A Book Review Essay by Matthew Sorrento.
It may be tempting to recommend Scarface (1932) or Little Caesar (1930) as a first viewing to newcomers of pre-Code. However, Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am A Fugitive from A Chain Gang! (1932) or the similarly powerful Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933) are stronger choices with their torn-from-the-headlines appeal matching vivid portrayals of the Great Depression, capturing the spirit of perseverance in the face of defeat. Viewers are intrigued by the legacy, and critical readings, of these films as much as their backgrounds. Scott Allen Nollen’s monograph The Making and Influence of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang! (McFarland, 2016) offers much in the latter, while lacking in the former.
Nollen begins with a biographical sketch of the real-life Robert Burns (renamed James Allen in the film version, played by Paul Muni) that pulls readers in with his shocking personal experience. Then, in discussing the memoir on which the film is based, Nollen again recounts the events of Burns life, which leads into a cyclical, and at times repetitive, flow of the narrative, with some new insight. A New York City youth, Burns quits school in his early teens to work. He comes off as a troubled young man, an outsider who was probably difficult to deal with even before serving during the Great War in France: “isolated, running his own paper route and often shutting himself off, alone and racked by periods of depression” (5). Those who jeer at his protests of treatment of veterans returning home – he wore a sandwich board professing his joblessness as a veteran – would say he “asked for” a lot of the trouble he received (in the true story, a job promised to him had been filled by someone else ). His brother Vincent (portrayed in the film by Hale Hamilton) rents a room for Robert at the Brooklyn YMCA to help him study for night classes while he works at a magazine. In 1922 during a fit of PTSD, possibly triggered by a storm outside, Robert abruptly leaves New York for the South, just several weeks after which Vincent receives a letter notifying him of Robert’s arrest for conspiring in a holdup; he is held without bail. A failed robbery of cash, the actual theft is only of $5.80, from ripping a payphone from the wall, which sends him to a brutal chain gang in Georgia. The film re-imagines the crime as an actual armed robbery, with Burns an unwilling participant; it’s faithful in spirit to the actual account in that Burns was lured to the small grocery store with a promise of employment and forced, by his accomplice at gunpoint, into the scheme (8-9).
In the film, a job as an office clerk is waiting for Burns, and his rejection of it was meant to shock the Depression-era audience (just like his rejection distresses some in his family). The film implies him to be guilty (hence, his conviction shocking but not out of the blue) for leaving a safe bet while pursuing the American dream that citizens are conditioned to desire. Nollen’s biographical sketch recounts Burns’ jailbreak (pretty faithfully retold in the film), his rise in magazine publishing in Chicago (changed to construction in the film), the situation of his return to Georgia and imprisonment/enslavement, his second breakout (completely altered in the film), and his escape to New Jersey. He reaches Newark by bus, “roused from a chain-gang nightmare, Robert started up, pulled up the brim of his fedora, and blearily looked around” (16). Readers will accuse Nollen of fictionalizing throughout his narrative. And yet, his description of Burns is readymade to become the haunted Allen of LeRoy’s film. The images channel the kind of Depression-era misery in Dorothea Lange’s photographs, which would later serve as direct inspiration to John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) (198). Nollen’s details, especially for fans of the film, excite us for critical commentary that his text never delivers.
Nollen closes Chapter 1 – to begin the next, putatively on the memoir – with a dramatic turn, wisely using the suspense of Burns’ story to his benefit. While Vincent, at his home in Palisade, NJ, awaits his brother’s return (Vincent learned about Robert’s second escape from the news, and upon arrival Robert connected with his brother by phone), a cop arrives instead (17). From here Nollen presents details showing that Vincent (a priest and poet) had gathered materials about his brother’s arrest and, once they reconnected, began writing the memoir I Am A Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! (“Georgia” left out of the film title to alleviate tensions in the South) for his brother, the latter dictating his memories for Vincent to transcribe in longhand and shape into narrative, later typed by a secretary (22). Vincent is also inspired to write by a 1929 story about his brother in True Detective magazine (21). In the tradition of many oral autobiographies, Robert recounts his memories that Vincent writes in huge stack of pages. It was serialized in six 1931 issues of True Detective magazine before published in book form (22).
Suspense hardly suffers as Nollen recounts the memoir to trace Burns’ experience and note connections that made it, not always directly, into the film. A prominent one: on the morning of June 21, 1922, Robert works to tear down an old bridge with his chain gang before yelling to the guard the familiar “getting out of here!” to signal a bathroom break, and then makes his escape (he had a black convict loosen his ankle chains earlier) (28). This bridge “detail” (to freedom) turns into one indicating his banishment (from career and freedom) in the film: Allen blows up a bridge to make his final escape, though it also reflects the annihilation of his career in construction and engineering, which he had built during his mid-incarceration career in Chicago.
