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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang(1932)

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teaser I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

SYNOPSIS

It is the end of the "War to End All Wars," a conflict that was also known as World War I. One soldier, James Allen (Paul Muni), returns to the United States fully invested with the promise of a new life, a new career, and a new direction that was impossible before victory in Europe and the advent of the "Roaring Twenties." So, Allen refuses his family's advice of returning to his stable, but dull factory job, and strikes out on his own, with the hopes of becoming an engineer. But from town to town, year to year, success eludes him and unemployment takes its toll. Penniless and destitute in the Deep South, Allen becomes implicated in a crime that he did not commit and is sentenced to 10 years of hard labor on a chain gang. He spends years of being treated like an animal by the inhumane prison system. But he waits, biding his time for the perfect moment to make a break for freedom.

Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Howard J. Green & Brown Holmes, Sheridan Gibney (uncredited), based on the autobiography by Robert E. Burns.
Film Editing: William Holmes
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Original Music: Leo F. Forbstein, Bernhard Kaun
Cast: Paul Muni (James Allen), Glenda Farrell (Marie Woods), Preston Foster (Pete), Helen Vinson (Helen), David Landau (Warden), Allen Jenkins (Barney Sykes), Noel Francis (Linda), Berton Churchill (Judge).
BW-93m. Closed captioning.

Why I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG is Essential

When I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) was first released, it arrived in American movie theaters in a storm of controversy. As opposed to other controversial films of its time, the furor was not over issues of censorship concerning sex and violence, but the film's depiction of the barbaric penal systems in use in the Deep South, particularly in the state of Georgia. Public knowledge of the harsh chain gang system was nothing new. In fact, Robert Elliot Burns, the person on whom the James Allen character is based, wrote a book entitled I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang, so the general public was aware of Burns' harrowing story. But to a much larger audience than the novel could ever reach, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang showed in striking detail just how powerful the talking picture medium could be, particularly in the field of social change. The film fueled a storm of protest from the general public that resulted in the reform of the prison chain gang system in the American south.

Cinematically, the film is a striking example of the economy of Hollywood narrative storytelling. Robert Elliot Burns' real-life tale is condensed into a tight 90-minute plot, with no superfluous plot threads. Despite its relatively short running time, Chain Gang shows just how powerful a film story could be, providing it is told right. And director Mervyn LeRoy took every pain to make sure that this story was filmed just right, starting with the perfect lead in Paul Muni. One of the most revered actors of his day, Muni revolutionized screen acting in the post-silent screen years. At a time when actors were still struggling to find the right "voice" for the talkies, Muni, a celebrated stage actor, brought a theatricality to the screen that helped "legitimize" the relatively new talking picture from a technological phenomenon to the natural evolution of the film medium.

by Scott McGee

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teaser I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang was not the first prison film to come out of Hollywood. Recent prison pictures at the time included The Big House (1930), Up the River (1930), Numbered Men (1930), The Convict's Code (1930), Ladies of the Big House (1931), The Criminal Code (1931) and Hell's Highway (1932). I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang did influence later prison films, especially those dealing with prison farm systems. The escape through the swamps was duplicated by Edward G. Robinson in his flight from justice in Blackmail (1939) and by Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as the handcuffed prisoners in The Defiant Ones (1958). The escape by truck was later used as a plot device in Cool Hand Luke (1967) starring Paul Newman.

The true life story of Robert Elliot Burns, on which I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is based, was later recreated in the television movie, The Man Who Broke a 1,000 Chains (1987), starring Val Kilmer.

It was rumored that stolen prints of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang surfaced in Russia where it became a resounding hit. In fact, it was the biggest American hit up to that time in the Soviet Union.

Woody Allen parodied I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and other convict dramas in his 1972 comedy, Take the Money and Run (1972).

Soul singer Sam Cooke had a pop hit in the early sixties with "Chain Gang," a catchy tune with a backup chorus lamenting the backbreaking work of the prison laborer and his isolation from his loved ones.

by Scott McGee & Jeff Stafford

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teaser I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Director Mervyn LeRoy was Warner Bros. Studios' most prolific filmmaker, having directed three of the studio's top films in the 1930s, including Little Caesar (1930), I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, and They Won't Forget (1937).

