Unoffical HTF Review - I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Keith Paynter, May 10, 2005.

  1. Keith Paynter

    Keith Paynter Screenwriter

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    Unofficial HTF Review - I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)

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    Principal Cast
    James Allen/Allen James - Paul Muni
    Marie Woods - Glenda Farrell
    Helen - Helen Vinson
    Pete - Preston Foster
    Barney Sykes - Allen Jenkins
    Bomber Wells - Edward Ellis

    Screenplay by Robert E. Burns based on his book I Am A Fugitive From A Georgia Chain Gang
    Directed by Mervin LeRoy
    Released by Warner Home Video, Inc.

    The Film

    I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is considered one of the first "social commentary" films to come from Hollywood, and a product of the pre-Hayes-censorship era. Based on Robert Burn's autobiography, the film is a gritty presentation and features tough language ("S.O.L." is heard almost at the beginning) and references to sexual favors, and is a very downbeat film released by a major studio at the height of The Depression - when movies were meant to be escapist fare, Warner films were "ripped from the headlines". Elements of Burns' story would be changed for dramatic purposes, and although the film never specifically mentions Georgia, the bulk of the story occurs in a "southern state" where the chain gang system of reform saved the state thousands of dollars using prison labor to build roadways, etc.

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    James Allen (Muni) returns home from active duty in WWI in the Engineering Corps to a doting mother, a Reverend brother and a girlfriend who waited for him during the war (but oddly enough she is never mentioned in the film again). War has changed James and he wants to become a civil engineer and build things, but his mother and his brother, along with his former employer seem determined to have him back at his old job in a shoe factory - his first experience being trapped. James makes the decision to strike out on his own, but as he travels from state to state looking for work, his optimism turns to desperation as he eventually turns into a penniless transient, walking the railway ties to his latest destination - the South (the map we are shown accompanying his journey fades out in Tennessee, but he has arrived in Georgia).

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    At a flophouse he meets up with a hustler, Pete (Preston Foster), who offers to get him a handout hamburger at a nearby diner. At the diner, Pete pulls a holdup on the cook and tells James to empty the register, but there's only a $5 bill to be taken. The police arrive and shoot Pete, and for trying to escape with the $5 bill in his possession James is charged and sentenced to ten years hard labor. The pounding of the Judge's gavel becomes the thud of a blacksmith hammer as James is bound a shackled in chains at a forced labor camp with armed guards and a stockade.

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    The brutality begins as the prisoners are woken at 4:20 in the morning, and being new to the routine James is beaten by guards only because he doesn't know the rules. At the morning morning meal (an appalling mix of grease, fried dough, pig fat, and sorghum) James encounters lifer Bomber Wells (Edward Ellis, title character of The Thin Man). At the rock pit, James is again attacked by a guard for simply wiping his brow (he has to ask first), and the work day ends around 8:20pm. After "dinner" the warden comes through the barracks, simply to whip prisoners who did not do their work as expected. When James speaks up, he is corralled to be whipped as well, and while the first prison screams in pain during his abuse, James holds his tongue.

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    During a day off (Sunday), Barney Sykes (Allen Jenkins) is legally released, and six months pass. James is finally able to make an escape when he has another inmate hammer at the shackles on his leg, and later during bathroom break ("brushing his teeth") is given some money by Bomber and told to look up Barney. He is able to slip out of the chains and run to freedom, stealing some clothes and arrives in the small city of Booneville (limping during a memorable upward pan). He uses the money to buy a clean set of clothes and get a shave (a shot of a leather strap contrasts the one used to previously whip him). A rare moment of humor comes while a policeman is in the barbershop, James leaves and is asked by the barber if the shave was close enough, and he replies "plenty!" James locates Barney, who, it turns out, runs a brothel. He gives him a room for the night and asks one of his girls to "keep him company". Fade out...

    The next day, James hopes to catch a train, but the chief of police is scouting for the escaped fugitive. Thinking he is discovered, he jumps on the train as the police pass him and chase after a transient hiding under one of the passenger cars. On the train he is asked for his ticket by the conductor (Charles Middleton - best known as "Emperor Ming" from the Flash Gordon serials) who eyes him suspiciously but fails to question him. By whatever travel means necessary, James heads northward and eventually reaches Chicago, landing a job under an assumed name at the Tri-State Engineering Company, and is now slinging a pickaxe (this time for pay). Through a montage of pay stubs, we see "Allen James" rise up in salary and stature to eventually become an assistant supervisor, and proves himself to be an honored citizen.

