I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Released:  1932

Cast:  Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Actor (Paul Muni), Best Sound, Recording (Nathan Levinson)

SUMMARY:  After returning home from WWI, Sergeant James Allen (Paul Muni) does not want to return to his former job at a factory.  Instead, he wants to go into engineering, a job he did in the Army.  James is able to find a job quickly, but is also quickly laid off.  This happens several times, causing Allen to travel across the country looking for work.  Eventually, he sinks into poverty, and winds up at a homeless shelter.  That night, he meets a man who says he can talk a diner owner out of a couple of hamburgers; instead, when the men get to the diner, Allen’s companion holds the man at gunpoint and demands all the money from the till.  When he gets the money, he hands it to Allen, but just then, the police burst in and fatally shoot the man.  Allen tries to sneak out a side door, but is caught with the money in his pocket.  In court, he is sentenced to ten years of hard labor, even though it is his first offense.  Allen is then transported to a Southern chain gang prison.  Quickly, Allen determines that he has to escape, as he is unable to stand life on the chain gang.  With advice from an older convict, Bomber, Allen makes an escape not quite a year into his sentence, and manages to get all the way to Chicago.  There, he applies for an engineering job, giving his name as Allen James.  When Allen starts to make decent money at his engineering company, he rents a room in a boardinghouse run by Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell).  Marie is immediately attracted to Allen, and he seems to return the feeling.  They quickly become involved, but after a few months Allen grows tired of Marie’s constant demands.  When he tries to break things off with her, she reveals that she knows his secret, and will turn him into police if he does not marry her.  Forced to choose between Marie and the chain gang, Allen gets married.  He also continues to move up within the engineering company until he is running things, and is making very good money.  However, his relationship with Marie has not improved, and she spends the money almost as fast as he makes it.

During a charitable event, Allen meets Helen (Helen Vinson), and eventually falls in love with her.  He asks his wife for a divorce, offering to pay whatever she wants, but Marie is vindictive, and alerts the police to her husband’s true identity.  Allen’s capture after all these years makes headlines, as do the demands for his return, so that he can serve out his sentence.  However, Illinois refuses to extradite Allen, as he has become a valued member of Chicago society.  After several consultations with lawyers from both states, Allen is offered a deal:  return to prison for 90 days, doing a clerical job, and then receive a pardon, instead of serving out the nine years of his sentence.  Desperate to be rid of this stress, Allen agrees to the terms and returns to the South.  There, he quickly finds that he has been misled:  first, he finds that he is on a chain gang, not in a clerical position; then, he finds that the decision on his pardon has been postponed indefinitely.  Allen realizes that the state does not intend to release him until he has served the 9 remaining years of his sentence, and decides that he must escape again.  With the help of Bomber once again, this time as a co-escapee, he steals a truck and makes a break.  While they are being chased by authorities, Bomber is fatally shot.  Allen manages to escape, and after a year has still not been captured.  He surfaces one evening in Chicago, where he finds Helen.  He tells her that he is disappearing forever, and refuses to give her any more information.  As he backs away into the darkness, she asks him how he survives, and Allen replies, “I steal.”

MY TAKE:  There are a lot of contradictions and unfortunate coincidences in this movie, which is actually based on a true story (the man who it’s about successfully appealed his case after the movie was released).  First, James Allen learns a new trade in the Army, and likes it so much that he wants to go into that field in civilian life.  Unfortunately, even though he is a returning veteran, he can’t find steady work (and this should be before the Depression hit).  This turns a man who won a medal in the war into basically a hobo, who is unlucky enough to stumble across a petty criminal.  Allen had no idea that the man intended to rob the diner, and actually stated that he didn’t want to participate.  However, the other man thrust the money at him, and Allen took it and put it in his pocket – at gunpoint, so it’s a little more understandable.  When the cops arrived, he panicked, but when faced with the cops, he immediately surrendered.  For whatever reason, he got a hard-ass of a judge, who sentenced him to ten years of hard labor for a minor robbery that was a first offense (with rather disputed participation, if you ask me).  Allen then escapes the chain gang and turns himself into a model citizen.  While this is totally admirable, I was unable to totally root for him, because he had escaped.  Yes, I think the sentence was unfair, but escaping is only going to make things worse.  He really should have appealed the case.  Continuing his run of awful luck, Allen gets trapped into a marriage with a witch who eventually turns him in.  He’s then so sick of hiding that he agrees to go back to prison on the assurance that he will receive a pardon – which of course he doesn’t get.  I saw this one coming, but I can’t believe that his lawyer didn’t get some kind of document that guaranteed the pardon before letting Allen return.  Once again, Allen escapes, proving that the prison guards are completely inept, but he knows that this time he will be unable to return to society.  Personally, I don’t know if this exchange would be worth it.  9 years on a chain gang seems like an eternity, but always being on the run actually is a personal eternity.  At the end, when he says that he steals to stay alive, you realize that the prison system has turned him into what he was convicted of being.  Basically, he just has the worst luck ever.

RATING:  Not bad, not stupendous.


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