Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Cool Hand Luke (1967) were two films that took a fairly extensive look at what a chain gang actually was in cinematic terms. Meanwhile, Sam Cooke’s eponymous song made almost in jest has added another layer to the tradition.
Nowadays Chain Gangs seem a bit archaic and a part of the uncomfortable history of the South only to fall a few rungs below the injustice of Jim Crow Laws and the like. But the pre-code drama with its sensationalized title, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, was nevertheless dealing with issues very pertinent to the age and its story was semi-autobiographical in nature.
Just as this film, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, has undoubtedly been lost among other titles of the 1930s, it seems that Paul Muni as an actor has generally fallen out of the public spotlight when classic actors are concerned. Because in his day, on stage and screen, he was considered one of the finest performers that the world had to offer setting precedents that actors have followed for decades onward in terms of preparation, research, and commitment to roles still further exemplified by his extensive costume and makeup work.
Brando is supposed to have said himself that Muni was the greatest actor he ever saw and though the man upon reevaluation has been accused of overacting, there’s no denying the repute he held in his day and watching Chain Gang there’s little doubt that he carries the picture.
In its essence, this is a film of unfortunate circumstances embodied through incisive drama. James Allen (Muni) could best be described as a wide-eyed dreamer. Coming back from WWI he wants nothing to do with his old factory job, intent instead to try his luck as an engineer. But his family cannot understand how he can be so ungrateful. Still, he heads off on his own to “seek his fortune” but what beckons him is the life of a drifter and it goes alright until the fateful day where he finds himself implicated in a small time bank robbery that he never saw coming.
Still, the police only see the reality and he was the one with his hand caught in the cookie jar so their justice is swift — 10 years of hard labor. It’s in these initial interludes where life on a chain gang is painted grimly and dour. There’s nothing to be hoped for in such an existence where the food stinks, you stink, and there’s little respite from the work.
Understandably Allen is discontent and he becomes one of the few that makes a break for it and lives to tell about it. In fact, what’s more, his future becomes a bright spot as he rises up the ranks of an engineering firm and makes a bit of a name for himself. But opportunistic women and a murky past do not bode well.
Yes, he has become a credit to society, turning his life around completely, but the sticklers for law and order want him to pay off his debt and finish out his sentence before a pardon is to be enacted. He does the honorable thing and expects the gentleman’s agreement in return but instead, he watches the gates clink behind him for good.
Our protagonist is led through an existence of seeming futility that finally hits the lowest depths. By the film’s end, you almost forget that he was one of the doughboys who made it home from the war to end all wars with its plethora of disillusionments only to become a fatality at home.
It ends in the same forlorn crossroads as a picture like The Blue Angel (1930) or Nightmare Alley (1947) except maybe it’s even more akin to Fritz Lang’s seething crime drama You Only Live Once (1937) because in both cases a system of justice that is held in the highest regard, namely America’s system, is shown to be riddled with flaws that go to the core of what true justice is. It all but fails him.
This film does not even begin to unpack the reality that most of the men on the chain gang are African-American, readily choosing the perspective of the white man in almost all accounts because this is the 1930s. So even a picture like this that dredges up important issues for its day is still flawed if you look at it now from a bird’s eye view.
One other qualm with Chain Gang, oddly enough, comes with its short running time. With all of its supporting characters, it never seems to build any kind of rapport with any of them and each new female lead hardly feels substantial enough. Still, yet again, it is Muni’s film and he’s generally up to the challenge as our cinematic surrogate traversing each ruinous twist in his life. He’s put through hell twice and no man should have to deal with that. It’s not human.