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    During his rise, he rents a room near the bridge he is working on. A young flirtatious blonde landlady Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell) offers the room for a reasonable $25/month, but talks him down to $20/month. Over the years we see the relationship fall apart as James spends more evenings studying and avoiding the amorous, scheming advances of Marie.

    After 5 years and a handsome salary, James needs to move to a bigger place. He admits to Marie he never really loved her, but she plays a trump card - She has a letter from James' brother which implicates him in his escape, and she blackmails him into marriage. James is trapped again. Marie uses her hold on him to spend his money freely and see other men on the side while James has worked his way up to senior management.

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    While at a dinner party hosted by his boss James meets society woman Helen (Helen Vinson). They make a getaway from the party and eventually fall in love. When James tries to get a divorce from Marie she counters by threatening to go to the police, and makes good on her intention - he is arrested while being offered to speak at a banquet by the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce.

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    The state mounts a campaign to keep James from being sent back to the Georgia prison camp, but he eventually agrees to go back for 90 days with an offer of a clerical position after which he will be pardoned. However, once there he is put in the state's worst prison camp, thanks to his unfavorable reports of the chain gang system to the press, again meeting up with Bomber, and after 90 days his pardon is refused. He is told that if he finishes out a year as a model prisoner he will be given a hearing for a pardon, and reluctantly agrees. The year goes by, however, and the prison board suspends their decision, which means James will be forced to serve out his sentence permanently. Trapped again!

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    Crushed, James makes a sensational escape with Bomber in a stolen truck. Bomber is shot dead, and in what can only be considered a state of irony, James eventually makes his escape by blowing up a bridge, and goes into hiding.

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    After a year's worth of headline montages, the fugitive James Allen returns to Helen, only to say goodbye. As he backs into the darkness, she asks him "How do you live", and from the blackness, we hear the words "I steal!"



    The film is a harsh drama, and although real-life fugitive Burns would be captured shortly after the film was released, he did eventually have his sentence commuted to time served and was given back his human rights, but was never pardoned.

    The Transfer - Video

    This is the first DVD release of this classic film, and although credit goes to Warner Home Video for finally releasing it, it appears that the film was not restored, but possibly simply ported over from a laserdisc source master. Despite being spread out over a dual layer, the picture is never very clean. Even the dirty vintage WB blue copyright crawl appears immediately following the film. Although the film is presented for 1.33:1 framing (including the new FBI warning and WHV animation logo), the still-frame menus are presented enhanced for 16:9 screens.

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    3 out of 5


    The Transfer - Audio

    Sadly, the audio presentation is dated as well, and there are some noticeable levels of distortion, as early as the opening credit sequence as we are introduced to the principle cast. the best way to describe it (with apologies to Gary Reber and co., is "undistinguished mono".

    3 out of 5


    Special Features

    20,000 Cheers For The Chain Gang (1933 Vitaphone Short)

    This 20 min musical short parodies the original
    Fugitive as several members of a chain gang make their escape, and opens with a long shot of prisoners with pickaxes, lifted right from the original film. They are chased by guards with several small insignificant dogs, and make their escape by hiding in a small pond, breathing through reeds. They come across a group of very well dressed picnic partygoers (the men are wearing jackets and ties - hardly outdoor wear) who start into a musical number. Back at the prison camp, word gets to the warden and guards that the govenor is coming to inspect the site after an unflattering report, so a few changes are made - gone are the chains from the beds, replaced by linens and bedposts. When the officials arrive, the prisoners are paraded past them, smiling and goosestepping away. The horizontal-striped prison outfits are changed and look more like 3 piece suits, and the meals are replaced by sumptuous banquets (one prisoner complains "every day it's steak - why can't we have beans for a change?"), while dancing girls perform on a catwalk for the prisoners. An escaped convict reading the report in the paper on how good the prisoners have it decides to go back to the chain gang while his significant other threatens to call the cops on him because he won't clean up around the house. When the escaped convicts all meet up at the camp, the guards won't let in "prisoners who escape". As they break in and fall to the ground, we are taken out of what has been a dream sequence, and life goes on back on the chain gang.

    This might have been entertaining in 1933 after the original film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, but it is really a musical vehicle for The Vitaphone Singers, The Rollickers and The Pickens Sisters. Typical escapist fare during the Depression, but certainly no Busby Berkeley production.

    The sound on this short is bad. Shrill and distorted, especially during the musical numbers, but what is surprising is that this short looks good - definitely the first time this has ever been put on home video, and not mastered from an old video source. It looks better than the main feature!

