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Chain Gang

Chain Gang(1950)

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teaser Chain Gang (1950)

The release of Warner Brothers' I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) - Mervyn LeRoy's Academy Award®-nominated adaptation of the magazine serial and later novel by Robert E. Burns - sparked a public outcry against the use of prison chain gangs and led to the repeal of the practice in 1937 in Georgia, where Burns had served his time and escaped (twice). Nation-wide reform would not occur until 1955 and during that twenty year gap the movie-going public proved as fascinated as it was repulsed by the image of prisoners chained at the ankle for the purposes of back-breaking menial labor. Higher profile prison movies - The Defiant Ones (1958), Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Longest Yard (1974), Brubaker (1980) - tended to depict work gangs whose inmates were chained but not necessarily to one another; literal chain gangs were often played for laughs, as in Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run (1969) and the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Before Paul Muni found himself in irons, Mickey Mouse was breaking rocks in captivity in Walt Disney's animated Chain Gang (1930), a remake of his earlier live action/animation hybrid Alice the Jail Bird (1925). No relation to the Disney one-reeler, Columbia's Chain Gang (1950) was just another B-movie banged out on the watch of producer Sam Katzman. The script was the work of Howard J. Green, who had contributed to the screenplay for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and later wrote or co-wrote San Quentin (1946), State Penitentiary (1950) and My True Story (1951), the directorial debut of Mickey Rooney. Bearing a superficial resemblance to the Dalton Trumbo scripted Road Gang (1936), Chain Gang sends an intrepid investigative reporter undercover inside the penal system to report back on systemic abuses in the Deep South. If star Douglas Kennedy looks familiar it may be from his brief but iconic appearance as a policeman whose body is overtaken by Invaders from Mars (1953) in the William Cameron Menzies science fiction classic, as the kindly clinician whose experiments with narco-hypnosis prompt Beverly Garland to recall her traumatic encounter with The Alligator People (1959) or as Joey Faust, an apoplectic safecracker who busts out of prison to become The Amazing Transparent Man (1960). The New York-born, Amherst-educated Kennedy debuted in films with uncredited bits in The Ghost Breakers (1940) with Bob Hope and The Mad Doctor (1941) with Basil Rathbone and appeared as a federal agent in the wraparound footage added to Warners' 'G' Men (1935) in 1949 when the film was reissued to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the FBI. The tall, powerfully-built Kennedy served with the OSS and Army Intelligence during World War II and returned to Hollywood in 1947 to play minor roles in big pictures (Dark Passage with Humphrey Bogart, Nora Prentiss with Joan Crawford) and occasional leads in low budget programmers such as Revenue Agent and Chain Gang, both directed by Lew Landers for Columbia and released a month apart in 1950.

For a single season, Kennedy was the star of the syndicated western TV series Steve Donovan - Western Marshal (1955) and he later had a recurring role as a lawman on The Big Valley (1965-1969). Kennedy's Chain Gang leading lady Marjorie Lord was at this point only a few years from her career-defining role as Danny Thomas' wife on the long-running ABC sitcom Make Room for Daddy (1953-1965). Lord's daughter is the actress Anne Archer.Born Louis Friedlander in New York City in 1901 , Lew Landers worked his way up to the director's chair via a string of menial jobs at Universal - among them, a crew position on the set of Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughs (1928). Under his birth name, Landers worked as an assistant director and later helmed serials - among them the quasi-sci-fi revenge tale The Vanishing Shadow (1928) with Onslow Stevens and the western chapter play The Red Rider (1934) with Buck Jones - before Universal entrusted him with his first feature: The Raven (1935), starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Although Landers was paid a mere $900 for his work on The Raven he developed a reputation for reliability and for being able to coax a wealth of atmosphere from the most meager of budgets. Landers adopted the name change with RKO in 1937 and later at Columbia, where he was put to work in the studio's B-movie mill.

A dab hand at any film genre, Landers churned out an impressive 150 features in his lifetime, including crime films (Smashing the Rackets, 1938), war stories (Ski Patrol, 1940), spook shows (The Return of the Vampire with Bela Lugosi in 1944), comedies (The Boogie Man Will Get You, with Boris Karloff in 1942) and more westerns (Cowboy Canteen, 1944). Landers' efficiency helped him transition to television and multiple episodes of Adventures of Superman, Highway Patrol and Bat Masterson. As was the case with many workaholics in Hollywood (and particularly at Columbia), Landers' work outlived him: his final film, Terrified (1963), was released four months after his death from myocardial infarction in Palm Desert, California, on December 16, 1962, just two weeks shy of his 61st birthday.

Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Lew Landers
Screenplay: Howard J. Green
Cinematography: Ira H. Morgan
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Film Editing: Aaron Stell
Cast: Douglas Kennedy (Cliff Roberts), Marjorie Lord (Rita McKelvey), Emory Parnell (Capt. Duncan), William Phillips (Roy Snead), Thurston Hall (John McKelvey), Harry Cheshire ('Pop' O'Donnell).
BW-70m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Crime Movies: An Illustrated History by Carlos Clarens (W. W. Norton & Company, 1980)
Golden Horrors: An Illustrated Critical Filmography, 1931-1939 by Bryan Senn (McFarland & Company, 1996)
Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946 by Michael Brunas, John Brunas and Tom Weaver (McFarland & Company, 1990)

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