I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) movie poster

(1932) dir. Mervyn LeRoy
viewed: 01/11/09

An excellent pre-code flick, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is Hollywood social criticism and drama in effective, realistic, and iconic ways.  Directed by Mervyin LeRoy (Little Caesar (1931)) and starring the excellent Paul Muni (Scarface (1932)), it’s pretty primal, gritty, pre-noir, yet with some truly noirish character.  Based on a book about the true-life experience of a chain gang fugitive from Georgia, this film actually helped to bring an end to the brutal chain gang system that it depicts.  How many Hollywood films of any era have had such significant social effect?

Muni is a decorated war hero, returning from WWI (notably at the time the only “World War”), but he’s not satisfied with returning to the old job, the small town.  He has had a taste of the world, the opportunities in engineering and the depravity of war, and wants more.  Hitting the road to find work, he travels a very Great Depression-era experience, hoofing it, living hand-to-mouth, and not making his name.  When he gets mixed up in a small-change robbery and arrested, he winds up on the brutal chain gang, where beatings are ritual, and men in chains are treated worse than animals.

LeRoy’s narrative style is very visual, with rhythmic repetitions of the hammers striking the rocks as time ticks past, the chain gang spirituals intoned by the men, and the grim faces of the slave-like world.  And it’s an exciting and fast-paced tale, moving through the narrative with rapidity, and using language and vernacular in ways that feel strongly of the world of the time.  While Preston Sturges echoed this experience in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), one kind of imagines that it was both of these films that inspired the milieu of the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), especially with this film’s use of music.

It’s excellent stuff.  The final image of the film is awesome and telling, too.  After having re-submitted himself to the the chain gang system to pay his debt to society, Muni is tricked into a never-ending cycle again, and is forced to escape a second time.  He appears to his lost love out of the shadows, saying that he is on the run and that he’ll always be on the run.  And rather than some solution and reconcilliation, he drifts back into shadow, with the hunted look on his face, it’s a haunting ending.  Excellent, excellent stuff.

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