels sorrow for the death of Hector as well as Patroclus, in the Odyssey we are gratified by the revenge exacted on the suitors. The Homeric decision to introduce the audience to both sides of the Trojan war, taking us both behind the walls of Priam and also into the tents of the Achaeans, is characteristically different from the one-sided poem about “a man” that is revealed in the Odyssey. We are given a clear hero in the Odyssey, like Orestes in in his triumphant return, Odysseus reclaims his throne and exacts his vengeance.

Fourth Academy Awards (1931)

The Fourth Academy Awards ceremony for motion pictures was held at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. A young Jackie Cooper, nominated for Best Actor, memorably fell asleep during the ceremony. He was nine year old. For the ceremony, the Academy recognized films released from August 1930 and July 1931. Cimarron won three awards, including Outstanding Production, later called Best Picture.

Outstanding Production: Cimarron (1931)

Best Director: Norman Taurog for Skippy (1931)

Best Actor: Lionel Barrymore for A Free Soul (1931)

Best Actress: Marie Dressler for Min and Bill (1931)

Cimarron (1931) Review

Cimarron (1931) Director: Wesley Ruggles

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★★☆☆☆

In my view, Cimarron is a boring film loaded with tired clichés and spotty acting. As a major award-winner, the fourth to win Best Picture, Cimarron is one of the earliest in a long line of movies, once honored by the Academy in their day, but now are mostly forgotten. It is a testament to the flawed nature of these awards and their self-proclaimed prestige. If I had the opportunity to do it over, I would not have seen this film and would not recommend it. Watching it is like slogging through a long, droning soap opera. Interestingly enough, Cimarron was not a financial success in 1931, but it was somehow critically lauded. At least the great composer Max Steiner completed the score!

Based on Edna Ferber’s 1930 popular novel of the same name, Cimarron wound up being RKO studio’s most expensive film to date (you can also read my reflections on Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel So Big here). Cimarron was the first film to receive more than six academy award nominations and it was the first “western-esque” movie to win Best Picture. It was filmed on a large ranch in 1930 outside Los Angeles.

The plot follows a young man named Yancey Cravat (played by Richard Dix, an early film star best known for this role) during the Oklahoma land rush. It trails his adventures as he falls in love and marries a young woman named Sabra (played by Hollywood Golden Age actress, Irene Dunne). Yancey is tricked by a prostitute named Dixie (played by silent film star Estelle Taylor) so he moves his family to a small fictional town called Osage, an unruly place in its early pioneer days. The town grows due to the oil boom and the controversial presence of the Cherokee causes friction as Westward expansion continues. Yancey, the main character, starts a muckraking newspaper but he becomes restless. They have children together and get involved in local politics until Yancey abandons his wife and children in search of new adventures. In the end, Yancey and Sabra are briefly reunited before he dies.

Click here to return to my survey of the Best Picture Winners.