Take a look at the actor playing Bomber Wells, the old-timer who helps Muni escape the second time. His name is Edward Ellis, and in 1934, his thin frame would help christen a beloved detective series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Ellis plays the title character in The Thin Man (1934), the subject of William Powell's murder investigation.

The book on which I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is based was ghostwritten by Robert Burns' brother, the Reverend Vincent G. Burns, an Episcopal priest in New Jersey. In 1938, Reverend Burns, sued his fugitive sibling for claiming all the money received from the original story of the production.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang was not Paul Muni's screen debut. He was nominated for an Oscar for his very first role in The Valiant (1929).

Which cast member in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang had the most unusual background? Try Preston Foster; he plays the crook who implicates Muni in the diner robbery. Foster dabbled in professional wrestling before breaking into show business as a singer with the Pennsylvania Grand Opera Company in Philadelphia.

The actress who plays the role of Alice is Sally Blane. Born Elizabeth Jane Young, Blane is sister to movie star Loretta Young.

For his part in the making of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, production chief Jack Warner said the film's social message was "the first sermon I had ever put on film."

by Scott McGee

Memorable Quotes From I AM A FUGITIVE ON A CHAIN GANG

Pete: I'm hungry. What would you say to a hamburger?
James Allen: 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."

James Allen: Do you mind if we stay here awhile, or must you go home?
Helen: There are no musts in my life. I'm free, white and twenty-one.

James Allen: You see, the army changes a fellow. Kinda makes you think different. I don't want to be spending the rest of my life answering a factory whistler instead of a bugle call. I'll be couped up in a shipping room all day. I want to do something worthwhile.

James: I've been through hell. Folks here are concerned with my uniform. How I dance. I'm out of step with everybody.

James: I've learned that life is more important than a medal on my chest or a stupid, insignificant job.

The Bomber (to James): Grease, fried dough, pig fat and sorghum...and you better get to like it cause you're gonna get the same thing every morning, every year.

James (after being slugged by a guard for pausing during his rock quarry detail): "I was just wiping the sweat off my face.
Guard: Well, ya got it knocked off.

James: Doesn't a man ever break loose?
Prisoner: You mean hang it on a limb? There's too many breaks against you. Ya gotta beat the chains, the bloodhounds and guards who'd just as soon bring you back dead.

Linda (to James): A guy with your nerves has got the breaks coming to him.

James: Marie, I appreciate all you've done for me but I couldn't love you. I can't change my feelings toward you any more than I can change the color of my eyes.

Helen: You're a strange, moody person. You need somebody to pull you out of those doldrums.
James: Are you applying for that job?
Helen: I might consider it.
James: You're hired.

Marie: You're gonna be a big shot someday with plenty of sugar and I'm gonna ride along. Got that? I'm no fool. I'd be a sucker to let you go now.

The Bomber (to James): Boy, if you think those other chain gangs are tough, wait'll you get a load of this joint. These were the guys that were too tough for the chain gang.

James: I'll be a model prisoner if it kills me.

Helen: How do you live?
James Allen: I steal.

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teaser I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), the film that marked the beginning of Warner Bros. Studios' Depression-era style of message filmmaking, is based on the true-life story of Robert Elliot Burns, who in 1920, burglarized a store of $5.29 on which to eat. He was sent to a Georgia chain gang, escaping two years later. He became a highly respected Chicago citizen and magazine editor. After his estranged first wife informed on him, he was eventually extradited back to Georgia to serve out the remainder of his original prison term.

Burns escaped the brutal prison farm again in 1930, surfacing in New Jersey as a tax expert. He wrote a series of articles later collected in the book I Am A Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang, which created a nationwide sensation. Both studio chief Jack Warner and production head Darryl Zanuck had been interested in Burns's autobiographical story when it was serialized in True Detective Mysteries from January through June 1931. In early 1932 Warner and Zanuck decided to go after the project, eventually securing Burns's story for $12,500.

by Scott McGee

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teaser I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Despite Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck's personal interest in a film version of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, 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.

