Tag Archives: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Pre-Code Hollywood – Wrap-Up

033-scarface-theredlistOur Pre-Code Hollywood marathon has been one of the most rewarding endeavors I’ve taken part in to date! I’ve discovered numerous incredible films that I never would have seen otherwise, and learned a great deal about the history of Hollywood. The years leading up to the establishment of the Hays Code were some of the greatest years of early Hollywood, as writers, directors, and actors knew they could get away with not being censored. The creative spirit seen in the five years leading up to the enforcement of the Code has rarely been duplicated in North America, save for New Hollywood era of the late 1960’s through to the late 1970’s.

Below are some of my favorite films, performances, and more that I feel deserve some recognition from the general public. If you only have the time and patience to seek out one or two of these films, make it one of these:

Best FilmI Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (runner-up: Scarface)

Best Actor – Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (runner-up: James Cagney, The Public Enemy)

Best Actress – Barbara Stanwyck, Baby Face (runners-up: Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage and Jean Harlow, Red-Headed Woman)

Best Director – Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson, Scarface (runner-up: Mervyn LeRoy, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Gold Diggers of 1933)

Best Supporting Performance – Aline MacMahon, Gold Diggers of 1933 (runner-up: Claudette Colbert, The Sign of the Cross)

Best Moment – “Pettin’ in the Park”, Gold Diggers of 1933 (runner-up: “The hunt”, The Most Dangerous Game)

And there you have it! A big thanks to all those who stood by patiently over the three months that it took to complete the marathon. If you have any suggestions for future marathons, comments or criticism, feel free to comment below or email us at sgtpeppersfilmclub@gmail.com!

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Pre-Code Hollywood #14 – Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

gold-diggers-1933-03Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley
Written by: Edwin S. Gelsey, James Seymour, Ben Markson (dialogue), David Boehm (dialogue) (based on The Gold Diggers by Avery Hopwood)
Starring: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee

Anybody who has read Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Film Club for any amount of time probably already knows that I have a weakness towards musical films. Gold Diggers of 1933 combines my favorite genre with elements of Pre-Code Hollywood into one impossible to hate package. Director Mervyn LeRoy’s (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) visionary talent behind the camera, Busby Berkeley’s energetic musical sequences, and a hilarious story set during America’s depression makes for one of the most memorable Pre-Code films of the era.

Gold Diggers of 1933 sees four aspiring stage actresses Polly (Ruby Keeler), Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (Aline MacMahon), and Fay (Ginger Rogers) struggling to find work during the depression. Producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) is desperate to put on a show with the girls, but is struggling to find any source of funding. After hearing their neighbor Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) playing the piano and finding out his talents as a singer-songwriter, he is recruited for the hypothetical show. Brad eventually comes up with the money for the play, leading the Gold Diggers and Barney to suspecting him of criminal activity. In truth, Brad is the son in a millionaire family that despises the theater. Things become severely complicated when Brad’s brother Lawrence (Warren William) shows up to stop Brad from falling in love with a “gold digger”.
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From the very opening moments of Gold Diggers of 1933, I knew that the film was going to be an absolute treat. We open with a rendition of the now famous song “We’re in the Money”, which sets an ironic tone for the depression-era set movie to come, especially when the show is immediately shut down due to lack of funding. Not only does Gold Diggers have all the charm and wit of classic musical films of the era, but it also becomes something of a madcap screwball comedy in its second half – we are treated to mistaken identities, overly complicated plots to seduce and distract certain parties, and more banter than you can shake a stick at.

With four credited writers (two for dialogue, two for the screenplay) it could have been disastrous for the film – one of the major problems with modern films is having too many cooks in the kitchen. Luckily for Gold Diggers of 1933, this simply isn’t the case. The screenplay is hilarious and often risque, tackling the American depression head-on. We get musical numbers like “Pettin’ in the Park” that features a heavy dose of eroticism thanks to some near-nudity, naughty lyrics, and a very, very curious and nearly voyeuristic “baby” causing mayhem in the titular park. The writing for both musical and spoken portions of the film are equally strong, with both complimenting each other quite nicely. Much of the screwball elements introduced during the film’s second half are genuinely hilarious, even more than 80 years later – Trixie’s faux seduction of “Fanny” Peabody (Guy Kibbee) is my personal favorite part, but there’s just so much to love about it as a whole. The film ends with “Remember My Forgotten Man”, a rather dark commentary about the depression, war veterans, and the ultimately false promise of change – what a powerful statement for such a silly, energetic musical.
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The real star of the show in Gold Diggers of 1933 is the direction of musical sequences by the famous choreographer Busby Berkeley. His direction elevates the film from being another depression-set comedy film to being a memorable, erotic, energetic, and visually unique masterpiece of the musical genre. As with many other musical films, the song and dance sequences are the strongest element of Gold Diggers, which is saying a great deal because of its zany underlying story. Each musical sequence feels completely separate from the last, with all of them bringing striking visuals and seamless choreography that never overstays its welcome. “We’re in the Money” is garish and showy, “Pettin’ in the Park” is playful, silly, and titillating, “The Shadow Waltz” stands out from the crowd by being rather beautiful and understated, not quite matching the rest of the film’s tone, and “Remember My Forgotten Man” features a hint of German expressionism and says a great deal about living in poverty during the depression. Few other musical films boast such a diverse set of musical numbers, and even fewer can live up to the brilliance of the mad “Pettin’ the the Park”.

