A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, May 26, 2018

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

Paul Muni in the final scene of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
James Allen: Paul Muni
Marie Woods: Glenda Farrell
Helen: Helen Vinson
Pete: Preston Foster
Barney Sykes: Allen Jenkins
The Judge: Berton Churchill
Bomber Wells: Edward Ellis
The Warden: David Landau
Robert Allen: Hale Hamilton
Mother Allen: Louise Carter
Linda: Noel Francis

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes
Based on a book by Robert Elliott Burns
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art direction: Jack Okey
Film editing: William Holmes
Music: Bernhard Kaun

With the exception of the rather stilted early scene in which World War I veteran James Allen returns home to his stereotypical sweet, gray-haired mother and his oleaginous preacher brother, who urge him to give up his dreams and go back to his old job in the factory, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang mostly feels fresh and urgent. Its final scene gives up nothing in the way of a happy ending, as Allen backs away from his girlfriend into the darkness and chokes out the words "I steal," in response to her question about how he lives. It's above all a critique of American justice, particularly the concept of "states' rights," a shibboleth that was used for a long time as a defense of slavery and then of segregation and Jim Crow. The book on which the film was based was titled I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang, pointing the finger at the state at fault, and while Warner Bros. gave in to the government of Georgia, partly in deference to the Southern box office, and trimmed the title, everyone knew that this particular exploitation of convicts was primarily Southern in nature. And even the use of maps in the montages that show the course of Allen's travels makes it pretty clear where the chain gang is located. If American movies had remained as candid as this one is about social problems, they might have had a real impact. But two forces exerted pressure to tame the movies: the box office and the censors. I Am a Fugitive was made just before the Production Code went into effect, after which some of the brutal realism of the film would be forbidden -- along with the sexual frankness surrounding the character of Marie Woods. This was also Paul Muni's finest hour on film, along with his performance in Howard Hawks's Scarface the same year, before his energies as an actor were tamed by roles in William Dieterle's biopics The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937) or hidden behind yellowface makeup in The Good Earth (Sidney Franklin, 1937).

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