Having returned from fighting in World War I, James Allen doesn't want to settle into a humdrum life and decides to set off to find his fortune. He travels the length and breadth of America, working as a skilled tradesman in the construction industry. When times get tough however, he finds himself living in a shelter where an acquaintance suggests they go out for a hamburger. What the friend really has in mind is to rob the diner and Allen soon finds himself working on a chain gang with a long jail sentence. Allen manages to escape however and heads to Chicago where over several years he slowly but surely works his way up the ladder to become one of the most respected construction engineers in the city. His past catches up with him and despite protestations from civic leaders and his many friends in Chicago, he finds himself again on the chain gang. Escaping for a second time, he accepts that to survive, he must lead a life of crime.Written by
It took some courage to make this movie, and Warner Brothers was up to it. This is one of four such productions on the early 1930s that dealt with crime naturalistically. But the others -- "Public Enemy," "Little Caesar," and "Scarface" -- although investing the protagonists with recognizably human traits like jealousy or male bonding -- were nevertheless on the side of the state. Okay, he might love his Mamma, but he's still a menace to society. They all died violently in the end. Here, on the other hand, is a story in which the protagonist is completely innocent, guilty of nothing more than wanting to strike out on his own and accomplish something constructive after having been through hell in the army in World War I.
The state -- Georgia -- convicts him in error. He was forced into participating in the crime by a stranger, although to be sure he acted guilty enough. And, what with the real James Allen acting as consultant, and the film being based on his autobiographical book, who can really tell how unwilling a participant he was?
Still, the point of the movie is that even if were guilty of robbery, the punishment imposed by the state, the conditions at the chain gang, were inhuman. Let's say many sensible people would consider it "cruel and unusual." So Allen escapes the first time, just as Cool Hand Luke did. According to the movie he rises to prominence as a self-taught engineer, although, again, the point would remain the same even if he never rose above the station of busboy. Coerced into marriage by a domineering, greedy, and self-indulgent wife (whose autobiographical novel should have been a companion piece to Allen's), he finds himself falling for a "nice girl".
But his past catches up with him. His wife betrays him out of spite. The governor of Illinois is understandably reluctant to extradite a prominent citizen who has shown how socially valuable he is, but the representatives of Georgia insist on a symbolic retribution. Return to Georgia voluntarily, says the soothing, expensive Georgian. There'll be only a token service of, say, 90 days in a cushy job, then you'll be pardoned. Alas, he's thrown into an even more horrific penal servitude and his hearing is suspended indefinitely. So he pulls Cool Hand Luke's Excape Number Two, right down to the admiring companion who jumps aboard the truck with him.
This time there is no going back, at least not according to the movie. The final shot is heartbreaking. I don't know how much of this story can be believed insofar as Allen's character is concerned. Suppose you were to write an autobiography. Might you not come out looking a little better than you actually are? Oh, that God the giftie gie' us/ to see ourselves as others see us. But I believe the chain gang sequences allright. If Allen is fibbing about that, he's still done a good job of convincing me that these conditions were real. I've worked with Corrections Officers and while they might be tough and contemptuous towards inmates, they treated them fairly. But I can believe things were quite different in 1925 in Georgia. The South has an interesting way of dealing with deviance. Southerners tend to be polite, compassionate, and helpful. They go out of their way to be friendly -- until you break an important rule. Then you forfeit any claim to humane treatment. (You want to be executed? Murder somebody in Texas or Florida.)
In the course of the 1960s, the state became as much of an enemy as the criminal himself -- maybe moreso. But this movie was released in 1932, a time at which it still took guts to depict a social system so thoroughly corrupt and sadistict.
Catch this one, if you can.
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