In the memoir, Burns is legally married to a landlady’s daughter, Emilia Del Pino Pacheo (“Emily”), a union for business purposes. Nollen’s details are vague as to whether the real-life union began via blackmail (as in the film) or if her blackmail of Burns began after they had tied the knot. In both versions, his wife, upon learning of his true love, notifies the authorities in Georgia to end his success in Chicago and force him back to the chain gang. His apprehension is something dramatic enough for cinema, though it did not make it into the film: “on May 22, 1929, two men, without an appointment, arrived at the magazine building….Robert allowed them into his office. One of them pulled a gat while the other brandished a shield. Both were detectives, bounty hunters on a mission for Georgia prison officials” (32). Matthew Mancini, in his introduction to a 1977 University of Georgia Press edition of the memoir, calls the text an “unsteady compound of hearsay, myth, and stereotype,” though he found the excess understandable for Burns to translate his outrage (41). Nollen also discusses the creation of the chain gang as a result of the prison contract system post-Civil War, in which an economically blighted state needed a penitentiary system and made one out of shackled inmates driven out to work yards.
As the text moves to the film’s production in Chapter 3, Nollen devotes some space to describing the pre-Fugitive Warner Bros. studio (repetitive for many readers, but feels in place here) before detailing the creation of this unique production. It’s the film that gave Paul Muni a chance to leave thrillers (a condemned criminal in 1929’s The Valiant and his star-making role as Tony Camonte in Scarface, 1932) for projects more substantial than the multi-character (but superficial and loathed by Muni) project Seven Faces (1929). Fugitive opened him to a career in prestige productions at the studio, many of them biographical films (1936’s The Story of Louis Pasteur, 1937’s The Life of Emil Zola, 1939’s Juarez). With the raw narrative and dialog of Fugitive, Muni added a new kind of verity to his punchy style. If some find it to be mannered, it is still universally celebrated.
Muni thought director Mervyn LeRoy too young and inexperienced to handle such material, though he had already made 25 pictures. Leroy, the text notes, proved capable having made Little Caesar (1930) and the best-picture nominee Five Star Final (1931), both vehicles for Edward G. Robinson, and having also directed the prison drama Numbered Men (1930). Meanwhile, LeRoy snuck the fugitive Robert Burns onto the lot as a consultant for the production (registered for an office as “Frank Bates”), when screenwriters Sheridan Gibney (uncredited on the film) and Brown Holmes took notes on his mannerisms for research, while charged with the task of adapting a loose-form memoir into a “coherent” narrative for the screen (47). While becoming difficult on the set, where he would “launch into lengthy dissertations about various aspects of filmmaking” (51), Burns soon bolted from Hollywood, likely under fear of being discovered.
We’d love to have more on LeRoy’s shooting of the film, though sources seem scant. The set of the chain gang camp, built at the Warner’s Ranch in Calabasas, California, presents such vivid images of the 20th-century’s form of slavery that we forget the set’s a piece of studio production. An active quarry in nearby Chatsworth, the location for the rock-smashing scene (59), is used to a similarly triumphant effect. These were the pre-union days of shooting, of course, with LeRoy getting 10- to 14-hour days even on the challenging exterior locations. LeRoy turned his footage over to Darryl Zanuck, a regular practice for former screenwriter/Warners’ producer/future studio head. Nollen credits him with adding “dramatic touches, such as sound effects” and tightening the pace of an already swift script by Gibney and Holmes (61).
From here, Nollen’s book regretfully loses steam. Not that some strong elements don’t appear – such as the details of Burns public appearance at the New Jersey premiere of the film in Newark on November 15, 1932 in Chapter 4 (which consists mostly of reportage on the film’s reception); and some details concerning Out of These Chains, the 1942 “sequel” to I Am A Fugitive, this time ascribed to Vincent Godfrey Burns. Nollen scans over the film’s influence, though the films discussed in Chapter 6 get mostly passing mentions, in a selection which reads like a bibliographic essay. Following a brief Appendix A on the film’s credits, Appendix B lists credits of important precursor films, many discussed briefly in the text. Critical summaries of the films not covered earlier would have helped. Appendix C is certainly filler, especially in the digital age: Nollen lists extensive credits of every film in the chain gang traditional, finishing with O Brother Where Art Thou? getting a bizarre four pages of block text! Even the most devout film book lover prefers IMDB for such these days.
What’s missing are the still debatable issues of the film itself. Nollen’s title might not account for such commentary, though a monograph like this needs it. One example is Allen’s arrest in the film (forced into the robbery by Preston Foster’s Pete), in which the police rush to the diner door mid-offence, as if the Hay’s committee released them personally for the task, which I have written about elsewhere. In this treatment, we should consider the censorship board as part of the authorship of the film, a perspective that Amelie Hastie notes helped to shape Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist (1953), a noir/social problem hybrid, and that Lisa Dombrowski similarly discusses concerning Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953). There is also much to unpack in the crucial scene, noted above, of Allen’s destroying a bridge that represents the skill and livelihood that capitalism offered but is too soon removed in the power of state’s rights. Nollen absolutely should have analyzed the film’s famous final scene – in which Allen pulls away from Helen (Helen Vinson), telling her, when she asks about how he lives, that he steals, then runs off into the darkness. The textual reading, that injustice has made him a criminal, is only one of many dimensions to this finale. We must consider this scene as a revision to an already solid classical Hollywood style, in that his fate as thief is established, but that his safety, in that inky, pre-code darkness, surely won’t be. Also begging discussion is his panic to keep moving (portrayed as more intense than it was for the real-life Burns) which reflects the abuse possible in anti-federalist, post-slavery states, and to his status as a producer in a capitalist system, as a productive citizen who cannot do reasonable time for one petty violation. It’s as if a blemish will dismantle all the productive strength of the man. We await other book-length treatments of these issues.
