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.