Cast & Crew
On the day of a violent riot, the Reverend Thomas Storm arrives at a prison to assume the post of chaplain. During the riot, convict leader Blackie Drew takes Storm prisoner and uses him as a shield to help him and other prisoners make an escape. Storm, however, manages to knock out Blackie and escape. While Blackie and the others are put in solitary confinement, Storm learns that the prisoners have been brutally mistreated by prison guard captain White. Storm's humane philosophy soon puts him in conflict with Schafer, the hardline warden. Unknown to prison authorities, new convict Johnny Adams has framed himself for a crime in order to gain access to Captain White, who had beaten his father to death years earlier. When Storm learns of Johnny's plans, he, with the help of Johnny's sweetheart, Suzan Leonard, dissuades him from exacting his revenge. Later, however, a group of convicts led by Blackie murders White, and Johnny is blamed for the crime and sentenced to die. Storm, who believes Johnny when he tells him that he did not murder White, shames Blackie into confessing his guilt by reading him a letter that Johnny supposedly wrote, in which he extolls Blackie's virtues and forthrightness. As Johnny awaits his execution, Blackie attempts another jailbreak and is shot. On his deathbed, Blackie confesses to White's murder, thus exonerating Johnny. The governor awards Johnny a pardon, and Storm exacts from him an official pledge of prison reform.
Working titles for this film were Escape from the Big House and The Man Without a Face. The file for the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library contains a letter from a PCA official to Columbia, dated September 6, 1939, in which the official called the story "unacceptable from the point of view of the Production Code" and objected to its "complete absence of any suggestion of honesty, dignity, or even common decency, on the part of all the prison officials, including the warden." The PCA official also complained about "numerous scenes of shocking brutality and gruesomeness" and called the story "a complete travesty of prison life." In addition, the PCA criticized "the very questionable characterization of the Rev. Storm, who appears to us to be a bit of a nincompoop." By November 1939, a new treatment was written and approved by the PCA with only minor suggestions, including a request that the film not show law enforcement officials dying at the hands of criminals.