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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)


I am a good yet somehow not-that-compelling film.
I am a good yet somehow not-that-compelling film.

Genre: Crime Drama 

Starring: Paul Muni (Scarface (1932) The Life of Emile Zola), Glenda Farrell (Mystery of the Wax Museum • Gold Diggers of 1935)

Directed By: Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar • Gold Diggers of 1933)

Overview: A soldier returns from The Great War, hopeful that his experience as an engineer will allow him to pursue his dream of starting a career in construction. As he hits hard times, he finds himself accused of armed robbery and sentenced to the brutal punishment of a chain gang. He takes a chance and makes his escape, in hopes of one day making a life for himself free of his chains.

Drifting around the net, looking for an opinion similar to mine has found that very few critics share my Cool Hand Luke-warm sentiment to I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Maybe it's the occasionally awkward overzealous early 30s melodrama; maybe it's the pacing, but for as much as I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang is entertaining and dramatic, I can't say I found it to be as 'stark', 'poignant', 'powerful and uncompromising' or the 'blistering exposé' everyone is making it out to be.

This film is an adaptation of Robert Elliot Burns' dramatic autobiography, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang. But there are some inconsistencies. Put simply, if it were selected for Oprah's Book Club, she'd have shattered it into a million little pieces then publicly apologized for his lies.

Yes, in its day this still-classic film did cause a good many things to happen. Lawmakers in the South were made to re-think the bleak conditions that chain gang inmates faced as well as considering if such punishment fit their crimes. The warden portrayed in the film, J. Harold Hardy, sued Warner Bros. for 'vicious, untrue and false attacks' and the original book's autobiographer, Robert Elliot Burns, who had been re-arrested since the film was released, was not extradited to Georgia because of his famous circumstances. The popularity of the book and film are said to be pivotal in abolishing the chain gang, though Georgia was the last to do it, in 1955. These are, without a doubt the sorts of societal accomplishments that 99% of films could never hope to claim. Still though, film it remains, and today, that usually means entertainment.

I can say that the sound work and cinematography is of astounding quality for a film made during the transition from talkies. I can agree that the 20 year time line was an enjoyable plot device, and that without a doubt the escape attempts were terrific action, and that and the double-crosses were great drama. But there's just something about I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang that irked me. I've always been forgiving of melodramatic acting, especially given my penchant for Silent Film, but with so many close-ups on our hero's eye-popping visage, I couldn't help but begin to expect Disney class boinging noises. Hopefully Muni doesn't pull that crap in Scarface.

As contextually important I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang is a solid choice. But in going with one of the original taglines: Warner Bros.' defiant masterpiece will have conscience-stricken America talking in its sleep!

Not quite.


Chain? Check. Gang? Check!
Chain? Check. Gang? Check!


Performance: 7 Cinematography: 8 Script: 7 Plot: 8 Mood: 7

Overall Rating: 74% (Walk, Don't Run)

Who knows, maybe I'm just not one for Chain Gang films. One thing I can be pleased with is that this film led me to find a very interesting looking read: Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934, which I ordered today and am very much looking forward to receiving very soon.

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