“The film suggests the denial of the common worker, whose service to industry is only as worthy as his social status.”
The technical limitations of 1930s cinema make them an acquired taste, but the real test is to enjoy these films through their veil of moralism. The production code turned successful hoods into dead bodies or inmates, and one deviation by a morally sound character would call for punishment before long. The influence of the Production Code (first established in 1922 by Will Hays; revised in 1934 by Joseph Breen) gave Scarface’s Tony Camonte the shakes by the film’s end; this gangster, who starts up a gang war and then takes down his own boss, illogically begs for the cops’ mercy at the film’s end. Even with his sideman and sister dead, Camonte going yellow is a long shot. Similarly, Tom Powers (James Cagney) of The Public Enemy and “Rico” (Edwin G. Robinson) of Little Caesar paid for their outlaw triumphs through death: Rico taking bullets through a wall, Powers left as a corpse to fall through the hearth of his home.
The censorious slap taken by the classical gangster films was swift but predictable: an audience could revel in the criminal’s exploits as long as his wrongs were righted. Yet a crime film of another kind, Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, took a real beat-down from the moralistic powers that were. Described as a classic social problem film, Fugitive addresses injustice, as a drifting laborer takes the rap for a crime he was tricked into. Ever since, the theme of the wrongfully accused has run through the American tradition, including inventive entries such as Errol Morris’ documentary-noir The Thin Blue Line and Oscar-bait biopics like Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane. Having delivered a narrative essential to American film, Fugitive is read today as a Depression-era critique of an oppressive system. The film suggests the denial of the common worker, whose service to industry is only as worthy as his social status. In this sense, Fugitive leans Left (even Marxist), as Paul Muni’s James Allen’s continual struggle mirrored the plight of Depression-era Americans who could barely scrounge for a movie ticket.
Though innocent of the first offense, Allen still commits a crime that will bring about his damnation. The first rap — for when a fellow flop-house drifter turns their trip to a diner into a stick-up — brands Allen, and his escape from the chain gang seals his fate. Even before Breen in 1934, the Code was on the watch, demanding that Allen pay up, even in the face of audience sympathy. Fugitive faithfully adapted the story of the real-life Allen, Robert Burns (the film was based on his memoirs), though he was eventually forgiven his unfulfilled sentence. John E. O’Connor, in an introduction to the published screenplay, contextualizes the film as a liberal document, one that indicts “greater forces” controlling the everyman.1 He doesn’t mention another greater force: that of censor boards ready to cut out any scenes they deemed unsuitable.
Allen finishes Fugitive virtually banished from happiness, even when he comes face to face with it at the film’s end. When he sees Helen, a past love, pleading that he allow her to help, Allen resists like the walking dead, pacing backward into darkness. This scene, one of the most famous in 1930s cinema, culminates when Helen cries, “How do you live?” in off-screen voiceover; his response — “I steal!” — is a deep hiss, as if the Wandering Jew were granted a voice. On the one hand, the audience reads this moment of exile as the ultimate victimization, and hence a call against injustice. First sentenced when not a criminal, he has now been made one by the system. (When Burns was rearrested in 1932, however, the state governor refused to extradite him to Georgia due to the book and film’s influence. Many argue today that his story fueled the abolition of the South’s chain gang system.2) Thomas Leitch argues that Allen is caught between innocent and guilty in an unresolved ending, as the authority’s judgment counteracts what we know to be a truer justice3. Yet Allen would be banished, since Hollywood moralism — even at a gritty, socially conscious studio like Warner Brothers, which put a prostitute in one scene — feared his crime could pervert audiences should the film absolve him. In this sense, the ending is hardly ambiguous, but delivers a condemnation against the man for whom we root.
Granted, as unlikely as Allen/Burns’ condemnation is, this attitude toward heroic mis-doers appeared in even sentimental dramas, such as the John Steinbeck adaptations. As Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men (1939) comes to a close, after Burgess Meredith’s George asks Lon Chaney Jr.’s Lenny to purify his thoughts before he shoots him, George makes an odd pause when showing his gun to the police. He then exits the shot along with a cop, not overtly condemned, though the ambiguity would have appeased viewers offended by his mercy-killing. Even Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), who speaks the sappy-strong “I’ll be there” speech, has to be banished from his family for the panicked murder he committed earlier. The film turns his banishment into an inspiring moment in which he pledges to work for a good cause.
When reading Fugitive in terms of the studio policies of the time, we still come to the traditional, liberal take on the film. But a close look reveals an opposing perspective, one rooted in conservative guilt. To undertake this reading, we reel back to Allen’s initial fall, from a promising veteran to a migrant laborer. When he returns home, his old job at the local factory awaits; his family supports the career move and is distressed when he says it bores him. He goes to work, only to stare at the engineering work outside his window. To him, the view is one of opportunity, as Allen doesn’t want to help maintain a factory but create engineering systems. His decision to leave home for a better career disrupts the order of the family, whose morality is accentuated by Allen’s priest brother (usually read as pious support to Allen). The filmmakers and studio feared that Allen’s choice would sour the 1930s family-values moviegoers, themselves worried over the scarcity of jobs.
Long before Hollywood censorship policy catches up with Allen, he is made punishable for disrupting familial conservatism. Denying his dutiful work results in him soon going jobless, then sleeping in a flophouse. This dark territory moves to a darker one — i.e., to the diner where Allen is entrapped. After being caught in the crime, he has nowhere to run; it’s as if the script called in the police before the crime was even committed. Fugitive doesn’t serve up any overtly preachy scenes like in Scarface, in which a newspaper publisher calls for stronger laws against the gangs. (Completely out of place in the film, the scene wasn’t directed by director Howard Hawks but was made after he was off the production.) Fugitive preaches and condemns solely within its narrative arc. The masterful Paul Muni sells it, though his role’s trapped between two ideologies.
After his initial arrest, Allen doesn’t submit to the film’s judgment against him. He breaks free from the chain gang, when a large fellow prisoner bashes his ankle cuffs loose. The pain of each strike reminds Allen of the deep shit he’s in, even if his path away is, for now, cleared. The pinging of the hammers onto the rocks — a trademark use of early sound, as were the rattling guns, sirens, and tire-screeches in the early gangster films — are as continuous as Allen’s suffering.
We get duped by the events after his escape. He rises in a construction business from laborer to the very top, thus fulfilling his aspirations for a time. His success is hardly a vindication: he gets involved with a vamp, who — once again! — traps him. Learning of his past, she blackmails him into marriage, then turns him in when he attempts to leave her for another woman.
We could assert that the film remains liberal, in light of all the counterforce Allen must face. Yet the narrative is just as rooted in conservative guilt. Late in the film, Allen’s own action condemns the job he abandoned home for: after escaping the chain gang — promised a lighter sentence, he gives himself up, then learns he’s been bait-and-switched back to the gang — he blows up a bridge to halt the authorities. As a cyclical theme, the destroyed bridge compliments Allen’s confessed criminal instinct in the film’s final shot.4 Yet, by the time he dynamites the bridge, he’s already cursed, the fuse having been lit on the Right and Left. Fate will never falter, especially when it’s served by Hays and company.
- Howard Green, introduction to I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang: The Warner Brothers Screenplay, ed. by John E. O’Connor and Tino Balio. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981. [↩]
- Green, 10. [↩]
- Thomas Leitch, Crime Films. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002. [↩]
- Jewell, Richard B. Commentary on I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang DVD. [↩]