Tuesday, February 5, 2013

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang

The 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon is an event coinciding with Turner Classic Movies' "31 Days of Oscar" month-long celebration, in observance of the Academy Awards. In both events, the theme is the same: recognition of Oscar-nominated films throughout history. The blogathon is hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula's Cinema Club. See the links above for a list of participating blogs.


The only other Paul Muni film I had seen prior to I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang was Scarface, and while he was good in that, I wasn't inspired to see anything else of his. Then I read a little bit more about Fugitive and how good a movie it was, so I knew I had to put it on my "must see" list.

Muni isn't as well-remembered these days as guys like Gary Cooper or Cary Grant, but it turns out he was Oscar-nominated for Best Actor six times, five of them during the 1930s (including once as a write-in candidate, back when the Academy still did that sort of thing). Fugitive was his second nomination, and he only had two other contenders that year: Leslie Howard for Berkeley Square, and winner Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII. His sole Best Actor win was for 1936's The Story of Louis Pasteur. Fugitive was also up for Best Picture, but lost to Cavalcade. (Page has a summary of that longer-than-usual Oscar season here.) In addition, Muni is one of six Best Actor nominees who received their nomination in their screen debut. Muni accomplished it with his role in The Valiant, from 1929.

In Fugitive, Muni is a war veteran who has the misfortune to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up going to prison, working on a Southern chain gang. The conditions are excessively brutal, however, and he manages to escape - and that's when his adventures really begin. It's inspired by a true story, and it was a crucial factor in the eventual abolition of the chain gang system in the state of Georgia.

Muni is dynamite in this film. I completely believed his character from start to finish and wasn't sure what his ultimate fate would be. Seeing him actually break rocks in the hot sun (as opposed to inside a studio somewhere) certainly added to the level of veracity. I'm used to seeing chain gangs depicted in cartoons, or comedies like O Brother Where Art Thou, and as a result I had never taken them as seriously as I had here.

Seeing criminals brutalized while under incarceration naturally makes one think of the torture controversy that has arisen over Zero Dark Thirty. Strange how little has changed in eighty years when it comes to the question of what constitutes humane treatment of prisoners. I suspect - and this is something that I didn't mention before, but watching Fugitive has crystallized the point for me - that most of the time, some people simply like wielding power over others, and that the matter of torture has nothing to do with justice. 

Look for more entries in this series later this month.


  1. That is a marvelous movie. The end was mesmerizing and make "I am a Fugitive..." one of my favorite films of the 1930s.

  2. I kinda half-expected the title to appear in the dialogue somewhere. That woulda made the whole thing perfect.

  3. Love this movie! After watching it I read up on the real James Allen. This follows his life relatively closely (leaving some stuff out of course). I think in the end he was finally acquitted.
    It's a shame Muni is forgotten these days. He's great in "Story of Louis Pasture" (a movie that sounds as boring as drying paint but is quite good), The Last of the Angry Men and The Good Earth.

    1. One thing about Muni that I failed to mention is how versatile he apparently was as an actor. He's so different in 'Fugitive' than in 'Scarface,' and my understanding is that he was known for this sort of thing.

  4. Paul Muni is always good. I can't believe I haven't seen this film! Thanks for recommending.

    1. If you like his work, you'll love him in this.


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