The film was based on the true story of Robert E. Burns. It sticks basically to the facts except for two instances: Burns actually did steal the $5.29 in order to eat, and he finally succeeded in evading the Georgia legal system with the help of three New Jersey governors. Burns actually slipped into Hollywood and worked for a few weeks on the film, but ultimately the stress and risk were too much, and he fled back to the safety of New Jersey. The book and film helped bring about the collapse of the brutal chain gang system in Georgia. Warner Bros. took a big chance on the film, as social commentary was not normally done in Hollywood pictures. However, this film was a critical and financial success and helped establish Warners as the studio with a social conscience - it also helped save the financially ailing company. Even though Georgia was never specifically named in the film, numerous lawsuits were filed against the studio, the film was banned in Georgia, and the studio's head and the film's director were told that should they ever find themselves in Georgia they would be treated to a dose of the "social evil" they so roundly denounced.
It is rumored that the final fade came as an accident. Director Mervyn LeRoy had planned to go to a blackout after the final line. During rehearsals, a light blew, taking the fuse with it. The resultant slow fade, starting just before the final line, was so powerful that Leroy decided to shoot the film exactly that way. However, some sources dispute this as a manufactured myth after the fact, as the scene is described exactly this way, with the fade, in the original shooting script, finalized before shooting had even begun.
At the time of filming, America had essentially turned its back on its First World War veterans who came back to a country that could offer them no jobs or homes due to the Depression. The film entered production just a month after President Herbert Hoover had ordered the army and police to move against 8000 veterans marching in protest in Washington, DC, at how they were being treated (the troops were led by future Gen. Douglas MacArthur). The resulting clashes left two police officers and two veterans dead.
After the film was completed, Robert E. Burns disappeared. There was one report that he was captured again and extradited back to Georgia just after the film was released, but all records indicate that he was never caught. However, in 1945, Burns returned to Georgia on the assurance of the state's governor, Ellis Arnall. The Georgia Pardon and Parole Board commuted Burns' sentence and restored his civil rights, but he was refused a full pardon because he had originally admitted his guilt in the holdup. Burns died in 1955.
Warners'-highest paid director, Roy Del Ruth, was assigned to direct, but the contract director refused the assignment. In a lengthy memo to supervising producer Hal B. Wallis, Del Ruth explained his decision: "This subject is terribly heavy and morbid . . . there is not one moment of relief anywhere." Del Ruth further argued that the story "lacks box-office appeal," and that offering a depressing story to the public seemed ill-timed, given the harsh reality of the Great Depression outside the walls of the local neighborhood cinema.
Playwright Sheridan Gibney, who was hired to co-write the screenplay, found the experience of working with Robert E. Burns nerve-wracking. Several times, Burns would jump upon hearing gunfire emanating from productions shooting on nearby sets. When Burns heard police sirens, he hid behind furniture and cowered against a wall. Gibney calmed him with the assurance that "They're shooting, but only a film."
Paul Muni was not as impressed with Mervyn LeRoy upon first meeting him in Jack L. Warner's Burbank office. Warner made the introductions, but Muni did not say anything to LeRoy. Instead, he turned to Warner and said, "Is he the director, that kid?" Despite that inauspicious beginning, the director and the star became close friends. When Muni died in 1967, the only two people from the film industry present at his funeral were LeRoy and Muni's agent.
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.
During the pre-production phase, Robert E. Burns was asked to travel to Hollywood to serve as an advisor to the production. Burns smuggled himself into Los Angeles and onto the Warner Bros. studio lot, using the name Richard M. Crane. Burns not only suggested ideas for the script but also reportedly helped write dialogue.
Despite Jack L. Warner and Darryl F. Zanuck's personal interest in the film, the Warner Bros. story department voted against it with a report that concluded: "this book might make a picture if we had no censorship, but all the strong and vivid points in the story are certain to be eliminated by the present censorship board." The story editor listed specific reasons for not recommending the book for a picture, most of them having to do with the violence of the story and the uproar that was sure to explode in the Deep South. In the end, Warner and Zanuck had the final say and approved the project.
Though the filmmakers omitted the name of Georgia from the working title and never mentioned the state in the entire film, the indictment of that specific state's cruel penal system was obvious. A tsunami of protest--in the form of newspaper editorials, reform committees, petitions, and letters and telegrams to congressmen--resulted in the abolishment of some of the prison system's most barbaric practices. However, the film was banned in Georgia and a libel suit on Georgia's behalf was filed against Warner Bros. Two prison wardens in Georgia also filed million-dollar lawsuits against the studio. All of this legal wrangling came to nothing, but the state of Georgia was relentless in its attempts to recapture Robert E. Burns, while Mervyn LeRoy and Jack L. Warner were barred from entering the state of Georgia for years.
Once Paul Muni was cast, he booked passage on an ocean liner through the Panama Canal to Los Angeles. Aboard the ship, Muni spent much of the 13 days of the voyage in his stateroom, memorizing his lines.
Atlanta, Georgia - Monday, October 10, 1939: Action bought by Vivian Stanley, a member of the Prison Commission of the State of Georgia, against Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., Vitagraph, Inc. and local exhibitors, Wilby and Holden, was won by the defendants when a verdict was rendered in the latter's favor in the Superior Court of Fulton County here. Plaintiff brought the suits trial of which commenced some three weeks ago, for $100,000 charging libel because of the content of the (1932) Warner feature, "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang."
Even though the final credits attribute Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes as the primary authors, most film historians agree that Sheridan Gibney was the primary screenwriter. He had had a dispute with one of the studio heads, so as punishment the studio exec took his name off the credits before the film's release.