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During the early sound era, the subject of prison reform was rarely addressed in Hollywood movies until the release of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) which generated a storm of controversy and sparked public interest. After that, the topic became a subgenre of the crime melodramas so popular at the time and, not surprisingly, most of the best entries were from Warner Bros. who specialized in contemporary films with urban settings, often based on true events. This was particularly true of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) which was based on the memoirs of Lewis E. Lawes, the former warden of Sing Sing. Lawes began his career as a nineteen-year-old prison guard and rose through the ranks to his eventual appointment as governor of Sing Sing. Like his predecessor, Thomas M. Osborne, Lawes was committed to educating the press and the public about the harsh realities of prison life and programs that could successfully rehabilitate prisoners. Many of his experiences would serve as source material for other popular prison dramas such as Over the Wall (1938), You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939), and Invisible Stripes (1939). Because the studio so valued Lawes's involvement in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing he was given final approval of the script and the finished film. In exchange, Lawes arranged for director Michael Curtiz and his cast and crew to have access to Sing Sing where several scenes were shot using actual prisoners - a rare instance of on-location filming for a major studio during that era.
By today's standards, the plot of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is highly melodramatic with some suspension of disbelief required but still engrossing: a cocky mobster named Tom Connors (Spencer Tracy) is sent to Sing Sing on a felony rap expecting to get a fast parole through his crooked political connections. Instead, his supposedly influential friends desert him and his combative attitude, which sparks a near-riot, earns him a three-month stretch in solitary confinement. Connors eventually sees the error of his ways, declining to participate in a prison break and winning the warden's confidence. When his girlfriend Fay (Bette Davis) is injured in an automobile accident, Connors is granted permission by the warden to visit her without a guard. Bad mistake. At Fay's apartment, Connors encounters Joe Finn (Louis Calhern), the gangster who was responsible for his incarceration. There is a struggle and Finn is shot and killed by Fay though Connors takes the blame and is sentenced to death in the subsequent trial.
20,000 Years in Sing Sing marks the only time Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis would ever appear together in a movie though Davis would state in the Whitney Stine biography, Mother Goddam, "One of my great dreams in later years was that we could find a really great script to do together. Spencer and I were both born on April 5. What a marvelous actor he was." Tracy, however, was not the original actor cast in Sing Sing. James Cagney was supposed to play Tom Connors but was embroiled in a legal dispute with Warner Bros. at the time. Having appeared in eleven hit films over a two year period, he demanded a pay raise from $1,250 a week to $3,000. By the time the conflict was resolved, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was already in production so Cagney went to work on Hard to Handle (1933) on the adjoining sound stage.
Michael Curtiz, the director of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, was not the sort of craftsman who endeared himself to actors. He could be a tyrant and a slave driver on film sets and was well known for his clashes with such big name stars as Errol Flynn. In the Bette Davis biography, Fasten Your Seat Belts by Lawrence J. Quirk, co-star Louis Calhern recalled, "Mike was a fine director for this kind of hurly-burly action stuff, but he was a difficult and temperamental man to work with. I know Bette found him a pain in the neck, and for that matter, so did Tracy. Of course he didn't dare treat Tracy disrespectfully - at least not beyond a point - or Tracy would have hauled off and hit him. Not that Bette was timid either - she'd scream back at him and snarl and even spit at him if he went too far. I suspect Mike sort of enjoyed egging her on."
On the positive side, Curtiz was a much more innovative director than film scholars give him credit for. Besides the rare practice of shooting on-location for some sequences in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, he also liked peppering his films with documentary footage to achieve a certain degree of authenticity - a technique that's also particularly effective in Curtiz's subsequent features, Casablanca (1942), Mission to Moscow (1943), and Force of Arms (1951). So effective, in fact, that other directors began to copy it after the release of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. Curtiz also felt strongly about the issue of prison reform and returned to champion it again and again in such movies as Front Page Woman (1935), The Walking Dead (1936) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). And unlike the grim tone established in these later films, Curtiz manages to inject some gallows humor and even a little romance into 20,000 Years in Sing Sing.
Although the film was overlooked in the 1932-33 Oscar® race where I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was the clear favorite, it made a strong impression on audiences and generated excellent reviews. The New York Times stated that "In this rapidly paced film there are some extraordinarily interesting glimpses of prison routine..." and the Motion Picture Herald commented that Spencer Tracy's performance "is fully on a par with Paul Muni's [in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang] for effectiveness and pulling his auditors along with him." Sing Sing is also notable for its Pre-Code ending in which an innocent man is sent to the electric chair. A year later the Production Code would have required the true killer - Fay - to pay for her crime. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was later remade in 1940 as Castle on the Hudson with John Garfield and Ann Sheridan in the starring roles.
Producer: Raymond Griffith, Robert Lord, Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Courtney Terrett, Robert Lord, Wilson Mizner, Brown Holmes, Lewis E. Lawes (book)
Cinematography: Barney McGill
Film Editing: George Amy
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Bernhard Kaun
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Tom Connors), Bette Davis (Fay Wilson), Arthur Byron (Warden Paul Long), Lyle Talbot (Bud Saunders), Warren Hymer (Hype), Louis Calhern (Finny).
BW-78m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford