True Story & Great Example of 1930s Social Conscience Films.
mirasreviews | McLean, VA USA | 05/14/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
""I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" is one of the most respected Depression-era "social conscience" pictures. The story was adapted from Robert Burns' autobiography "I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang", and Burns was an advisor on the film even though he was a wanted man at the time it was made. The film was released to great popular success less than a year after Burns' book was published. The story is essentially true, although some details have been changed. The real Robert Burns was perhaps a little less a victim than his character, James Allen, in the movie, and he was a magazine editor, not an engineer. Allen is a man who is consistently wronged in spite of trying to do right, and Depression-era audiences identified with his victimhood. Robert Burns was a crusader against the inhumanities of chain gangs, on which he was twice forced to serve. Instead of confining its themes to one cause, filmmakers made "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" into a platform for a host of social issues of the time, including unemployment, veterans' rights, the penal system, and the criminal justice system. Although most of the events of the film take place in the 1920s, the economic circumstances depicted in the film have been altered to reflect the hardships of the 1930s, when the film was made.
James Allen (Paul Muni) is a World War I veteran returning home with high hopes of putting the engineering skills he learned in the Army to civilian use. He takes a factory job, but is reluctant to replace the routine of the military with that of the factory. So he travels the country in search of construction work but has trouble making ends meet. One evening, he accompanies an acquaintance to a lunch wagon for a hamburger. His friend tries to rob the proprietor, and James is sentenced to 10 years hard labor on a chain gang as his accomplice. On the chain gang. prisoners are beaten, starved, and sleep deprived, and James makes a successful escape. He ends up in Chicago, where his landlady, Marie (Glenda Farrell), blackmails him into marrying her with threats of exposure. But James works his way up from a laborer on a bridge project all the way to engineer and becomes a honored and affluent citizen of the city. When he threatens the free-spending and philandering Marie with divorce, she exposes James to the police. And things begin to repeat themselves.
The social agenda of "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" is heavy-handed, but there is no denying the film's impact on audiences in 1932. And this film isn't nearly as political as some of the New Deal movies that would follow later in the decade, as it was made during the Hoover administration. It's just a very good example of "social conscience" filmmaking of the 1930s, made all the more interesting because the story is essentially true. Paul Muni gives a sympathetic performance as a bright, hardworking man who is trying to build America into a better nation as America keeps tearing him down. I have to mention Edward Ellis, a wonderful character actor of the 1930s who is memorable here as James' friend on the chain gang, Bomber. "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" was critically acclaimed, popular, and timely in the 1930s. It's also a very good film that fans of 1930s cinema won't want to miss.
The DVD ( Warner Brothers 2005 release): This is a good print of the film, but it does not appear to be a restored print. There is an occasional white speck on the image, but picture and sound quality are basically good. Bonus features include a short film, a theatrical trailer, and an audio commentary. The short film is "20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang" (20 minutes), which is a comedic spoof of "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang". A zany group of convicts escape the chain gang only to try to return because the conditions have become luxurious in preparation for a review by the Governor's Committee. The audio commentary is by USC film professor Richard B. Jewell. Jewell talks about the actors, making the film, the film's reception, and compares the life of the real Robert Burns to his fictional counterpart in the film. This is an informative, generally well-organized commentary that I recommend if you enjoyed the film. Subtitles of the film are available in English, French, and Spanish."
A Cinema Classic
A. L. Spieckerman | 04/04/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Watching I AM A FUGITIVE is an experience. The viewer can't help but get caught up in the ongoing saga of James Allen, a World War I vet who is sent to jail for a crime he didn't commit. Because it was made so long ago, in 1932, you would think that it's age would hurt the film. But in this case, it is just the opposite. Watching this movie is like going back into time and we can almost feel the suffering of James Allen (Paul Muni) as he endures the horrors of a Georgia chain gang. This film has some historical significance as well, for after its release there was a public outcry against the chain gang prison system which was mostly prevelant in the South. As a result, chain gangs soon disappeared. I AM A FUGITIVE hits the viewer with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It stunned the audiences of the 30s with its brutal portrayal of living conditions in Georgia prisons (mild by today's cinema standards). And although Muni's acting gets a bit hammy at times, his portrayal of Allen is a great achievement. And the ending! Besides the emotional punch it delivers, I AM A FUGITIVE is full of truths. And after 65 years, those truths may be even more relevant today than when the film was made. Don't miss it!"
