Mervyn LeRoy

Pre-Code Essentials: I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang


After coming home from World War I, James Allen (Paul Muni) has a hard time readjusting to civilian life. His old job bores him and he has a hard time finding work in a new field. He drifts from city to city, looking for any work he can get. Completely broke, he unwittingly ends up being an accomplice in a restaurant hold-up and police assume he really was responsible for the robbery. He’s sentenced to serve ten years on a chain gang.

Life on the chain gang is excessively brutal and James feels he has no other choice but to make an escape attempt. After successfully escaping, he makes his way to Chicago and becomes a great success in the construction business. But when he rents a room in a boarding house from Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell), she falls in love with him and uses his past to blackmail him into marrying her. Marie later sends James up the river again when he asks her for a divorce so he can marry Helen (Helen Vinson) instead.

Authorities offer James the chance to be pardoned if he comes back and serves 90 days. Wanting to move on with his life, James agrees, but later realizes he was never going to be pardoned and it was all a sham to get him to finish his sentence. His only hope for freedom is to make yet another escape.

My Thoughts

Do I ever love this movie. It’s a little bit slow in the beginning, but if you stick with it for just a little while, it takes off like a shot and brings you along for a wild ride. At its best,  I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang has moments that really ought to be considered some of the most thrilling and most suspenseful moments in film history. Everybody should see this movie at least once in their lives.

The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang doesn’t really have one definitive pre-code moment. It’s major pre-code factor is its message.

Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Film makers in the pre-code era had the freedom to produce movies that had a hard-hitting social commentary message and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is the ultimate example of that type of movie. Wild Boys of the Road was a social commentary type of movie and Gold Diggers of 1933 had its political moments, but Fugitive is a rare breed of movie that actually brought about societal change. Fugitive is widely credited with putting an end to the chain gang system in the south.

Far from being a work of Hollywood fiction, Fugitive is based on the true story of Robert Elliot Burns who, unlike Paul Muni’s character, actually did work with two other men to rob a grocery store for a little over $5.00. Although the movie never specifically mentions the chain gang being in Georgia, that is where Burns was sentenced and Warner Brothers was sued by a chain gang warden and by the Georgia Prison Commission. Warner Brothers won those court battles.

The movie is a largely accurate depiction of his experiences so between the success of the movie and the publication of Burns’ autobiography, he was able to find protection in New Jersey thanks to a sympathetic governor. He was officially pardoned in 1945 and was able to live the last ten years of his life as a free man.

East Side, West Side (1949)

Brandon (James Mason) and Jessie Bourne (Barbara Stanwyck) are a very happily married couple and part of Manhattan’s elite.  Things weren’t always so happy for them, though.  Brandon has a history of infidelity, but Jessie is the only woman he loves and he’s determined to leave the past behind.  All is going well for them until one night, he visits a nightclub and finds out Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner), his former girlfriend, is back in town.  She wants to pick things up with him again and Brandon fights hard to resist her advances.

While at the club, Brandon ends up getting into a fight with Isabel’s date for the night.  Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse) witnesses the fight and tries to help Brandon since she respects Jessie and doesn’t want to see the incident splashed across the society page.  Sure enough, though, the story makes the paper and some of Jessie’s friends are worried about what Isabel’s return could mean for their marriage.  Jessie goes to meet Rosa to thank her for helping Brandon and gives her a ride to the airport so she can pick up her boyfriend Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin).

It just so happens that Mark is the guest of honor at a party being thrown by some of Jessie and Brandon’s friends.  But just before the party, Isabel convinces Brandon to come see her at her apartment.  Although he has every intention of ending things with her once and for all, he ends up staying so long that Jessie has to go to the party alone.  But while at the party, she gets to know Mark some more and he begins to fall in love with her.

The next day, Jessie gets a call from Isabel and goes to her apartment to confront her.  Isabel swears up and down that she’s the one he really wants, and Jessie begins to worry she might be right, but then she gets a call from Brandon telling her that Isabel has been murdered.  Naturally, Brandon gets brought in for questioning, and even though he’s cleared in the matter, the incident forces Jessie to make up her mind whether or not she wants to stay with Brandon.

