Director Mervyn LeRoy’s Filmography feels like an emotional pendulum: from fluffy escapism,(Gold Diggers of 1933) to family fantasies (The Wizard of Oz, 1939) to sand-and-sandal epics (Quo Vadis, 1951) to aisle-rolling laffers (Mister Roberts, 1955). He also happens to have made the most unforgettable social comment films of the Depression era, first with 1931’s envelope-pushing crime drama Little Caesar and then 1932’s spine-tingling I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The film has all the earmarks of a Warner Bros production—the home of Public Enemy and Little Caesar and all the other ‘gangster’ films that put the studio squarely on the map. But I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, however, is not a gangster picture. It is a gritty, uncompromising, all out attack on America’s judicial system, made all the damning by the fact that it is a true story.
Decorated WWI vet James Allen (Paul Muni) is wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to ten years hard labor in Georgia’s chain gang system. Fueled by the gravity of the injustice, Allen escapes and makes it clear to Chicago and enters the workforce where his skills in construction bring him much success. His secret, however, is not safe: his opportunistic gal pal finds out about his past and blackmails the increasingly respectable (and wealthy) Allen into marriage. It is inevitable, of course, that Allen finds real love and his threats of divorce lead his wife to turning him over to the police. He is promptly arrested, following which a battle rages between his resident state of Illinois, and the state of Georgia. Initially, Allen is confident in the state of Illinois and is certain of his release. The public is on his side of their respected citizen and Allen voluntarily returns to Georgia to serve a 90-day term of token service in order to receive a pardon. Upon arrival, Georgia’s officials reveal their intent to make an example of Allen and he is thrown into penal barracks and his hearing is suspended.
Allen escapes, thrillingly, a second time (an escape act that many a film has tipped its hat to—most notably 1967’s Cool Hand Luke.) This time there is no re-entering the workplace. Newspapers publicize him as a convict who must be captured. Allen becomes a casualty of corruption: a criminal created by the justice system who’s only means of survival is, as the riveting, closing line of the movie proclaims, to steal. He now is a fugitive from a chain gaing. The film blacks out, leaving the viewer reeling over the blazing social indictment on the chain gang system.
Paul Muni’s James Allen has been widely acclaimed for his extraordinary realism—and any words that I could add would be merely superfluous. Muni’s power lies in the nuance of his performance—his adroit control of character makes his transformation from noble citizen to scavenging outcast entirely believable and thoroughly heartbreaking. He is simply dynamic. The film is a direct product of its time—Allen is the archetypical forgotten man—and its existence would not really have been possible if made even two years later when the movie Production Code began enforcing its puritanical strangle on creative content.
But even now, at 75 years old, this film still puts to shame most every film to come out of Hollywood daring to expose the social justice system–it is definitive social realism.