    Original Theatrical Trailer

    Lots of in-your-face text, typical of the era, with special mention that author Robert Burns was still a fugitive at the time of release.

    Commentary by Film Historian Richard B. Jewell (USC)

    Since Jewell's commentary doesn't sound scripted, it is a far more interesting listen. Good insight to the differences between Burns' true-life story and the one presented in the film, and how they made the character of James Allen a "forgotten man", an important returning solder who got a raw deal. There were 2 real locations - the train station and rock pit. The rest was shot on the lot and the Warner ranch. It does get more sporadic as the film goes on, but is educational and entertaining nonetheless. Sonically, the audio is overly compressed and excessively bright.


    Closing Comments

    Believe it or not, before picking up this DVD, I had only ever seen this film once, on late-night television, but it was a powerful enough presentation that the images would remain with me for several years. In spite of the lack of a true restoration (the Warner Classic classic catalogue is full of big and little gems), this presentation of I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang should satisfy fans of the film. The disc is availble separately or as part of the Controversial Classics box set, spanning 40 years of social commentary along with films like Blackboard Jungle, Fury and The Americanization Of Emily.

    Sorry this is not a professional review, as my comments towards the actual presentation are pretty sparse, however having the movie itself far outweighs its digital flaws, so I had to say something. We now return you to our regularly scheduled, professional reviews.

    Keith Paynter
     
  2. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator
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    Between your review and Herb's Kane official review, it appears we have a slight disagreement about this dvd presentation. Since, I've previously seen this film more than a few times, later today, I'll have to breakout my dvd and see which review I agree with the most.[​IMG]







    Crawdaddy
     
  3. Keith Paynter

    Keith Paynter Screenwriter

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    Damn, Robert, I totally missed Herb's review of the box set. I was more interested in this film, and slightly less in Blackboard Jungle. Apologies to Herb's always diligent work, but my views on the quality stand - the vintage Interpol notice is a dead giveaway. It looks far better than a laserdisc dub on home computer, but the source smacks of ported video master...

    If George Feltenstein is visiting the board, I would be interested in his always authoritative response.
     
  4. Mike Frezon

    Mike Frezon Moderator
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    Some quick (and scary calculations) place that viewing of mine at 30 years ago! [​IMG]

    The power of cinema.
     
  5. Roger Rollins

    Roger Rollins Supporting Actor

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    I have the laserdisc of CHAIN GANG, and the DVD is a significantly vast improvement. It certainly has some imperfections, but looks better than I have ever seen it look.

    The interpol message looks awful on everything. That's just glued on, so to speak. And the laserdisc and previous VHS did not have that interpol message. as MGM/UA (under their old Turner license) released the LD and last VHS, and MGM never used that interpol message.
     
  6. Keith Paynter

    Keith Paynter Screenwriter

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    Thanks for the comparison, Roger, that clears things up a bit more. Mind you, the original DVD of Spaceballs looked better than the WS laserdisc, but it was the same transfer as well (the misframing was never fixed on the WS side). Good on ya.
     
  7. Patrick McCart

    Patrick McCart Lead Actor

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    I really doubt this is an old transfer...

    Judging from captures at DVD Beaver, while the source elements aren't perfect, it has too much detail to be that old. See: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDRev...troversial.htm

    Even the early Turner/MGM DVD's (like the original Casablanca) don't look ported. I think this is just a case of difficult source material. After all, it's a 73 year old Warner Bros. film that has changed hands several times over the last few decades.
     
  8. Keith Paynter

    Keith Paynter Screenwriter

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    I'm inclined to agree Patrick. There is a lot of graininess to the image in some of the DVDBeaver images, and digitization can only highlight it, even with data rate averaging 6.5. I will concede that it's the best we're going to get based on the source material.

    That being said, if anyone wants to add more, please feel free, since I did not consider the box set, just this film, which is a powerful experience nonetheless.
     
  9. Bradley-E

    Bradley-E Screenwriter

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    I watched this last night, Great Movie. The transfer was watchable considering its age it was quite good.
     
  10. Russell G

    Russell G Fake Shemp
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    I watched this a few days ago for the first time. Absolutly blew me away! Paul Muni deserves all the props he gets as an actor and more. Amazing modern performance!

    I thought the video was fine, similar to what we see in Little Ceaser.
     
  11. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator
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    Okay, I'm done watching the movie on dvd and as many times I've seen it before, I have never seen this film look this good and thought Warner did a helluva job with it. I'm still working on the dvd's bonus material, but I'm very happy with the dvd presentation of the film itself. [​IMG]






    Crawdaddy
     

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