I was surprised that East Side, West Side got pretty mediocre reviews on my cable guide and the TCM website, because I really enjoyed it.  If it had been made with a lesser cast, I don’t think I would have been nearly as good, but everybody was completely on point here it absolutely made the movie.  I loved Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin together.  Ava Gardner was one deliciously conniving other woman; she truly revels in making you hate Isabel.  Even Cyd Charisse was good, which might be surprising to a lot of people since this isn’t a musical.

My only complaint was that I was getting bored during the scenes where Van Heflin puts on his detective hat to figure out who killed Isabel.  Those scenes didn’t seem to fit in very well with the rest of the movie.  It was almost like they came out of some other movie.  First it was a drama about marriage, then all of a sudden it turned into a murder mystery, and then it went right back to being a drama again.

But that issue aside, I was very surprised by just how good East Side, West Side was.  Definitely keep an eye out for this one, I don’t think it really gets the credit it deserves.

Mister Roberts (1955)

Captain Morton (James Cagney) may officially be the captain of the USS Reluctant, but as far as the crew is concerned, Lieutenant Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda) is the man in charge.  Captain Morton is very strict and routinely denies the crew their small rewards over very minor infractions.  Doug, on the other hand, is much kinder and often ignores the Captain’s orders to make the crew’s life more bearable.  However, the USS Reluctant isn’t seeing any of the action of World War II and Doug would much rather be on active duty than be stuck on that boat.  His closest friend Doc (William Powell) tries to reassure him that his being on the ship means the world to the crew, but that doesn’t stop him from requesting a transfer.

In order for Doug to get a transfer, Captain Morton would have to agree to it and Morton knows that he would look bad if Doug were to leave so he refuses to sign his letters.  Captain Morton hasn’t even let the crew have leave in a very long time, so behind the Captain’s back, Doug bribes an official to get the crew granted one night of leave.  When the Captain finds out about it, he threatens to deny the whole crew their leave unless Doug promises to stop undermining him and to stop requesting transfers.  Doug reluctantly agrees, and the crew is mystified to see Doug suddenly playing into the Captain’s hand.

The crew thinks Doug is just gunning to get a promotion and starts giving him the cold shoulder.  But on the night of V-E Day, Doug listens to a speech on the radio that inspires him to stand up to the Captain.  While the Captain confronts Doug in his office, the intercom is accidentally left on and the whole crew finds out the price Doug paid for them to have their leave.  To show their gratitude, the crew decides to get Doug the transfer he wants so badly.  Before he leaves for Okinawa, the crew presents Doug with their own special award and he finally realizes just how much he really meant to everybody.

With Doug off in Okinawa, Frank Pulver (Jack Lemmon) takes over Doug’s old position on the ship. Frank is pretty intimidated by the Captain, so he can’t bring himself to go against the Captain the way Doug used to.  But when the crew gets word that Doug has been killed, Frank finally finds the nerve to stand up to the Captain.

Genre-wise, Mister Roberts is really in a league of its own.  It deals with World War II, but there aren’t any big battle scenes.  It’s got comedy, but it’s not a farce like Dr. Strangelove.  And for all its lighthearted moments, when it was serious, it was very heartfelt and touching.  It’s very hard to combine all of those genres and do all of them well, but Mister Roberts managed to pull it off.

The part of Doug Roberts is such a perfect Henry Fonda role.  He’s that “everyman fighting for what’s right” type of character that Fonda is best remembered for playing.  As good as Fonda is, Jack Lemmon really steals the show at the end of the movie.  His performance in the scene where he reads Doug’s letters aloud to the crew is so genuinely moving.  He’s great in the rest of the movie, too, but boy did he ever hit it out of the park in that scene.

