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One could argue that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is dated. Some of the specific conventions used just aren’t done anymore. Pages fall from a wall calendar to show the passage of time. The camera pans across a map to show changes in locale. But deep down, the movie is still vibrant, engaging, tense, and suspenseful. It’s one of the reasons people do — and should — watch classic cinema.

Nominated for 1932’s Best Picture Oscar, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang stars Paul Muni (nominated for Best Actor). He stars as James Allen, a man just back from the Great War. His old job awaits him, but having been an Army engineer, he wants to build bridges, and not just while away his life at the shoe factory. He sets out across the country looking for construction jobs.

Somewhere in the south (the movie carefully avoids incriminating a specific state), he falls in with a decent-seeming fellow who knows where to beg a burger. When the last patron leaves, his “friend” all of a sudden pulls a gun on the proprietor. Allen is quickly caught, and as the crook’s “accomplice” he is sentenced to ten years on a chain gang.

One of the reasons people do -- and should -- watch classic cinema
One of the reasons people do — and should — watch classic cinema

Over the course of a year, Allen makes plans to escape. For later chain gang movies, this is often the extent of the conflict. But I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, based on a true story, has much more ground to cover. Allen escapes up north, where he makes a new name for himself in construction, working his way up from laborer to foreman, from management to tycoon.

The film’s final conflict kicks in when representatives from the southern state track him down in Chicago and demand his extradition to serve out his term. Chicago refuses, but Allen, wanting to free his conscience, agrees to go, with the promise that after 90 days he will be pardoned. But the state, outrageously, breaks its promise and Allen must try yet another escape, knowing that he’ll be watched even more closely if he manages to get away.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a roller coaster of both plot and emotion, and Muni, a trained stage actor who came to Hollywood when the sound era began, conveys they highs and lows to us through his swarthy good looks and everyman charisma.

I Am a Fugitive is available on DVD for the first time as part of Warner Home Video’s Controversial Classics collection. This DVD offers three special features, most notably an audio commentary by USC film professor Richard Jewell.

While Jewell’s audio commentary is not as densely informative as some, nor as conversationally engaging as others, he is well prepared and provides plenty of pertinent information about the movie and the stories behind it.

As “James Allen’s” story unfolds, Jewell fills us in on the true story of Robert Burns, who wrote the autobiography I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, and who worked as a consultant on the film. As Jewell points out, the studio removed the name of the state so as not to alienate southern moviegoers. Nevertheless, the cruelty of the chain gang system as presented in the film is accurate. “Warners really did not exaggerate the conditions in these camps,” says Jewell, which is probably one reason the movie is still fascinating today.

Burns really was a veteran of the Great War, but he wasn’t the hero that “James Allen” was. He was more of a shell-shocked drifter, according to Jewell, and that’s why he had trouble holding on to a job. But the depression-era movie audience would have surely sympathized with “James Allen,” who simply couldn’t find a job because there was no work to be had.

Today’s audiences have one advantage over contemporary audiences. We get to know what happened to Robert Burns after the movie was released. I Am a Fugitive was a popular film, seen by millions of Americans. The release of the movie emboldened Burns, who even showed up at some of the movie’s screenings in his home state of New Jersey to speak out against the chain gang system. What happened next is a fascinating story, as told by Jewell, although I won’t give away the specifics here.

The DVD also includes a short subject film called “20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang.” If you don’t know in advance that it’s a musical comedy, you’ll be shocked at how glib the film is about life on a chain gang, especially if you’ve just watched the harrowing feature film. (“This is bizarre,” said a friend as we watched.) But when the “bloodhounds” are unleashed on our comedic heroes, and they stumble upon an ad-hoc musical tribute to soda pop, you’ll understand the nature of the short.

The final DVD feature is a theatrical trailer (“56 other important players! More than 2000 extras!”), presumably from 1932. And while nearly everyone would agree that the trailer is dated, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is still a gripping and suspenseful film, more than 70 years after its initial release.

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies