The Story (continued)
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)
A series of short scenes establish how cruel the conditions are in the southern chain gang prison:
After his short, first night's sleep in a bunk house filled with about fifty other prisoners, Allen is abruptly awakened as they are ordered to "pick 'em up" and "pull 'em through" - a noisy, chain-clinking routine. (The inmates on each side are bound and linked together by a chain that is pulled along the row of bunks and out of the dormitory. Each of them must dangle their legs over the end of the bunk, and wait for the chains to be pulled through the ring attached to their leg chains.) Unaware of the rules, Allen is abused by one of the guards for not obeying. The prisoners are told to "come and get it." They listlessly shuffle into an adjoining room where a meal of tasteless, abominable food is offered on a metal pie plate. According to lifer Bomber Wells (Edward Ellis, the title character of The Thin Man (1934)), the ingredients are:
Grease, fried dough, pig fat, and sorghum. And you'd better get to like it, 'cause you're gonna get the same thing every morning, every year.
After the meal, the men are marched out and herded onto open-bed trucks by brutish prison guards, where they are again chained together (just like animals of burden) for the ride to the rock pits where they split boulders with pick axes and sledge hammers. Blacks and white are segregated from each other. Allen is forced to endure the primitive, harrowing conditions of the penal system, brutalized by being shackled in a chain-gang, and working under forced labor conditions. During one of the work breaks in the blazing sun, he isn't believed when he tells one of the other murderous criminals what his offense was: "For lookin' at a hamburger."
A prisoner is given two minutes to "brush his teeth" (a euphemism for a bathroom break) in nearby bushes. Sebastian (Everett Brown), a powerful black prisoner swings a sledge - and never misses a blow, according to Bomber: "You can lay down a nickel and he'd knock the buffalo's right eye out. They like his work so much, they're gonna keep him here the rest of his life." When Allen pauses and wipes the sweat off his brow, he is pushed to the ground by a guard for not asking permission. So Bomber indoctrinates Allen how they are stripped of their dignity and spirit: "You gotta ask their permission to wipe the sweat off...And in the first place, you got to get their permission to sweat."
After a long day in the hills, the trucks return the prisoners after dark to the prison yard. One of the guards checks the chain leggings of each prisoner before they enter the bunk house. The inmates share a few large pails of soapy water to wash up in. After an atrocious dinner, the warden (David Landau) chooses a few "men that didn't give us a good day's work" for a flogging. Ackerman (Jack LaRue) and Red (James Bell) - weakened from stomach cramps, are chosen first for the bare-back, torturous punishment. When Allen comes to the man's defense and calls the warden a "skunk," he is substituted in Red's place. The thick leather strap beating is suggestively administered off-screen - displayed through shadow silhouettes on the wall, unbearable screams and sounds of the strap, the bloody back of Ackerman, and the reactions of the inmates in their bunks (in a tracking shot).
Sunday, June 5
Sunday is the one day of the week when the inmates are given a day off. When Barney (Allen Jenkins) is legally released at the end of his prison term, the chains bound to his feet cause him to walk with a short, faltering step. (He jokes: "I can't walk very good without them chains on.") Allen thinks of his own imprisonment - he has been in the prison for only 4 weeks, and has a remaining term of 9 years and 48 weeks. Red also leaves the prison - in a pine coffin, as Bomber wisely notes:
Well, there's just two ways to get outta here. Work out and die out.
One of the veteran prisoners knows that there are many barriers to escaping: "There's too many breaks against ya. You gotta beat the chains, bloodhounds, and a bunch of guards who'd just as soon bring ya back dead." According to Bomber, "it's been done, but you gotta figure out some perfect scheme. You gotta watch, you gotta wait, maybe one year, maybe two. Then, hang it on the limb." Allen takes the advice and perseveres. On a wall calendar, six months of pages are hammered away (June to November).
One hot, languorous day on the gang, Allen asks Sebastian to strike unerring blows at his shackles to bend their shape: "If you can bend my shackles just a little, so I can slide them off my foot." The intense blows accurately hit their mark and Allen is able to test the result and slide the rings off his feet. After resting up on Sunday, he plans to escape on Monday. He also accepts $7 from Bomber for expenses and Barney's address in the city.
In a memorable escape scene, he takes a break in the bushes, slips the shackles off his legs, grabs clothes from a clothesline and changes out of his uniform, runs through the swamps, and outwits guards and bloodhounds that are chasing him by breathing through a hollow reed underwater. He finds himself in the southern city of Booneville (the camera pans up his legs as he awkwardly walks along a busy sidewalk), and is free after serving seven months of his ten-year sentence.