I love everything about Mister Roberts.  I don’t know why on Earth I put off seeing it for such a long time.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Like many men returning from World War I, James Allen (Paul Muni) finds himself a changed man. He has a factory job to come home to, but he can’t deal with the environment anymore and decides to leave home and get into the construction business.  He travels from city to city in search of work and eventually finds himself in Georgia.  One night, he meets a fellow drifter and the two of them stop to get a hamburger.  James unwittingly finds himself being part of a robbery when the other drifter robs the restaurant.  Police shoot down the robber, but capture James and pin the whole thing on him and sentence him to ten years on a chain gang.  Life on the chain gang is horrifically brutal and finds himself surrounded by hardened criminals.  The risk involved with making a break for it seems worth it to James and successfully escapes.

Once he makes it to Chicago, he finally has some luck getting a construction job.  He starts out as a laborer, but he proves to have some good ideas and quickly works his way up in the company, even becoming a respected member of the community.  He starts seeing his landlord Marie (Glenda Farrell), but Marie has stronger feelings for him that he does for her.  When he’s about to move into a bigger place, she reveals that she knows he’s a fugitive and blackmails him into marrying her.  Their marriage certainly isn’t a happy one.  While he’s out working, she spends money left and right and cheats on James.  He does find some happiness when he meets and falls in love with Helen (Helen Vinson).  But Marie isn’t willing to divorce him so he can marry Helen and tells the police who he is.

The authorities in Georgia make a deal with James where he will be pardoned if he comes back and serves 90 more days.  James just wants to clear his name and put that stage of his life behind him so he gladly agrees.  But it turns out that this plan was all a big lie to get him to come back to Georgia and completely finish his sentence and his pardon is repeatedly denied.  James can’t bear the thought of spending nearly a decade more of his life paying for something he didn’t do and makes a break for it again.  This time, he steals a truck with a fellow convict and once they cross a bridge, they blow it up so the guards can’t chase them.  Once again, James is back on the lam.  A year later, he makes his way to see Helen one more time to say goodbye before resuming his life on the run.

Yesterday I said that Heroes for Sale was one of the greatest social commentary type of pre-codes, but I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is the ultimate social commentary pre-code. It was based on the memoirs of Robert Elliott Burns, whose story is largely kept in tact in the movie version.  The biggest difference between the movie version and the true story is that Burns was initially arrested for being one of three men who held up a grocery store for $5.81 when they were desperate for money to eat.  Warner Brothers was hit by a slew of libel lawsuits by the state of Georgia over this film and the movie was even completely banned in Georgia.  Burns was able to sneak his way over to Hollywood to be on set for some of the production, but had to leave after a few weeks because the risk of being re-arrested was too great.  He was arrested again in Newark, New Jersey not long after the movie was released, but the movie was such a success and so many people were questioning the validity of the criminal justice system because of it that extraditing Burns would have only resulted in even more outrage.  Burns was eventually pardoned in 1945 and chain gangs being phased out is a direct result of Burns’ memoirs and this film.

Not only is Fugitive one of my favorite pre-codes, it’s one of my favorite movies in general.  Very taut and gripping.  It starts out a little slow in the beginning, but once the action starts, it takes off like a shot and doesn’t slow down again.  There are some moments in here that rival Hitchcock movies in terms of suspense.  The scene where James first escapes from the chain gang and hides from the cops by hiding underwater is one of the most tense moments I have ever seen in a movie.  Paul Muni does a brilliant job playing James Allen.  This movie would be amazing enough if it were a fictional story, but the most astonishing thing about it is that it was a true story.  Everybody should see I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang at least once in their lives.

Without Reservations (1946)

Kit Madden (Claudette Colbert) is one of the most celebrated writers in America.  Everyone is talking about her novel “Here is Tomorrow” and it’s in the process of being turned into a movie starring Cary Grant and Lana Turner.  But just as she’s about to get on a train to California, she finds out Cary Grant isn’t able to do the movie after all.  Even though the producer thinks they should try to find an unknown actor to take his place, Kit had her heart set on Cary Grant.  She thinks nobody else could play that part better, until she looks up and finds herself sitting across from Rusty (John Wayne) and Dink (Don DeFore), a couple of Marines.  She realizes that Rusty would be a perfect choice for the movie.

