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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Few films can be said to change laws or the way people think, but 1932's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is one of the rare movies about a social issue that actually made a difference. It put national pressure on the state of Georgia to reform its chain gangs, which were derived from slave labor, and legislators actually buckled. Ironically, for a tool of torture that cinema helped curb, the chain gang has since become a cinematic staple to show how tough prison life is. And yet for a film that brought about change, it wouldn't be as effective if it wasn't also entertaining. Paul Muni stars as James Allen (based on the real story of Robert E. Burns), a World War I veteran who returns home hoping to find work in construction. But times are tough, and he bounces around the country looking for work. Hitting bottom, he goes with another man to a restaurant hoping for a free meal, only to have his companion rob the place. Allen did nothing more than take the money (which he was forced to do at gunpoint), but he's put in a chain gang for stealing five dollars and change. Once there he finds that the food is terrible, the work is hard, and any small insolence or out-of-line behavior results in a beating. Facing years of this sort of work, Allen has another inmate break his chains so he can escape. After getting additional help from some ex-cons, he's on his way, successfully avoiding his pursuers. Having hoped for construction work before he went to jail, Allen now finds himself climbing the corporate ladder — the only snag is that his landlady Marie (Glenda Farrell) finds out his terrible secret and forces him to marry her. Eventually he meets a girl he falls for, but Marie wants to hold on to him and threatens to call the authorities. Allen won't relent, so he gets arrested and is asked nicely to return to jail — strictly as a formality. But due to his infamy for having escaped and made good, and for what he said about the chain gang system, he's sent right back into the thick of it. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was directed by studio journeyman Mervyn LeRoy, and (to put it nicely) LeRoy's a director who's never inspired a cult following. In point of fact, LeRoy could be considered a hack, but within his studio work there are some gems, with this and Little Caesar (1931) the standouts. Here he's got a solid story and a compelling leading man in Paul Muni, and LeRoy shows a great panache for the melodrama. It also ends with one of film's best closing lines and sequences, as Muni is enveloped by darkness and explains how he gets by, having become the criminal the system was trying to beat out of him. In it's time, it was a powerful statement against the chain gang system; today, it's just great old fashioned melodrama. Warner Home Video's DVD release, part of their "Controversial Classics Collection," presents the film in a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with DD 1.0 audio. Extras include a commentary by Richard B. Jewell, the Radiophone musical comedy revue "20,000 Cheers from the Chain Gang" (20 min.), and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—DSH



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