I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Not Rated  |   |  Crime, Drama, Film-Noir  |  19 November 1932 (USA)
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Ratings: 8.1/10 from 8,816 users  
Reviews: 347 user | 39 critic

Wrongly convicted James Allen serves in the intolerable conditions of a southern chain gang, which later comes back to haunt him.



(by), (screen play), 2 more credits »
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Nominated for 3 Oscars. Another 3 wins. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Glenda Farrell ...
Helen Vinson ...
Noel Francis ...
Barney Sykes
The Judge
Edward Ellis ...
Bomber Wells
David Landau ...
The Warden
Hale Hamilton ...
Rev. Robert Allen
Louise Carter ...
James Allen's Mother
Willard Robertson ...
Prison Board Chairman
Robert McWade ...
F.E. Ramsey
Robert Warwick ...


Having returned from fighting in World War I, James Allen doesn't want to settle into a humdrum life and decides to set off to find his fortune. He travels the length and breadth of America, working as a skilled tradesman in the construction industry. When times get tough however, he finds himself living in a shelter where an acquaintance suggests they go out for a hamburger. What the friend really has in mind is to rob the diner and Allen soon finds himself working on a chain gang with a long jail sentence. Allen manages to escape however and heads to Chicago where over several years he slowly but surely works his way up the ladder to become one of the most respected construction engineers in the city. His past catches up with him and despite protestations from civic leaders and his many friends in Chicago, he finds himself again on the chain gang. Escaping for a second time, he accepts that to survive, he must lead a life of crime. Written by garykmcd

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


Six sticks of dynamite that blasted his way to freedom... and awoke America's conscience!


Crime | Drama | Film-Noir


Not Rated | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

19 November 1932 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

I Am a Fugitive  »

Box Office


$195,845 (estimated)

Company Credits

Production Co:

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Technical Specs


(Turner library print)

Sound Mix:

(original release)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


Paul Muni also set the Warner Bros. research department on a quest to procure every available book and magazine article about the penal system. Muni also met with several California prison guards, even one who had worked in a Southern chain gang. Muni fancied the idea of meeting with a guard or warden still working in Georgia, but Warner studio executives quickly rejected his suggestion. See more »


Calendar pages flip several times in the film and it is always the same calendar even though the events of the story unfold over the course of many years. The first calendar flipping should be 1923 or 1924. The next is in 1929/30. The last flipping is likely intended to be 1930/31. In all cases, a 1932 (could be 1904, but due to the date of the film, 1932 is more likely) calendar is used. In two instances, the date flips from December to January and in both instances Jan 1 falls on the wrong day. Instead of using a 1933 calendar for January, they simply used the same 1932 calendar. See more »


[last lines]
Helen: How do you live?
James Allen: I steal.
See more »


Featured in The Brothers Warner (2007) See more »


Working All the Live-Long Day
Sung by the prisoners on the chain gang
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User Reviews

"How Do You Live?"
23 December 2001 | by (Salem, Oregon) – See all my reviews

In a society known for freedom and justice, how is that justice truly measured and meted out? When an individual's very life hinges on a verdict of innocent or guilty, is there such a thing as an objective call? Or is a person's life subject to mere perception; a subjective evaluation of `facts' assimilated through a filter of bloated egos and personal agenda? All questions that many, perhaps, would prefer not to have answered, nor indeed, even asked at all. Those who are so secure in the absolutism of our justice system that they will willingly defer to the establishment in all matters, and with a clear conscience. The `system,' after all, is infallible; or at least good enough, isn't it? Good enough, that is, when it's being tested on `someone else.' But what if that glitch in the system becomes personal? What if `you' are the one who falls victim to a miscarriage of justice, and your voice becomes impotent, grinding your pleas into so much pulp beneath the wheels of a machine to which you are nothing more than another insignificant cog? It's a situation examined in the absorbing drama, `I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang,' directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and starring Paul Muni.

James Allen (Muni) returns home from WWI to find his old job in a shoe factory awaiting him. But James is a changed man, with aspirations of doing something meaningful with his life; and he wants to put the experience he received in the Army-- in the Engineering Corps-- to use. He wants to build things-- bridges, roads-- useful things. And toward that end he sets out and scours the East Coast from north to south looking for work, but jobs are scarce. Finally, having taken to `walking the ties,' the rail leads him into St. Louis, just another out-of-work bum in the eyes of society. There he meets up with a guy named Pete (Preston Foster), who tells James he knows where they can get a hamburger as a hand-out. The trusting and somewhat naive James goes along, only to find himself on the wrong end of a stick-up gone bad.

From that point, the justice system moves swiftly, and James Allen finds himself sentenced to ten years at hard labor on a chain gang. His offense? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong guy.

Based on the autobiographical story by Robert E. Burns, and written for the screen by Sheridan Gibney and Brown Holmes, LeRoy's riveting film is an inditement of the justice system-- specifically the brutality of the chain gangs-- but also of a society too smug and filled with self-righteousness to realize how fragile and tentative the freedoms we enjoy really are. America is the greatest country in the world-- a veritable bastion of freedom-- but those who would throw out their chests while holding up the Constitution, citing whichever amendment it is that suits their personal agenda, should be made to walk a mile in the shoes of Robert Burns/James Allen. Or for a start, be required to watch this film.

Released in 1932, this film is devoid of the melodrama common to many films of this era, and instead presents the story in very realistic terms, the meaning of which is indisputable. Like Hitchcock's unnerving 1957 film, `The Wrong Man' (also based on a true story), this film is not only disconcerting, but down-right scary when you stop to consider the implications of it. It also evokes a sense of Kafka's `The Trial' (also made into a movie in 1963 by Orson Welles), but without the abstractedness; unlike `The Trial's' Joseph K., James Allen knows exactly what's happened to him and how. What he can't understand is `Why.' Nor would any rational man, betrayed by the very society in which he placed his implicit trust, understand.

Paul Muni gives a dynamic, stirring performance as James Allen, capturing all of the confusion, exasperation, pain and anguish of his inexplicable situation, all of which you can see in his expression, in his eyes and in his body language and demeanor. You feel the darkness into which he is forced to descend, and with him you share that sense of hope fading away more with each passing day. From the tension of the moment when he first attempts to `Hang it on the limb,' to what is one of the most haunting endings ever filmed, you're right there, living it with him. It's a powerful, truly memorable performance by Muni.

The supporting cast includes Helen Vinson (Helen), Noel Francis (Linda), Allen Jenkins (Barney), Berton Churchill (Judge), Edward Ellis (Bomber Wells), David Landau (Warden), Hale Hamilton (Rev. Robert Allen), Sally Blane (Alice), Louise Carter (Allen's Mother), James Bell (Red), William Le Maire (Texan), Edward Arnold (Lawyer) and Willard Robertson (Prison Commissioner). In no way does this film exaggerate the situation it depicts; it doesn't have to. In the end, `I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang' is a wake-up call of sorts, a warning to those who take personal freedom for granted or place too much trust in a flawed system mired in bureaucracy. That a film made in 1932 can still have such an impact today says more than enough about how good it is. And once you've seen it, you'll never forget that final, haunting scene, and James Allen's final words. I rate this one 10/10.

41 of 45 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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