He carefully bypasses a policeman on the street corner, and enters I. Gollober's Classy Clothes store where he is outfitted with a suit ("You look like a new man," spouts the salesman). And at a barber shop, he is given a shave with a straight-edged razor (sharpened by a leather strap that brings back harsh memories) by Barber Bill (Irving Bacon). While in the barber's chair, he nervously listens when a policeman enters the shop, talks about his own escape to the small city, and perfectly describes him:
...a break on the Merritt County chain gang...five foot ten, heavy black hair, brown eyes, stocky built, around 30 years old. Name is Allen - James Allen...We've got the depot and all the highways out of town covered. They can get this far and no farther.
The film provides a few amusing laughs - the policeman opens a magazine named Liberty, and as he leaves, Allen is asked a question:
Barber: (to Allen) How was it? Close enough?
He locates Barney in a downtown apartment building, where he is given a safe place to sleep for the night and "everything you dream about on the chain gang" - booze and a woman to make him "comfortable." Barney offers him a lean and sweet blonde prostitute named Linda (Noel Francis) for the evening:
Linda: You've got plenty of what it takes to pull an escape from that place.
Allen: I'm not safe yet. Not until I'm out of the state.
Linda: (She touches his knee) If there's anything I can do to help you, just say the word.
Allen: (appreciatively) Thanks, but there's nothing you can do.
Linda: How about a drink?
Linda: You don't mind if I take one, do you?
Allen: No, go right ahead.
Linda: Here's to you. A guy with your nerve's got the breaks comin' to him. (She notices his delayed interest in her occupational role, and sits cozily on the arm of his chair) I know what you're thinking. I understand. You're among friends.
The next day, Jim passes the time waiting for the train at the depot by ordering a hamburger at a hot dog stand from the owner (Charles Sellon). He is alerted that the Chief of Police (Erville Alderson) is canvassing the area for the escaped chain gang fugitive. Allen throws down his hamburger into the street and approaches the train. As he begins boarding the train, the Chief of Police shouts and points in his direction - "There he is!" - but they run past him toward a ragged bum scurrying for cover. Although he is treated suspiciously by the train conductor (Charles Middleton), Allen isn't apprehended.
By foot, car, and other means of transport, Allen travels from the South (another super-imposed map) northward to the big city of Chicago where he settles and begins to create a new life for himself. At the Tri-State Engineering Company Employment Office, he applies for a job. He gives the clerk an assumed alias: "Allen...full name is Allen James." His pay card illustrates his quick progress up the company ladder over a period of five years:
Laborer, 1924, Salary per day: $4.00
Foreman, 1926, Salary per day: $9.00
He is able to afford a nice room near the bridge he works on, reduced in rent from a "reasonable" $25/month to $20/month by a flirtatious, blonde landlady Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell). She calls him a "gentleman" who is "friendly - not like a stranger around the house."
Surveyor, 1927, Salary per day: $12.00
He puts in long hours studying books on civil engineering in the evenings, while fending off the amorous, persistent, scheming advances of Marie:
Marie: I don't think you like me anymore.
Allen: Of course I do. We can't always be playing around. I mean, what's that got to do with it?
Marie: Oh, I don't know, but you don't act like you used to. Now, I don't seem good enough for you.
Allen: You're imagining things.
Marie: No, I'm not. When you were first here, you weren't this way. You've grown tired of me. I was silly enough to believe you when you said you loved me.
Allen: I said 'I loved you'? Now, Marie, you know that's not so. I never said that. You're just trying to put me in a spot. And you know it wasn't love - just as well as I do.
Marie: So that's the way you feel, huh!? Well, you can't make me out cheap and get away with it! I know what I'm talkin' about, see? And some day, you're gonna be sorry.
He proves himself to be an honored citizen in his job at Tri-State Engineering:
Asst Supt, 1929, Salary per day: $14.00
When gold-digger Marie notices that he is packing up to leave "to move to a bigger place" - she interprets that she is being deserted. He is appreciative of all her help, but feels stifled by her possessiveness. And he admits lacking feelings of love for her:
Allen: I appreciate all you've done for me, but I couldn't love you. I can't change my feeling toward you any more than I can change the color of my eyes. I know I'm speaking bluntly, but frankly, and it's to save us both a lot of misery.
Marie: And is that your only reason for leaving?
Allen: Well, it's a pretty good one, isn't it?
Marie: Not very. Of course, when a fella wants to ditch a girl, he'll do most anything - providing it doesn't land him back on the chain gang where he probably belongs.
She reveals that she has read his mail from his brother and learned about his past:
(Letter contents) ...I thought you should know that the police are still trying to find you. When I think that your capture would mean eight more terrible years on that chain gang, my blood runs cold...
Knowing his major vulnerability, she manipulatively blackmails him to marry her:
Marie: I wouldn't tell if I had a reason to protect you.
Allen: What do you mean?
Marie: I wouldn't tell if you were my husband.
Allen assents to her bargain, knowing that he must forestall the threat of being recaptured. He acquires a marriage license in Cook County to enter into a loveless marriage with Marie so that she will keep his secret, but he falls into her trap. She is a constant spendthrift, partygoer, and unfaithful partner. At the same time, he works his way up to a senior management position in the company - General Field Superintendent.