20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

Tommy Connors (Spencer Tracy) is a big shot gangster and when he’s sentenced to time in Sing Sing, he expects to be as much of a big shot in prison as he is out of prison.  He arrives to a crowd of photographers and his lawyer friend Joe Finn (Louis Calhern) tries to bribe warden Paul Long (Arthur Byron) to make things easy for Tommy.  But Paul is one warden who can’t be bought.  Tommy thinks he’s going to call all the shots and is determined to not be broken, but he quickly finds out the warden is even tougher.  When Tommy doesn’t want to wear the uniform, he gets sent to work in the ice house without the warm uniform.  And when Tommy says he refuses to work, the warden sticks him in isolation until he’s begging to work.  When Tommy finally does cave, he eventually becomes a model prisoner and even backs out of being part of an escape attempt.

One day, a telegram arrives for Tommy informing him that his girlfriend Fay (Bette Davis) has been seriously hurt.  Luckily for Tommy, he has built enough trust with the warden that the warden is willing to let him out on his honor just for one day so he can go see Fay.  Tommy gives his word that he’ll come back if it’s the last thing he does.  What Tommy doesn’t know is that his old pal Joe Finn is the one responsible for Fay’s injuries.  Tommy and Finn get into a fight and Fay grabs a gun that’s nearby and shoots Finn.  Even though he’s innocent, he knows he’s in big trouble, so he panics and tries to make a break for it.  The warden is lambasted by the media, but eventually Tommy decides to turn himself in and is put on death row.  When Fay recovers, she tries to tell the truth about what happened, but it’s of no help.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing is much more of a Spencer Tracy movie than it is a Bette Davis movie and he is fantastic in it.  I haven’t seen very many of Spencer’s early movies, so this really was a treat for me to see.  This movie also came pretty early in Bette’s career and is clearly from that era when Warner Brothers didn’t know what to do with her.  Although she’s fine in it, she wasn’t used to her full potential here.  She just wasn’t meant to have her hair dyed blonde and be playing gangster’s girlfriends.  But that being said, this is one of Bette’s better early films, I’d say tied with Three on a Match as the best from her pre-Of Human Bondage era.  I really enjoyed it.  Well written, well acted, and has great direction by Michael Curtiz.  All in all, a sharp little movie.


  1. Some of her earlier films are painful to watch. Not necessarily due to her acting, but (as you said) regarding the studio system and trying to place her in a mould she would *never* fit in. TCM showed “The Working Man” (1933) earlier in the day, and even though she’s still dyed blonde, her performance improves by a tenfold. Probably due to the confidence boost from Mr. George Arliss. Loved both films! Great entry. 🙂

    1. Yeah, a lot of her early stuff really isn’t very remarkable. Bette liked to make jokes about some of the bad movies they tried sticking her in early on. But she did have a few gems like this one, Three on a Match, and Waterloo Bridge, even if she was barely in that one.

      I had wanted to record The Working Man, but somehow it completely slipped my mind when I was setting the timer for 20,000 Years. Hopefully it’ll be on again sometime.

  2. Bette works really well w/Spencer Tracy in this film – would have loved to see them together in more movies – what a powerhouse team they would have made!

    1. It really is too bad that they didn’t work together again later on, they could have done some pretty great work together. But it is interesting to see two of the greatest actors of all time working together when both of them were in the “up and coming” stage of their careers.

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