She strikes up a conversation with Rusty and Dink and really hits it off with both of them.  There’s just one little problem — they’ve read her book and aren’t as fond of it as everyone else is.  So she tells them her name is Kit Klotch, tries to defend her book, and sends a telegram to the producer to tell him she’s found someone to take Cary Grant’s place.  While at a stop in Chicago, she gets word back saying that she should stay with Rusty and Dink.  But when she tries to keep up with them, she misses her train and loses her baggage.  When she gets on Rusty and Dink’s train, she has to pretend she’s lost her ticket and has to ride in the coach section.  But Rusty and Dink have her join them for dinner in the dining car and the three of them have a grand time. At least they have fun until Kit is accused of stealing another woman’s orchid and she gets thrown off the train.  But by then, she, Rusty, and Dink have become so close that they get off the train with her.

The three of them start walking and keep on walking until they meet someone with a car they’re willing to sell.  Kit buys the car and they start driving to California.  At one point, they stop, and Rusty comes onto Kit.  Kit is caught a little bit off guard by this and Rusty is hurt by her reaction.  But when the car starts overheating and the three of them have to stop at a ranch, the rancher’s daughter immediately takes a shine to Rusty.  Kit can’t stand seeing Rusty with another woman, so she tells the rancher that Rusty and Dink aren’t really Marines and their uniforms were stolen so that he would make them leave.  As they leave the ranch, Kit admits what she’s done, but surprisingly, Rusty and Dink aren’t mad.  In fact, Rusty is happy because she’s finally admitted her feelings for him.  Later when they need a hotel, Kit secretly tries to use her famous name to get them a room.  But when someone notices a newspaper article that had erroneously been printed early saying that Kit was in Hollywood that day, she winds up in jail.  When her movie’s producer comes to bail her out, Rusty and Dink find out who she really is and why she started following them, and Rusty wants nothing to do with her.  Kit and Rusty go their separate ways, but eventually, he decides he doesn’t want to be away from her anymore.

When I saw that Without Reservations involved John Wayne in a Claudette Colbert comedy, I was definitely intrigued.  This seemed so different from how I typically think of John Wayne that I couldn’t resist checking it out.  I certainly wasn’t disappointed, though.  Without Reservations is such an adorable movie.  Now those are words I never thought I’d find myself saying about a John Wayne movie!  Claudette, John, and Don DeFore made a great trio and were simply delightful to watch.  With a lesser group of key players, this movie probably wouldn’t have been as enjoyable.  And it was fun watching for cameos from Jack Benny, Mervyn LeRoy, Raymond Burr, and Cary Grant.  I’m always happy to see Cary Grant pop up in a movie, even if it is only for a minute!  It’s a great movie, I’m definitely glad I decided to watch this one today.

They Won’t Forget (1937)

In one small Southern town, the day starts out looking like it’s going to be just another typical Confederate Memorial Day.  For students at the local business college, this means they get a half day of classes and Mary Clay (Lana Turner) has plans to go get a soda with a friend before meeting her date for the day.  But when they get to the soda shop, Mary realizes she left her compact at school, so she goes back to get it.  When she gets to the school, she finds her compact in the classroom, but doesn’t come back out of the building alive.  When a janitor finds her murdered corpse in the basement, the town is rocked by scandal.

