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
Paul Muni refused a double for the rock-quarry scenes. The intense sun was so severe that nearly the entire company suffered from eyestrain, blisters and sunburn. See more »
After James Allen's second escape from the chain gang, the last newspaper article shown states that he escaped "A little more than a year ago...". In the (final) scene that follows, Helen says to him, "It's been almost a year since you escaped." See more »
I'm hungry. What would you say to a hamburger?
What would I say to a hamburger? Boy. I'd take Mr. Hamburger by the hand and say, "Pal, I haven't seen you for a long, long time."
See more »
I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (Warner Brothers, 1932), expertly directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is one of those rare movies released during the early 1930s to really stand the test of time. Although not the very first film to deal with prison injustice and harsh conditions, this is probably the best of its kind. Based on the story by Robert Burns, a war veteran who twice escaped from a chain gang in Georgia, it seems likely that Warner Brothers would be the only movie studio willing to take risks dealing with a social protest story, but here it is. And while actors like Spencer Tracy or James Cagney might have taken up such a challenge for the role, playing it to conviction, as fate would have it, Paul Muni has turned out to be the best and only choice.
The photoplay focuses on a World War Army veteran named James Allen (Paul Muni), who served his country, earning his medals and now respect of his small community. Regardless of being offered back his old job, he decides to find himself by drifting from state to state, job to job, until he finds something to his liking. Along the way, Jim innocently becomes involved in a robbery by a guy named Pete (Preston Foster). A shoot out occurs by the police, killing Pete and arresting Jim. Because the money was found on his person, the judge (Berton Churchill) sentences Jim to ten years of hard labor in a chain gang prison camp. Due to harsh conditions in a living hell, Jim makes a successful escape, becoming a model citizen over the years rising to the top of his profession in a construction firm, only to be betrayed by his gold-digging wife, Marie (Glenda Farrell) for wanting a divorce so he could marry Helen (Helen Vinson), a socialite. Because of his expose to the media, Jim finds he'll never be given his promised freedom after serving 90 days. He makes his second daring escape into the new world now hit by the Great Depression. In spite of his new found freedom, he finds he'll always be chained for life as a wanted fugitive.
Not exactly a family oriented movie, "I Am a Fugitive" is a dark and very realistic drama told in documentary style with a touch of "film noir." It includes violence, though mostly taken place off screen, such as the flogging of the convicts who groan out their pain. Unlike other chain gang movies, this one doesn't feature punished convicts being placed in sweat boxes for long periods of time. While Paul Muni would achieve success in later years for his biographical dramas, winning an Academy Award as Best Actor for "The Story of Louis Pasteur" (Warners, 1936), his role as the doomed Jim Allen, victim of circumstance, is obviously his best and most remembered performance. What makes Muni so different from the other screen actors is that Muni doesn't just play a character, he BECOMES that character.
Full of memorable scenes too numerous to mention, the one that stands out is the scene where Jim, after being brought back to the chain gang on a promise for parole and release within a year, is awaken from his bed by one of the guards to be told that his appeal has been denied and that he will have to serve out his original ten-year sentence. Hearing this, Jim, with unshaved face and looking fairly dirty, looks straight into the camera with tears slowly flowing through his eyes with the expression of disgust and betrayal, making fists with his hands before resting down his head on the pillow. As for the prison escapes, they are well staged, with the second escape more exciting than the first.
Taking support in this hard-hitting drama are Louise Carter (Mrs. Allen); Sally Blane (Alice); Allen Jenkins (Barney, a fellow convict); Edward Ellis (Bomber Wells, Jim's cell-mate); David Landau (First Warden); Edward McNamara (Second Warden); Noel Francis (Linda, the lady of the evening who makes Jim's night's lodging "comfortable") and James Bell as the ill-fated convict who suffers from stomach pains. When the movie played on local television back in the 1960s and 70s, it was presented under a shorter title, "I Am a Fugitive," but when distributed to video cassette in the 1980s, its complete title was restored. Other than Paul Muni's Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for his performance as Jim Allen, the movie was honored the Best Picture award, losing "Cavalcade" (Fox, 1933).
After all these years, "I Am a Fugitive" remains a fast-pace man-on-the-run drama, which holds interest throughout its 93 minutes of screen time, and not so easily to forget once it is all over. With the chain gang system being virtually a thing of the past (younger viewers might ask, "What is a chain gang?"), the movie is a curious look back as to how prison conditions were like in the early part of the twentieth century, and how the judicial system has changed since then. "I Am a Fugitive" available on both VHS and DVD formats, has become a frequent revival on Turner Classic Movies. (****)
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