Unchained


1h 15m 1955

Brief Synopsis

Tale about life in a special prison farm in California, where the program is about treating the prisoners with humanity and minimal security to enhance their moral attitudes about paying for their crimes out of their own volition.

Film Details

Release Date
Feb 26, 1955
Premiere Information
Chino, CA opening: 19 Jan 1955; New York opening: 27 Jan 1955
Production Company
Hall Bartlett Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Location
Chino--California Institution for Men, California, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the book Prisoners Are People by Kenyon Jackson Scudder (New York, 1952).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 15m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.85 : 1

Synopsis

Steve Davitt, a San Quentin inmate convicted of nearly killing a man he suspected of robbing him, is one of several men transferred to an experimental "no bars" prison at Chino, California. Upon arriving, Steve is surprised to be treated with respect. The new arrivals are taken to the perimeter of the campus, where they meet Warden Kenyon J. Scudder, who demonstrates how to escape over the fence and then warns that anyone who leaves can never return. The prison is the idea of Scudder, who believes that borderline criminals can change, if given self-respect and life skills. In this prison, guards and inmates eat together and spend time with their families on weekends in a park-like area of the campus. Joe Ravens, who is a fellow inmate, is frequently visited by his girl friend, Elaine. Steve, on the other hand, treats his wife Mary's visits with displeasure and forbids her to bring their young son Win. For forty-five days, new inmates acclimate to their environment in a minimum security facility, but after the trial period they are transferred to the main campus and given more responsibility and freedom. Knowing that it will be easier to escape after the transfer, Steve and Joe begin to plot their breakout. Almost immediately, Steve gets into trouble by fighting a hardened criminal, Sanders, for harassing Eddie Garrity, a musician who turned to crime after injuring his hand. In a private meeting with Steve, Scudder says he will not put this incident on record, but urges Steve to recognize and learn to change his violent impulses. When they are moved to their permanent quarters, Bill Howard, their representative at the Men's Council, gives them a tour. Bill, a former killer transformed by the institution who is nearing parole, befriends Steve and suggests that he run for the Council when Bill's term ends. At first Steve declines, but he changes his mind when he realizes that it would provide him with more freedom and chances to escape. After conferring with a surgeon, Scudder tells Eddie that an operation might repair his hand, but Eddie refuses, afraid of disappointment. Risking further injury to his hands, Eddie becomes fascinated with welding and chooses it as his job. Even with his injured hand, Eddie plays piano very well and the other prisoners, wanting to help him, arrange for him to meet prisoner Leonard Haskins' niece, Sally. When Eddie and Sally's relationship blooms, Eddie takes a new interest in life and agrees to have the operation. After recovering, Eddie plays in a jazz band on election night, when Steve is voted in as Council representative. Later, Sanders picks a fight with Steve, and convinces Haskins, a weaker man, to tell Scudder that Steve started the fight. Although Scudder senses that Steve is not guilty, he must act on the evidence and sentences him to isolation. After Haskins, at Bill's urging, tells Scudder the truth, Steve is released. Steve admits to Bill that he now wonders if the man he almost killed was really guilty of robbing him and that he worries about his son, who does not know that he is in prison. On the weekend, Mary brings Win to visit. Steve, who has been advised by Bill to be honest with the boy, confesses to Win that he is paying for a mistake he made. At first, Win is saddened by the news, but father and son soon reconcile, and Mary and Steve's relationship also improves. Joe's relationship with Elaine comes to an end when she drops him after learning that he does not have a large stash of money hidden. At his parole review, Steve's mixed record prompts the board to pass him over and postpone sentencing for six months. Disheartened, he considers escaping, and Bill, who knows from experience what Steve is thinking, tells him he will never feel free if he leaves now. Unconvinced, Steve approaches Joe about planning an escape, but Joe has decided to serve out his sentence. While the other prisoners attend a boxing match, Steve walks alone to the fence and finds Bill waiting there for him. When reason fails to convince Steve to give up his plan to escape, Bill fights with him to prevent him from going over the fence. Steve knocks out Bill and then sees the deep scars on Bill's back from past beatings. Although he starts to climb the fence, half way up Steve stops and returns to where Bill, who has awakened, watches him. Together they return to the prison.