For District Attorney Andy Griffin (Claude Rains), he sees this case as an opportunity for him to land the Senate seat he’s been eyeing.  He knows that the whole town wants Mary’s murderer to be caught and if he’s the one catch him, he’s sure to be elected to the Senate.  Andy is so determined to get someone, anyone, behind bars that he’s not terribly concerned about having hard evidence, circumstantial is good enough for him.  He sets his sights on Mary’s teacher Robert Hale (Edward Norris), who is originally from New York.  All the evidence that Andy has against Robert is pretty flimsy at best, but Andy uses the media to work the entire country into a frenzy.  Even though the country as a whole is pretty divided on the whole issue, virtually the entire town is convinced Hale is guilty.  The few people who could stand up for Hale back down because they can’t bear the thought of what would happen to them if Hale went free.  In the end, Hale is sentenced to death.  Hale’s only hope is the governor, who recognizes how terribly the trial was carried out, and commutes his sentence to life in prison.  People were so furious over the governor’s decision that a mob goes after Hale to enact some vigilante justice.  Hale dies at the hands of the angry mob.  In the final scene, Hale’s widow Sybil (Gloria Dickson) goes to see Andrew and makes a speech to him about how he’s the real murderer.

They Won’t Forget features a couple of memorable performances from Lana Turner and Claude Rains.  This was Lana Turner’s film debut, and even though she has a small part, she makes the most of her time.  Her Southern accent wasn’t the greatest, but she did have a lot of screen presence.  Claude Rains made quite a believable corrupt politician.  I really didn’t care much about Gloria Dickson’s character throughout the movie, but in her final scene, she came in and completely nailed it with her powerful speech to Andy.  The writing is an absolutely scathing look at small town politics, prejudices, and media manipulation.  It was probably the most scathing indictment of the justice system to come out after I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.  Very bleak, but very compelling.  They Won’t Forget was a perfect name for this movie because it really is pretty unforgettable!

Three on a Match (1932)

3 on a Match 1932 Ann Dvorak Joan Blondell Bette Davis

Even as children, it was clear that Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell), Vivian Kirkwood (Ann Dvorak), and Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis) were on three very different paths in life.  Ruth was always very serious about doing well in school, graduated top of the class, and grew up to be a stenographer.  Mary was a bit more rebellious and even spent some time in a reform school, but grew up and went into show business.  Vivian, on the other hand, was the popular girl and went on to marry Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), a rich lawyer, and become a housewife.

After their time together in school, years go by and the girls fall out of touch.  But they end up meeting up again for lunch and Vivian reveals that even though it looks like she’s got it made, she’s really quite bored with her life.  To add some spice to her life, she takes a cruise, where she meets Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot).  But before the ship even leaves, she takes her son and runs off with Michael.  While Vivian takes up a hard-partying lifestyle full of booze, cocaine, and parties, quality parenting gets put on the back burner.  Police investigate their disappearances, but the only person who finds them is Mary.  Mary tries to talk some sense into her, but when she won’t listen, she goes to see Robert to tell him where they are.  He takes his son back, divorces Vivian, and goes on to marry Mary.

Meanwhile, Vivian has hit rock bottom.  She’s run out of money and she and Michael owe $2,000 to a trio of gangsters, Harve (Humphrey Bogart), Dick, and Ace.  Michael goes to Robert and threatens to go public about Mary’s criminal background, but Robert isn’t fazed by him and throws him out of his office.  Instead, Michael hatches a plan to kidnap Mary’s son and hold him hostage.  The whole ordeal makes Mary realize just how far she’s fallen and, in order to save her son, takes some lipstick, writes a note on her nightgown, and throws herself from the window.

Three on a Match is one wild ride!  I just love it.  The cast is really outstanding.  This is one of Bette Davis’ early movies and she wasn’t really being used to her full potential yet.  Joan Blondell was good, but the real star was Ann Dvorak.  She did a spectacular job playing a junkie.  When she was supposed to be strung out, she was so jittery and nervous, it must have been really hard to get that just right.  This was also was also an early appearance from Humphrey Bogart.  In fact, it was the first time he played a gangster and he certainly showed a lot of promise in that type of role.  Three on a Match is quite possibly the ultimate example of a movie that packs a lot into a short amount of time.  It’s only 63 minutes long, and doesn’t waste a minute of it!  A fantastic cast, great performances, it’s well written, and it’s all packed into just over an hour.  What’s not to like here?