Crime must be punished
Steven Hellerstedt | 06/17/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Good movies tend to make bad history and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, a great movie, is no exception. I AM A FUGITIVE is the story of James Allen, a character closely modeled on the real individual named Robert Burns, who, along with two other men, in 1922 robbed an Atlanta grocer of $5.80 Burns was tried, convicted, and sentenced to serve six to ten years of hard labor on a Georgia chain gang. After only a couple of months into his sentence Burns escaped and fled to Chicago, where he found a good measure of success. Burns married into some money and, within a few years, was a respected and somewhat influential member of society. During this time Burns founded and edited the real estate trade magazine, Greater Chicago Magazine. Then, fate decreed, his life was to change again. Burns fell in love with another woman and asked his wife for a divorce. At this point his wife, who had some knowledge of Burns' troubled past, reported him to authorities. Georgia sued for extradition and, after some negotiations which, according to Burns, included a promise of an early parole, Burns returned to Georgia and her notorious chain gang in July, 1929. Slowly realizing that an early release was unlikely, 14 months into his internment Burns escaped the chain gang for a second time. Fugitive Burns sold his story to True Detective magazine, where it ran as a serial and was soon published as a book, a best-seller, entitled I am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang. The movie is based on Burns' best-selling book, although in the movie Burns is named James Allen and he's a decorated vet with dreams of becoming an engineer. At every turn the character is buffed, burnished, and elevated by the filmmakers. The guy can't do no wrong in the movie. The real life Burns, after his first escape, apparently married into some wealth. The movie's James Allen is a self-made man saddled with a shrewish wife. No big deal, but the movie pounds into us the notion that Allen is a darn good egg, a self made man fighting the odds who had some of the awfulest breaks you could imagine. The accomplished actor Paul Muni throws his heart and soul into the role of James Allen and, in so doing, pretty much seals the deal. The righteous purity of Allen's character isn't the main issue anyway. The chain gang system defined cruel and unusual punishment and director Mervyn LeRoy captures its dehumanizing brutality with astonishing force. Given the censorship practices of the time it's just this side of a miracle that I AM A FUGITIVE retains such power. Film historian Richard Jewell, in some detail, discusses the problems posed by a stricter code for a movie of this type. He also goes into quite a bit of detail about the real life character the movie was based on. If you like background histories of stars and stories above film deconstruction you'll love Jewell's informative commentary. The print is in good shape and the ending is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful in film history. Mervyn LeRoy is usually described as a competent, but something of a journeyman, director. Although he's somewhat dismissed because of his lack of a distinctive auteur style, he had a heck of a lot of great movies to his credit. I'm a sucker for strong endings, and I AM A FUGITIVE and another LeRoy movie, LITTLE CAESAR, have terrific closing scenes. Also included on the dvd is the 20-minute Vitaphone musical-comedy short "20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang." It's very goofy, with miniature French poodles acting as bloodhounds and the inmates barracks infested with lace doilies, tuxedoed inmates, and scantily clad chorus girls. Highlights include the unforgettable The Sing-Sing Serenade. "
An incredible film!
A. L. Spieckerman | Los Angeles, CA United States | 02/06/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I considered Paul Muni amazing in Scarface (and consider that one of the best gangster films ever), but he knocked me on my ... with this performance. I was mesmorized from his speech to his father at the dinner table--explaining his dreams and desires, his frustrations at his mundane life. It's an absolutely incredible film. I'm not sure what I expected, I knew it was a film that was often banned for it's less than glowing portrayal of the chain gang system and especially the unfair justice system.
The Cinematography was especially compelling, it was so incredible to look it that I could care less if they reused the chain gang sets and guards. I loved the passage of time, with the calenders falling away to the beat of sledgehammers. And the final shot elevated the film to an even higher plane of achievment. Extremely gutsy to end the film on the line it ends on as Paul Muni backs into shadow, beautifully done, a perfect ending."
More Facts For Fans Of This Film
Craig Connell | Lockport, NY USA | 05/01/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Since the movie ends somewhat abruptly, I was interested in what happened to this character in real life, so I did some research. For those interested, read on:
The man, whose real name was Burns, lived quite awhile in New Jersey, wrote the book with this same title, even smuggled himself into Los Angeles for two weeks to help with the movie, using an assumed name and acting very skittish. He then went back to New Jersey. The state of Georgia, home of these chain gangs, tried to extradite him but New Jersey wouldn't give him up.
Regarding the film........ "Powerful" was a word describing this movie when it came out over 70 years ago, and it still holds true today. It was based on a true story and if injustice bothers you, this film will be disturbing. It certainly was to me, at least the first time I saw it.
I've seen it several times and am always mesmerized by Paul Muni's performance. Just the expressions on his face alone are fascinating. The other members of the cast are so-so, but it's Muni's movie anyway. Great to have it on DVD, too! "