AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
Director: Mervyn Le Roy (Dir)
Release Date:   19 Nov 1932
Premiere Information:   New York premiere: 11 Oct 1932
Production Date:   29 Jul--7 Sep 1932
Duration (in mins):   76 or 90
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Cast:   Paul Muni (James Allen [later known as Allen James])  
    Glenda Farrell (Marie [Woods])  
    Helen Vinson (Helen)  
    Noel Francis (Linda)  
    Preston Foster (Pete)  
    Allen Jenkins (Barney Sykes)  
    Berton Churchill (The judge)  
    Edward Ellis (The bomber)  
    David Landau (The warden)  
    Hale Hamilton (Rev. Allen)  
    Sally Blane (Alice)  
    Louise Carter (Mrs. Allen)  
    Willard Robertson (Prison board chairman)  
    Robert McWade (Ramsey)  
    Robert Warwick (Fuller)  
    William Le Maire (Texas)  
    Edward J. McNamara (Second warden)  
    Sheila Terry (Allen's secretary)  
    James Bell (Red)  
    John Wray (Nordine)  
    Everett Brown (Sebastian T. Yale)  
    Edward Arnold (Lawyer)  
    Oscar Apfel (Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce)  
    Erville Alderson (Sheriff)  
    William Janney (Sheriff's son)  
    C. Henry Gordon (District Attorny)  
    Spencer Charters (C. K. Hobb)  
    Roscoe Karns (Steve)  
    Charles Middleton (Conductor)  
    Harry Holman (Sheriff of Monroe)  
    John Marston (Prison commissioner)  
    Jack La Rue (Ackerman)  
    Reginald Barlow (Parker)  
    Charles Sellon (Hot dog man)  
    G. Pat Collins (Wilson)  
    William Pawley (Dogsy)  
    Lew Kelly (Mike)  
    Dewey Robinson (Blacksmith)  
    Sam Baker    
    Morgan Wallace    
    Russell Simpson    

Summary: Returning from World War I, Sergeant James Allen decides to go into construction work to build something positive after the destruction of the war. There are not enough jobs, however, and soon he unsuccessfully tries to pawn his war medals. By accident, Jim gets involved in a robbery in which the actual thief is killed, and he gets sentenced to ten years on a southern chain gang. The brutal conditions drive him to escape. He slips off his shackles with the help of another prisoner and takes off, dogs baying at his heels. He manages to reach Chicago and, under the name Allen James, works his way up in the construction business. Marie, his landlady, discovers the truth about him, and now that he is successful, blackmails him into marrying her. Their marriage is a disaster. One night at a party, Jim meets Helen and they fall in love. He asks Marie for a divorce, but she refuses and out of revenge, turns him in. When Illinois will not extradite him, southern prison officials offer to pardon him after ninety days if he turns himself in. Anxious to clear his name before he marries Helen, Jim agrees, but when he arrives in the South, he discovers that they lied to him. After his pardon is refused twice, he escapes again, ironically blowing up a bridge during his getaway. This time he must live in hiding. One night he returns to tell Helen goodbye. Completely distraught, she asks him, "How do you live?" "I steal," he answers before he disappears into the shadows. 

Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.  
Distribution Company: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.  
  The Vitaphone Corp.  
Director: Mervyn Le Roy (Dir)
  Al Alborn (Asst dir)
Writer: Howard J. Green (Scr)
  Brown Holmes (Scr)
  Sheridan Gibney (Scr)
Photography: Sol Polito (Photog)
Art Direction: Jack Okey (Art dir)
Film Editor: William Holmes (Ed)
Costumes: Orry-Kelly (Gowns)
  Cheney Brothers (Silks by)
Music: Leo F. Forbstein (Vitaphone Orch cond)
Production Misc: S. H. Sullivan (Tech dir)
  S. Charles Enfield (General press agent)
Country: United States

Source Text: Based on Robert E. Burns's autobiographical book I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang! (New York, 1932).
Authors: Robert E. Burns

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc 1/11/1932 dd/mm/yyyy LP3386

Physical Properties: Sd:
  b&w:

 
Genre: Drama
Sub-Genre: Prison
 
Subjects (Major): Betrayal
  Chain gangs
  False arrests
  Fugitives
  Prisons
  Prison escapes
  Robbery
  United States--South
 
Subjects (Minor): Blackmail
  Chicago (IL)
  Duplicity
  Engineers--Civil
  Explosives
  Jealousy
  Landladies
  Marriage--Forced
  Parties
  Trials

Note: Robert E. Burns's book was serialized in True Detective Mysteries (publication date undetermined). Both Paul Muni and the picture were nominated for Academy Awards. The National Board of Review named it the best picture of 1932. All contemporary reviews include Sheridan Gibney as one of the screenwriters, but his name does not appear on screen. According to FD , Wynne Gibson was considered for the female lead. MPH credits Morgan Wallace with the role of "Ramsey," Sam Baker with "Sebastian T. Yale" and Russell Simpson with the role of "Sheriff." Although many reviews refer to the film's locale as Georgia, the film itself leaves its southern location unnamed. Modern sources differ as to whether Burns was recaptured during a publicity appearance and subsequently was put back into prison or whether he remained free until his death from cancer in 1955. According to modern sources, a replica of the prison camp was built on the Warner Ranch in Calabasas, CA. The rock breaking scene was shot in an actual quarry in Chatsworth, CA. DV notes that there was a possibility that the Soviet government would release the film as one of three American pictures permitted circulation in the USSR. Cabin in the Cotton had already been shown because "it exploited oppression of poor whites in the South." DV reports that two wardens sued Warner Bros. and Vitaphone for alleged attacks on them in the film. HR identifies one of the wardens as L. C. Perkins, who was in charge of the Campbell County prison camp from which Burns escaped. The lawsuits were dismissed by the Fulton, GA Superior Court. Modern sources identify the wardens as J.H. Hardy and P. Philips. The chain gang system was not abolished until 1937. According to interviews with Mervyn LeRoy, the darkness at the end of the film was the result of a fortuitous accident. Just as Paul Muni finished his line, "I steal," the electricity in the studio failed. When the rushes were viewed, the sudden darkness was thought to be so effective, that he decided not to reshoot the end. Modern sources add the following credits: Exec prod, Hal B. Wallis; Tech dir, Jack Miller. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Daily Variety   8 Mar 34   p. 15.
Daily Variety   26 May 34   p. 5.
Film Daily   23 Jul 32   p. 4.
Film Daily   5 Oct 32   p. 8.
Film Daily   21 Oct 32   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   2 Aug 32   pp. 3-4.
Hollywood Reporter   26 Aug 32   p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter   6 Sep 32   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   15 Oct 32   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   18 Oct 32   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   31 Oct 32   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   8 Nov 32   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   20 Dec 32   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   10 Nov 33   p. 4.
Motion Picture Herald   22 Oct 32   p. 31.
New York Times   11 Nov 32   p. 17.
Variety   15 Nov 32   P. 19.

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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