I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

“I haven’t escaped. They’re still after me. They’ll always be after me. I’ve had jobs but I can’t keep them. Something happens. Someone turns up. I hide in rooms all day and travel by night. No friends. No rest. No peace.” Spoiler alert! James Allen (Paul Muni) returns from World War I with big plans for his future but ends up taking a boring desk job. So he hits the road with the ultimate goal of becoming an engineer and takes a series of dead-end jobs across the country. Before you know it, he’s on the skids and residing in a flophouse (he even attempts to pawn his war medals). When one of the bums invites him to get a burger at a greasy diner, Allen accidentally gets involved in an armed robbery and is sentenced to 10 years on a brutal Southern chain gang. He soon escapes, heads to Chicago and becomes a success in the construction business but his past returns to haunt him. In the memorable closing scene, Allen is asked by his girlfriend, “How do you live?”, and he responds, “I steal,” as he fades into the shadows. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar), the film was based on Robert Elliott Burns’ autobiography, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! and served as a devastating indictment of the Southern penal system. Although the specific state is never mentioned, the film was banned in Georgia. The excellent supporting cast includes Glenda Farrell (as a blackmailing floozy), Helen Vinson, Preston Foster and Edward Ellis. The film and Muni were both nominated for Academy Awards but lost out to Cavalcade and Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII respectively.

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