Thursday, June 15, 2017


(Post 4 of 20)

 Paul Muni eyes the other convicts in
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Robert Burns's book I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, about his escape from a chain gang and subsequent success story and exposé of the brutal prison system has it's antecedents in Victor Hugo's classic book Les Miserables, the story of the imprisonment of an innocent man. The movie based on Burn's book, I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, is the story of James Allen (played by Paul Muni) and his unfortunate plight. The film is one of the several prison/crime dramas that Warner Brothers released during the 30's and deals successfully with several separate issues: Life struggles that can come after military service,  pursuing the American dream, the injustices of the penal system, and how an innocent man can be a victim of a flawed justice system. The influence of this film is also unmistakable in Preston Sturges classic comedy, Sullivan's Travels. We can also see the influence of Chain Gang in later films such as O Brother Where Art Thou, Cool Hand Luke, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. 

My favorite line in the movie is James's exchange with a barber after he he almost gets caught by the authorities after his shave and haircut.
Barber: How was it. close enough? (Referring to his shave)
James: Plenty! (Not referring to his shave)

Censorship alert: I was surprised when a character uses the abbreviation S. O. L. Can you say shit in a pre-Hays censorship code film even in abbreviation? There's also a scene where James is clearly being serviced in a brothel. You go, 1932!

And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to...Glenda Farrell
Saucy, sharp-tongued second rung Hollywood leading lady Glenda Farrell is best know to me from The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), where she played the fast talking reporter who uncovers the goings on in the forerunner to the more famous House of Wax film. She later played the same type of character in the 30's and 40's film series Torchy Blane. Her most famous role might be as Olga in Little Caesar.

Paul Muni prefers his book on Civil Engineering to the charms of Glenda Farrell
in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
Glenda plays the defacto leading lady in Chain Gang, but she isn't the fun loving likable dame here she often played. She's an opportunistic tart who takes advantage of James Allen at every turn in this film and is most unsympathetic.

Later in her career, Ms. Farrell, made a lot of television appearances, including a guest role on The Fugitive in 1963, bringing our "escaped prisoner on the run" theme full circle.

Glenda Farrell in The Mystery of the Wax Museum


  1. This is a surprisingly strong movie. It could only be made before the Hay's code, not just the language, but also the sympathy for the convicts. A real gem.

  2. The somber, ambiguous ending didn't exactly thrill the studio either. I give them credit for sticking with it.