For me, there’s few actors of the Pre-Hays Code era that are especially likable enough to sell me on a film alone; James Cagney would be one. Another one for me is Paul Muni; I don’t know what it is about him, but I like him a lot. He’s a good actor, and he was prolific enough that he got to stretch his capabilities on a number of good roles. Of course, he would occasionally be given a roundabout, run-of-the-mill character to breathe life into, and that seems to be the case here. I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a Mervyn LeRoy picture, and a more apropos title there could not be for a film such as this. They really went for the head of the nail on this one.
Muni plays James Allen, a soldier fresh out of the service who can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to employment. After running into a would-be friend, who takes him on an impromptu robbery and leaves him to get caught and pinned for the crime, he is sentenced to ten years of hard labor on a chain gang (a group of prisoners working the fields in labor, all connected by the ankles by chains, hence the name). Naturally, he escapes, thus becoming a fugitive from a chain gang; see what I did there? The story doesn’t end there, though; there’s an obligatory romantic subplot, a blackmailing scheme, and of course a number of close calls where he is almost caught. I delve a little more into the plot with this one, because there’s really very little else to talk about; it’s a good flick, and solidly entertaining in a 1930s fashion, but there wasn’t anything too standout about it. Not that I’m complaining, but it doesn’t make for a very compelling argument as to why this made the list. There was a section in the middle where time skips forward a number of times, represented by falling pages of a calendar, where the storytelling got a little stagnant and mired, and this continued for quite some time, so heads up on a particularly saggy middle portion.
As I mentioned, this is very watchable, mostly thanks to Muni and a story that knows exactly how to move forward in the way that it should. That being said, if you’re looking for something to wow you, this might not exactly meet your needs. That doesn’t mean you should write it off, though; it’s still a pretty darn good film. You just have to be in the right mindset to appreciate it, and not expect too much when enough will do. There’s very little reason for you to not give this one a shot, as long as you don’t detest old movies, but if you do, what the hell are you doing on this blog to begin with?
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10