During the pre-production phase of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Robert Elliot 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. Playwright Sheridan Gibney, who was hired to co-write the screenplay, found the experience of working with 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." After the film was completed, 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 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 I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, 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.

Mervyn LeRoy was assigned to helm I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, even though he was then preparing to direct the musical 42nd Street (1933). LeRoy agreed to abandon 42nd Street temporarily (Lloyd Bacon eventually took over directing the milestone musical), and immediately took a train to New York City to see potential star Paul Muni in the stage play Counselor-at-Law. After Muni's performance, LeRoy wired the studio executives: "This is our man!" But Muni was not as impressed with LeRoy upon first meeting him in Jack 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.

Once Muni was hired for the lead role in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, he booked passage on an ocean liner through the Panama Canal to Los Angeles. Aboard the ship, Muni spent much of the thirteen days of the voyage in his stateroom, memorizing his lines. This was not the last measure of Muni's role preparation. He conducted several intensive meetings with Robert Burns in Burbank in order to capture the way the real fugitive walked and talked, in essence, to catch "the smell of fear." 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. Nevertheless, Muni's insistence on realism enhanced his performance; during the grueling rock quarry scenes, Muni refused to allow the use of a double, despite the punishing 5 a.m. start time and the mid-day July sun. The intense sun was so severe that nearly the entire company suffered from eyestrain, blisters, and sunburn.

The haunting and memorable ending was a happy accident for the film's production. The script called for the scene to suddenly go black but, before that could happen, a klieg light blew a fuse and gradually dimmed the entire scene. LeRoy immediately recognized that the accident actually worked better for the film's final shot. However, many have claimed credit for the final scene. Darryl F. Zanuck, then in charge of production at Warner Bros., claimed that after the first sneak preview he personally wrote the ending dialogue and added it to the picture. But the truth is that this scene can be found in writer Sheridan Gibney's first draft screenplay. Still, Zanuck deserves some credit because he demanded that the stark, unhappy ending not be replaced or softened in the editing stage by more timid studio executives.

Even though the final credits attribute Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes as the primary authors of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, most film historians agree that Sheridan Gibney was the primary screenwriter. He had had a dispute with one of the studio heads, so for punishment, the studio exec took Gibney's name off the credits before the film's release.

The state of Georgia was not as sweet as a peach towards the producers of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. 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 typhoon 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 cruel 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 law suits against the studio. All of this legal wrangling all came to nothing, but the state of Georgia remained relentless in its attempts to recapture Robert Elliot Burns, while director Mervyn LeRoy and Jack Warner were barred from entering the state of Georgia for years. Upon finally trekking to the peach state to help John Wayne direct The Green Berets in 1968, LeRoy said in his autobiography that the Georgians were full of "good old southern hospitality and there wasn't a lynch rope in sight."

by Scott McGee

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teaser I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

It is the end of the "War to End All Wars," a conflict that was also known as World War I. One soldier, James Allen (Paul Muni), returns to the United States fully invested with the promise of a new life, a new career, and a new direction that was impossible before victory in Europe and the advent of the "Roaring Twenties." So, Allen refuses his family's advice of returning to his stable, but dull factory job, and strikes out on his own, with the hopes of becoming an engineer. But from town to town, year to year, success eludes him and unemployment takes its toll. Penniless and destitute in the Deep South, Allen becomes implicated in a crime that he did not commit and is sentenced to 10 years of hard labor on a chain gang. He spends years of being treated like an animal by the inhumane prison system. But he waits, biding his time for the perfect moment to make a break for freedom.

When I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) was first released, it arrived in American movie theaters in a storm of controversy. As opposed to other controversial films of its time, the furor was not over issues of censorship concerning sex and violence, but the film's depiction of the barbaric penal systems in use in the Deep South, particularly in the state of Georgia. Public knowledge of the harsh chain gang system was nothing new. In fact, Robert Elliot Burns, the person on whom the James Allen character is based, wrote a book entitled I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang, so the general public was aware of Burns' harrowing story. But to a much larger audience than the novel could ever reach, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang showed in striking detail just how powerful the talking picture medium could be, particularly in the field of social change. The film fueled a storm of protest from the general public that resulted in the reform of the prison chain gang system in the American south.