Film Details

Release Date
Feb 26, 1955
Premiere Information
Chino, CA opening: 19 Jan 1955; New York opening: 27 Jan 1955
Production Company
Hall Bartlett Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Location
Chino--California Institution for Men, California, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the book Prisoners Are People by Kenyon Jackson Scudder (New York, 1952).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 15m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.85 : 1

Award Nominations

Best Song

1955

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Voice-over narration at the beginning of the film, which introduces "Steve Davitt" and the prison at Chino, ends by stating: "This is the story, photographed at Chino, as it happened." All credits appear at the end of the film. Hall Bartlett's onscreen credit reads: "Written, produced and directed by Hall Bartlett." A written dedication to Rebekah and Kenyon Jackson Scudder, and to the men and staff of Chino, followed by an acknowledgment to the California Department of Corrections and its director, Richard A. McGee, for the cooperation received during the production of the film, occurs after the end credits.
       In 1941, Kenyon J. Scudder founded the California Institution for Men at Chino, an experimental "prison without walls," armed guards, uniforms, or gun towers, that is still in existence. The prison's system devised by Scudder, which appealed to the inmates' sense of self-respect, attempted to rehabilitate the men rather than punish them. In 1952, Scudder published his book about his experiences, Prisoners Are People, and according to an October 1954 Variety article, was offered $60,000 by a major studio interested in filming the story. Because he wanted to retain story approval, he rejected the offer and instead chose Bartlett, who was committed to making films that did not emphasize unnecessary sex and violence. He agreed to receive $5,000 before production began and fifteen percent of the film's profits.
       According to Warner Bros. production notes and the Sat Rev, Bartlett spent three months living inside the prison, interviewing inmates and observing, and had his script approved by Scudder and his wife, and the Chino Men's Council, the committee of elected inmates depicted in the film. According to the Variety review, the incidents portrayed in the film were either actual events or "those that could have occurred." The film was shot on location at Chino, and, as reported in the above-mentioned October 1954 Variety article, Bartlett stated that production was a highly cooperative venture in which everyone involved with the film received a copy of the script. Crew members were encouraged to provide input, and Bartlett believed that suggestions given by the crew resulted in a shortened production schedule.
       According to reviews and several news items, the film had simultaneous premieres in the local Chino theater and the Chino prison, where the mess hall was dressed to look like the lobby of a Hollywood theater and at which several celebrities attended. An October 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Scudder's life was showcased on the NBC television show, This Is Your Life, where portions of the film were shown. News items reported that the film received several awards and merits, among them a special merit award from Parents Magazine, the 1955 National Brotherhood Award for outstanding contribution to the cause of brotherhood, and a special award from the Southern California Motion Picture Council. The film was shown at the London Prison Congress and the World Prison Congress in Geneva, where it was described as the "true story of the greatest advance in prison history," according to a May 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item.
       Playing the role of "Bill Howard" was singer Todd Duncan, who had portrayed "Porgy" in the original Broadway production of Porgy and Bess. Duncan sang a hymn and the film's title song, "Unchained Melody," which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song but lost to "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing." "Unchained Melody" was selected as the number one top song of 1955 through a compilation of all music popularity contests, according to a January 1965 Hollywood Reporter news item. An April 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that three recordings of the song were recorded in the rhythm and blues style by Roy Hamilton on the Columbia label, Al Hibbler on Decca and Leroy Lovett on Atlantic label, respectively. It was also recorded by Liberace, who performed it on his television show, and Les Baxter and his orchestra. It remained a standard through the years and its popularity revived when it was featured in the 1990 Paramount release Ghost, which was directed by Jerry Zucker and starred Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. That film featured another popular version of the song as performed by the Righteous Brothers.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Winter February 1955

Released in United States Winter February 1955