Warner Brothers became the studio with a social conscience, unafraid to cast a Hollywood veneer on the problems facing society at the time. The film that cemented this reputation was the 1932 prison film, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Defiant in the face of harsh prison punishments, Paul Muni captivates our fugitive, even if Hollywood changes the true life story to garner sympathy.
Jim Allen (Muni) is a war veteran who’s returned home to discover no jobs are open to him. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time leaves Jim accused of robbery and sentenced to ten-years on a chain gang. Unable to withstand the harsh brutality within the prison Jim vows to escape.
I Am a Fugitive reverberated throughout the cinematic landscape upon release, influencing a multitude of films including, and outside of, the prison genre. I immediately found comparisons between this and both Caged (I Am a Fugitive through a female perspective) and Roaring Twenties (both depict a war veteran driven into a life of crime by lack of options). The problem of unemployment is complicated by Jim’s unwillingness to become a corporate drone. Yes, it wasn’t just Generation X uninterested in working for “The Man.” Jim wants independence, freedom, the ability to create. After fighting in the war Jim doesn’t want “to be a soldier of anything.” His mother interprets this as mental illness, as does the rest of his family who believe Jim shouldn’t be turning down opportunities to make money. However, they fail to understand the impact the last several years of war have had on these men. They’ve returned home from following orders only to be told they must become a cog in a new machine.
Jim leaves town to find himself, normally a cinematic plot device wherein grand revelations come to light. Nope, it’s all darkness from here on out as we watch Jim suffer the effects the Great Depression exhibited on the common man. When the soldiers of Jim’s company say they’ll be “reading about you in the newspapers” they’re not wrong….just not the reports they hoped for. The world fails to make it easy for Jim. He bums around looking for work to realize the world isn’t willing to help him out. Much like The Clock, the world’s kept turning while men are living and dying overseas. When Jim goes to a pawn shop to sell his war medals, he painfully discovers the remnants of other down-on-their-luck soldiers, the only thing of “value” they owned being the medals that don’t sell. For not wanting to become another cog in the machine, Jim and the returning veterans are as valuable and useful as the medals meant to glorify their actions.
Eventually, Jim meets up with a thief, played by Preston Foster and is set-up for the robbery of a diner where he becomes the eponymous fugitive on a chain gang. The situation is rather faithful to Robert Elliot Burns’ true-story of being a fugitive on a Georgia chain gang (the original title which was removed for fear of Georgia banning the movie). The concession WB made, though, was turning Jim into a hero for the common man. See, in the original story Burns did rob the diner. The punishment may have over-excessively fit the crime, but turning Jim Allen into the patron saint for the wrongly accused is misleading. When Jim enters the prison, he’s made fun of by the other inmates who’ve committed serious crimes like murder. Without Jim being an innocent character, would the audience feel the same about the brutality exacted on him? I’d say not to the extent the movie hopes for. The nature of the prison system’s been depicted in films at least once every decade, but too often it’s through outsiders perspectives or the wrongly accused because a heinous criminal would certainly deserve all the violence he gets, right?
Regardless, on its own merits the movie is a combative look at the prison experience of the 1930s. For all its attacking of the prison system, I Am a Fugitive is also an indictment against the justice system of the period, where zero tolerance and excessive force was presumed to create fear for committing crimes. When Jim is sentenced the banging of the judge’s gavel segues into the banging of the shackles on Jim’s legs, both are confining and an abuse of power. The inmates are treated no better than animals, herded on to a truck and made to work till they pass out, requiring permission for everything, even sweating. When a prison jumps out of line, they’re flogged in a sequence mimicking prison rape. Watch as Jim is told to drop his pants by the guards, the flogging being down off-screen (the lash being shown in silhouette). The other prisoners, safe for the moment, simply stare, numb to the whole thing.
Also like The Clock, time counts us down, acting as a point of reference. The calendar ticks off the days and months of Jim’s sentence, letting us feel time zoom although for Jim things aren’t moving as quickly. When prisoners are released, no one believes they’ll be out for good, and Jim’s escape sets his eventual return into motion. The “fugitive” sequence of the movie is where the impact is supposed to be felt as Jim becomes a well-respected member of the community he makes his home in, a 1930s Jean Valjean, and gets married to a blackmailing golddigger played by Glenda Farrell. The discordant melodrama doesn’t quite fit with the hard edge of the prison story. It’s there because Jim is a good guy and must find a way to fight back against an oppressive system. To reiterate, would this be the same if Jim was a murderer? The prison system, now out for revenge against Jim’s railings against the chain gang, reinforces the accusation of a broken system once they fail to keep their promise to grant Jim’s parole.
The third act climax returns us to the darkness established in the beginning, and it’s a rather unhappy ending. Jim, the good man who wanted to build bridges, becomes trapped in the world of crime, never to get out. He’s stuck hiding in the shadows, failed and turned into a criminal by a corrupt system. When he reunites with his one-time fiancee, Helen (Helen Vinson) – a woman who carries the freedom Jim dreamed about – he’s a paranoid bum, scared and alone. As he yells in the darkness that he makes his living by stealing, it’s horrific. Jim is a rat in the shadows, a Phantom outside of the opera, castigated by the government and the society at large.
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is a dark tale of penal injustice. Warner Brothers wasn’t afraid to take the dark, albeit realistic road, putting their hero in a position he’ll never get out of. The melodramatic climax clashes with the rest of the film, but overall it’s an important film to film history.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.