As the trend of short monographs on individual films continues, I am happy to have one on Fugitive, even if the project doesn’t follow through. Authors taking up the task today have a sizable responsibility to deliver background as well as commentary. The best I’ve come across from McFarland, John Fawell’s The Art of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (2005), manages both with vigor. Nollen’s uneven text leaves us hungry for more.
Michael B. Druxman’s Paul Muni: His Life and His Films (republished by BearManor, 2016; original, 1974) was likely an enjoyable fan book in its day, and today, it makes for a fun sitting. It’s a breezy fan book from an early wave of film texts, when readers desired basic details of films before home video, when most classic films went unseen. Paul Muni includes a 60-page essay, Chapter 4, on his career (little room for the analysis the actor deserves), shorter sketches serving as earlier chapters, and a filmography of summaries of the actor’s work; Druxman’s decision to republish the text, without changes, is unfortunate. The flourish of publishing on similar topics makes a more extensive treatment a must. And with more information available about the actor today, we scratch our heads as to why Druxman repackaged without expanding. While some biographies from the time stand up well today, like Alan L. Gansberg’s 1984 biography of Edward G. Robinson (republished by Scarecrow in 2004), Druxman could have strived for something similar. We, in fact, gain insightful information about the “private” Paul Muni from Gansberg’s text, a fact that shaped his career and one that Druxman ignores: though Jewish himself, Muni (born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1895; Muni was a childhood nickname) refused to play Jews on onscreen. (Druxman notes that Muni played a Jew onstage once ). The decision allowed Robinson to star in the prestige production Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940), a project fashioned for Muni at Warner Bros. It’s a curious oversight, especially since Druxman notes that “Muni was a proud Jew and hated antisemitism” (23-24), a comment that needs elaboration today (not to mention the anti-Semitism in Burn’s memoir, regarding the “Jew” owner of the store he robs ).
As a new edition, Druxman’s book is dominated by a filmography of plot summaries and productions details, while critical summaries of Muni’s films would have helped and been a reasonable addition. The book does have its occasional treats, like information on Muni’s stage work (he had a break from starring on Broadway in Counsellor at Law when he filmed Fugitive, with Otto Kruger as his stage replacement ) and an anecdote of how Muni, always focused before performing, responded to news that Harry Truman was in his theater audience before a show: “I don’t give a shit!” (13). The occasional information about Muni’s wife, Bella, will fascinate readers; she served as his critical barometer, like Alma Hitchcock, if not so versed in her husband’s craft. The sizable amount of photos (though the picture quality could have been better) is a treat for fans, and a detailed filmography of Muni always draws attention to neglected films. With Bordertown, Black Fury (both 1935), and Juarez (1939) available on DVD and showing up on Turner Classic Movies, a critical discussion needs to follow. Plus, an index would have, at least, made the book a better reference.
In today’s publishing market, reprints are valuable: all we need to consider is Thomas Schatz’s Genius of System, originally from Pantheon (1988) and now thankfully available from Minnesota University Press (2010). Similarly, the early, essential works of Robin Wood are returning to print from Wayne State University Press. I’m in full support of biographies like Gansberg’s returning, though reprinting without revision should not be the rule. In the introduction, Druxman notes the distaste he had for seeing his 1974 Muni for sale on used text sites. His comments, in light of the new edition’s quality, suggest that it was more for his own benefit than for his readers. And we watch the horizon for the first critical Paul Muni biography in English.
Burns, Robert (2011, 1932). I Am A Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! Forward by Matthew Mancini. Athens: U of Georgia Press.
Dombrowski, Lisa (2009). The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! Middletown: Wesleyan U Press.
Eyman, Scott (1999). Print the Legend: the Life and Times of John Ford. New York: Simon & Shuster.
Fawell, John (2005). The Art of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Gansberg, Alan L. (2004, 1984). Little Caesar: A Biography of Edward G. Robinson. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.
Hastie, Amelie (2009). The Bigamist. London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillian.
Matthew Sorrento is Interview and Book Review Editor of the journal Film International. He teaches film and media studies at Rutgers-Camden and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012). Sorrento has recently contributed book chapters to A Companion to the War Film (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), The New Western (McFarland, 2016) and Framing Law and Crime (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016), with contributions forthcoming in The Encyclopedia of the Lost Generation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) and Becoming: Essays on NBC’s Hannibal (Syracuse University Press, 2017). He is on the advisory board of the Fairleigh Dickinson University Press Book Series in Law, Culture, and the Humanities and co-directs the Reel East Film Festival.