The old-time movie moguls weren’t interested in making art or changing minds.
“If you want to send a message,” M-G-M’s Sam Goldwyn is reported to have said, “use Western Union.”
But the Depression nevertheless found the big studios dabbling heavily in what we now call “social problem pictures.” These movies, while frequently very entertaining, also brought to the public’s attention flaws in the system. They exposed injustices, they picked at situations and policies detrimental to society.
Problem pictures could range from gangster dramas (purportedly intended to inform the public of the criminal scourge created by Prohibition, but popular for their violence and the outsized personalities of the characters) to prison films, stories of mob justice, and tales of poverty, unemployment, and police corruption.
Prostitution and “fallen women” were also dealt with ... but that ended in 1934 when Hollywood began enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code, which among other things banned all mention of sex from the screen.
The greatest of all social problem pictures was Warner Bros.’ I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang released in November, 1932.
Starring Paul Muni, who just a few months earlier had become a household name for playing the title role in the gangster drama Scarface, Fugitive is one of the few feature films actually responsible for a major change in government policy.
Director Mervyn LeRoy, only 32 at the time but with two dozen features to his credit, became intrigued by a memoir written by Robert E. Burns, a World War I veteran who returned to the States, struggled to find employment, and was arrested in Georgia for attempted robbery.
Though Burns maintained that a fellow drifter had forced him to participate in the crime at gunpoint, he was convicted and sentenced to a long term on one of Georgia’s notorious chain gangs, where men slaved for 12 hours a day, ate substandard food, and were routinely whipped.
Burns escaped and fled north, finally taking up residency in New Jersey, which had no extradition agreement with Georgia. That’s where he wrote an account of his life.
LeRoy and producer Hal Wallis had Burns travel secretly to California to be their adviser on the picture. The fugitive was so terrified of being recaptured and returned to a chain gang that he would vanish at the first sound of a police siren.
But thanks to Burns, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is remarkably authentic, and as disturbing in 2013 as it was in 1932.
The early scenes describe the efforts of our hero – renamed James Allen – to move beyond his pre-war manufacturing job into civil engineering: building roads and bridges. Muni’s performance is contained and realistic ... he makes Allen an ethical Every Man stymied by his lack of education. (Also, it’s one of the rare Muni appearances where he does not wear feature-altering makeup.)
Then comes Allen’s time on the chain gang, a nightmarish existence of brutal labor and sadistic punishments. These prisoners wear their chains 24/7...even to bed. Their long barracks looks less like a conventional prison than like the slave deck of a Roman galley, with the men joined by long links of chain.
LeRoy’s direction of these scenes still packs immense power. He explains little, but shows us everything. Big chunks of the movie are without dialogue, but like the horrified Allen, we quickly learn how hellish life here will be. This is a world where prisoners literally have to ask a guard’s permission to wipe the sweat off their faces.
After plotting for weeks, Allen finally escapes in a tension-filled segment. He heads north, goes to Chicago, is taken in by a conniving woman who demands that he marry her or be exposed. The marriage is a miserable one but Allen – now using the name Allen James – rises in his chosen field and becomes a pillar of the community. Then the Missus betrays him.
Arrested by agents from Down South, Allen is defended by the cream of Chicago society, who consider him a valued member. But wanting to put the entire incident behind him, he cuts a deal with authorities. He will return to serve a 90-day sentence, pay the expenses of the state’s efforts to recapture him, and then be pardoned.
But state officials have been deeply embarrassed by Allen’s highly publicized accusations about the chain gang system. They ignore the deal once Allen is in custody and once again our man must find a way to escape.
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang ends on one of the grimmest notes ever in a studio movie. The fugitive Allen meets his girlfriend at night, explaining that he will always be on the run and can never see her again. As he backs into the darkness of an alley, she asks how he will survive. From the blackness we hear his final words: “I steal.”
That sequence is justly famous. But according to director LeRoy, it was an accident.
“I was shooting downtown by Chinatown in an alley. And while I was rehearsing – and just as she yelled, ‘Jim, how do you live?’ and he yelled ‘I steal!’ – the lights went off, really went out. So I said, ‘Let’s shoot it both ways: once when the lights are up, and once let the lights go out.’ Well, naturally, we let him go off in the dark. But that was a lucky accident. It didn’t take any genius to do that – it took an electrician to push the wrong button.”
Fugitive was an immense hit and launched a nationwide discussion of the penal systems in several southern states. Though Georgia was not mentioned by name in the film, the state nevertheless filed an unsuccessful libel suit against Warner Bros. Two Georgia prison wardens pursued their own cases.
Mervyn LeRoy and Jack Warner (the head of the studio) were warned never to enter Georgia if they knew what was good for them. LeRoy stayed away for 35 years, finally going to Georgia to help John Wayne direct The Green Berets.
But because of the controversy generated by the film, several southern states scrapped the chain gang system.
LeRoy – who would go on to produce The Wizard of Oz and direct films as varied as Madame Curie, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Quo Vadis, The Bad Seed, and Gypsy – believed that Fugitive was his most important project:
“It had an immediate and profound effect on our culture. I can think of very few films that actually altered laws and corrected heinous conditions, and Fugitive is among that honorable handful.”
Other films in the series “Muni the Magnificent”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 7: Scarface (1932) Not Rated
- December 14: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) Not Rated
- December 21: The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) Not Rated
- December 28: The Life of Emile Zola (1937) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.