One of the things I wish they would bring back about classic cinema is the way they used to do credits. For starters, they used to do them all at the beginning. Still, could you imagine a film like Avengers: Endgame (2019, has it been so long?) going with this style for their credits? I wonder how many people would stick with it, or would have gotten up and left the theater before it started? Actually, the culmination (thus far) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a fitting comparison in this regard to today’s film I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), odd as that may seem. As the obligatory words begin rolling at the close of the Marvel movie, we see the principle characters given their own little highlight reels from all the films leading up to this one. With our 1930s film, we have kind of the same thing, but at the start. I suppose this is simply matter of taste, but I like seeing faces and actors put together to give you a clue early on as to who is who.
With the novel opening credits out of the way, I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang introduces us to the seemingly innocuous main character James Allen (Paul Muni). He is a veteran of World War I and is returning home from serving over seas. While still aboard ship, him and his fellow soldiers begin musing about what they will do once they leave the army. Given his wartime service, James desires to go into engineering. Yet, when he debarks from the train at his small town, fill-in-the-blank middle American home, he is greeted by not only his family but his former boss at the factory where he labored before the war. The expectation is that he will take up a new position at his old place of employment. After a couple days of work, he returns home to his mother (Louise Carter) and his brother, the Reverend Robert Allen (Hale Hamilton), and informs them of his desire to pursue his dream of being an engineer. His brother cautions him, telling James that “a job in hand is better than two in the bush,” but his mother’s blessing seals his fate. Thus, off he goes in search of a job building things. He has a tough time finding work, though, and begins leading a rootless existence. One night after checking into a crowded boarding house, one of the tenants tells him that he knows where they can get some free food. Being hungry, James agrees to go along. When they arrive at the diner, it turns out to be a robbery plan by James’ new acquaintance. When the police show up, they end up shooting the other man, but James gets pegged for the crime even though he is essentially an innocent bystander. The judge (Benton Churchill) sentences James to several years of hard labor. This is the punitive lingo way of saying the chain gang, and they are tasked with wielding heavy sledge hammers and making small rocks out of big rocks every day, year after year. Given his innocence and the grinding drudgery, James vows to escape, which he eventually accomplishes with the help of his fellow inmates. Evading capture and changing his name to Allen James (okay, not the most original or smartest idea ever), he eventually makes it to Chicago where he finally is able to find the kind of engineering job he had always wanted. Unfortunately, he encounters the wrong woman too, Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell), a rather forward landlady who blackmails James into marrying her when she figures out his real identity. He is trapped, but his career is progressing to where he becomes a well off and respected member of the community. The one person that does not respect him is Marie. She carries on partying and consorting with other men, flaunting her knowledge of James’ true past while also enjoying the trappings of his newfound wealth. When James meets another woman, Helen (Helen Vinson), and falls in love with her, he demands a divorce. She responds by going to the authorities with what she knows about James. When he is arrested, it becomes big news. The state where he had fled the chain gang comes forward and offers a pardon if he voluntarily returns and pays certain fees. Against the advice of his lawyers, he agrees to do so, thinking it will allow him to put it all behind him and to be with Helen. When he arrives, though, they tell him he must spend an extra ninety days of hard labor. These terms keep getting changed, and what is supposed to be three months gets extended to a year, and then indefinitely as apparently the governor did not like the fact that James criticized the state’s prison system when they finally caught up with him. In desperation, he escapes again. You might think, okay, he is going to go back to Helen. And he kind of does, but only to tell her that the authorities will always be after him, and that they could not be together. The film ends with him slipping into the shadows, a haunted look on his face.
I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a tough pill to swallow on many levels. As I watched, I kept expecting the truth to come out, and James to be exonerated in some way. That never happens. Contextually speaking, there is a lot going on here that might help explain why this does not occur. For starters, this film came out at the height of the Great Depression. In some parts of the country during this time, the unemployment rate got as high as twenty-five percent. Think about that the next you worry about those figures today. Because there were so many looking for work, it would seem like the movie was trying to tell its audience to be satisfied with what they had because there is a lot of uncertainty in the world, particularly during the 1930s. This sentiment is reinforced when Reverend Allen cautions his brother against leaving the factory job. Reverend Allen is also the only one to visit James while the younger man is in prison, which I found interesting. I could not say definitively whether or not Reverend Allen is supposed to be a Catholic priest, but my instincts say no. In any case, one of the ministries of the Church is to visit people in jail. It is to fulfill an admonishment Jesus gives in a parable in Matthew 25 about coming to see people in such predicaments. When Reverend Allen goes to see James, it is to inform him that the pardon he thought was going to come after ninety days had been denied, and that he must spend another year in custody. It is the message of hope that he gives James at this point that allows the detainee to bear the extra length of the sentence. Unfortunately, Reverend Allen is conspicuously absent after that year is over, which makes me wonder if the movie is also trying to subtly say that we must do the time for the crime, as the saying roughly goes. It is difficult to say, though, because it also appears to be against chain gangs in general. Because of how people can often be treated while incarcerated, this is why the Church has a prison ministry. I have not done a lot research on this, but I believe that this film is partly responsible for changes in the American penal system. No longer was jail meant to be punitive, but rather reformative. That is an idea any Christian can support.
I wish I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang had ended differently, but it is still a solid piece of classic cinema. James is a likable character, and while you wish he did not have to escape from his hard labor you root for him nonetheless. Since it is a little over an hour and a half long, it moves along well too. In my other career as a college professor, I have taught a course on American Film. I use them as pieces of history in order for people to understand the culture of the time in which it was made. I think this is useful to do today with films like this one, especially when you compare it to how things are today. This is all a long way of saying that it is worth your time.