Cinematically, the film is a striking example of the economy of Hollywood narrative storytelling. Robert Elliot Burns' real-life tale is condensed into a tight 90-minute plot, with no superfluous plot threads. Despite its relatively short running time, Chain Gang shows just how powerful a film story could be, providing it is told right. And director Mervyn LeRoy took every pain to make sure that this story was filmed just right, starting with the perfect lead in Paul Muni. One of the most revered actors of his day, Muni revolutionized screen acting in the post-silent screen years. At a time when actors were still struggling to find the right "voice" for the talkies, Muni, a celebrated stage actor, brought a theatricality to the screen that helped "legitimize" the relatively new talking picture from a technological phenomenon to the natural evolution of the film medium.

Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Howard J. Green & Brown Holmes, Sheridan Gibney (uncredited), based on the autobiography by Robert E. Burns.
Film Editing: William Holmes
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Original Music: Leo F. Forbstein, Bernhard Kaun
Cast: Paul Muni (James Allen), Glenda Farrell (Marie Woods), Preston Foster (Pete), Helen Vinson (Helen), David Landau (Warden), Allen Jenkins (Barney Sykes), Noel Francis (Linda), Berton Churchill (Judge).
BW-93m. Closed captioning.

by Scott McGee

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teaser I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

AWARDS & HONORS:

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Paul Muni secured a Best Actor mention (He lost to Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII), while the film was also recognized for Best Sound. The film lost the Best Picture trophy to Cavalcade (1932).

The Critics' Corner

Variety raved that "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is a picture with guts...It grips with its stark realism and packs lots of punch."

The New York Times was impressed that its "vehement attack on convict camps" was not tempered with "the usual bowing to popular appeal."

Film Daily named the film as one of 1932's best efforts, while the Brooklyn Daily Eagle said it was "a motion picture which not only approaches greatness but captures greatness without a struggle." The New York Sun hailed it as equally tragic and powerful.

The National Board of Review hailed I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang as "not only the best feature film of the year, but one of the best films ever made in this country."

Pauline Kael wrote that "Fugitive is still one of the best of the social protest films - naive, artless, but a straightforward, unadorned horror story. There are moments that haunted a generation (the hero, Paul Muni, trying to pawn his Congressional Medal of Honor), and there is one of the great closing scenes in the history of film."

"...uncompromising...Its style is simple, direct, and forceful, often giving the feeling of being a documentary. It is one of the best American films of social criticism produced in the early sound era, and has a striking performance by Paul Muni."
- Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Film

"The Warner Brothers' approach to movies during the Thirties and Forties is best exemplified in this production, where harsh naturalism is a virtue and the uncompromising, unblinking finale still shocks an audience...No documentary could have conveyed so vividly and so dramatically the pain and brutishness of prison life in the South."
- Peter Cowie, Eighty Years of Cinema

"Seventy-five years after it was made, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is still a slap in the face, exemplary as dramatized journalism, and enough to move any audience to anger and grief. You could redo it today, though the "I" would likely be a black character now...Paul Muni would soon enough earn the reputation of being a ham. But he is as big and human as "I" requires. It is a simple, raw performance, and it soars because of sound - because he can speak and think at the same time. It is a modern film because of that. In fact, it has survived far better than Little Caesar."
- David Thomson, Have You Seen...?

"I quarrel with the production not because it is savage and horrible, but because each step in an inevitable tragedy is taken clumsily, and because each character responsible for the hero's doom is shown more as a caricature than as a person."
- Pare Lorentz

"The prison scenes are blatantly manipulative-and effective-but Fugitive really takes off during an intense escape sequence, including a close shave where a near-doomed Muni hides underwater as his above-water captors are literally inches away from him...The studio portrayal of sex and violence in Fugitive pushes the envelope more than Muni's previous Scarface, perhaps because its so casual...Only with a character as noble as Oliver Twist or David Copperfield are people able to endure such misery, and Paul Muni plays a character so single-minded in his pursuit of freedom, so damned anxious for even the smallest victory, that he makes Fugitive absolutely riveting."
- Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine

Compiled by Scott McGee

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