It’s in the second half of Gold Diggers of 1933 where the performances finally begin to stand out as something special – chemistry between actors is obvious, characters are developed, and our four main “gold diggers” are finally allowed to show us what they’ve got to offer. Joan Blondell’s Carol is passionate and seductive, making quick work of Warren Williams’ Lawrence. Aline MacMahon’s Trixie is purposely naughty in her “seduction” of Fanny, providing some of the film’s more laugh out loud moments. Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are believable as the film’s central romance, as the two have immediate chemistry in both their musical and non-musical scenes. Also worth noting is Ginger Rogers’ early performance as Fay, who tries to seduce one of the three wealthy men, but ultimately fails.
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Gold Diggers of 1933 is one of the most triumphant films of the Pre-Code Hollywood era, genuinely pushing the envelope of accepted movie morality, and providing a funny and insightful commentary on depression-era America. Its musical numbers are brilliant choreographed and staged by the master Busby Berkeley, turning Gold Diggers into one of the most visually striking musicals ever produced in Hollywood. With solid performances across the board, inventive direction from two of the most consistent filmmakers of the era, and a screenplay that will put a permanent smile on your face, there’s a lot here to love. Gold Diggers of 1933 easily gets my highest recommendation.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #7 – I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Poster - I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang_01I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Written by: Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes (based on I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! by Robert E. Burns)
Starring: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis

Mervyn LeRoy’s adaptation of Robert E. Burns’ similarly titled autobiography I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! is as progressive as any film we’ve taken a look at in our Pre-Code marathon. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang takes a critical look at the injustice taking place in America’s justice system during the early 20th century, and tells the tale of one man who wouldn’t let the system break him down. While it may not be wholly notable for its pre-code elements, LeRoy’s film is memorable for completely different reasons – its impact on the United States legal system and popular culture as a whole is far too important to overlook.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang follows Sergeant James Allen (Paul Muni) upon his return to America in a new post-World War I world. James decides against returning to his dull pre-war life, and opts to become an engineer and put his skills to use. Unfortunately for James Allen, his lack of experience and a general lack of opportunities forces him to fall into a period of poverty. After befriending a seemingly helpful man, James is unwittingly pulled into a restaurant robbery and is forced into serving ten long years on a chain gang. James toils away on the chain gang until he sees his opportunity to escape, but not without every police officer in the South looking for him. After being blackmailed into marrying a spiteful and petty woman named Marie (Glenda Farrell), James is eventually caught and sent back to the chain gang. It is here that he pleads with the authorities for him freedom – a pardon in exchange for his turning himself in. Unfortunately for James Allen, nothing is ever quite as it seems in this strange new world.
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I was surprised by just how modern I Am a Fugitive’s message and general world outlook was – it’s one of the absolute best things about the film. The script in general was terrific – adapted by Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang never slows down for a minute during its 90 minute runtime. Just when you think James Allen is out in the clear, something awful inevitably happens and leaves us in a panic. The development of James Allen as a character is a joy to watch, despite everything he’s up against. He starts off as an idealistic young man just returning back from the war, and ends as a cynical, betrayed, and beaten down shell of a man – once a hero of his generation, now forced into a life of crime. No matter how beaten down our hero was, I always had some hope tucked away – but this isn’t a film with a typical Hollywood ending. I Am a Fugitive’s ending is in the same vein as the one found in The Public Enemy, both of which tell us that sometimes life just isn’t fair, and sometimes something as simple as rehabilitation or institutional change just isn’t possible in the specific time and place. That isn’t to say that it’s a completely hopeless and dour ending, just a hauntingly dark and ambiguous one. Throughout the entire film, James Allen is punished for his positive and idealistic outlook towards the world. He left for the war as a fresh-faced and hopeful kid, proud to serve his country, and returned to find his country full of hopelessness. It’s a crime that Green and Holmes were not recognized by the Academy for their screenplay, because I Am A Fugitive would be nothing without it.

Paul Muni’s central performance as James Allen is another highlight of the film – he perfectly portrays the aforementioned trajectory of James Allen from young, idealistic hero to betrayed, beaten down criminal. Muni was rightfully nominated for Best Actor for his performance as James Allen, ultimately losing to the legendary Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII. Muni would have his moment in the sun in 1936, when he won the Academy Award for The Story of Louis Pasteur. After the release of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, audiences throughout the United States started to change their opinions about the United States justice system, enraging many officials within the system and prompting a series of lawsuits against the studio. This is just one of the many early examples of mainstream Hollywood films having a positive impact on the modern world at large – it certainly wouldn’t be the last one. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang would go on to be nominated for Best Picture at that year’s Oscars, losing to the inferior Cavalcade in a regrettable decision by the Academy. As mentioned previously, I Am a Fugitive does not feature many of the pre-code elements that made other films famous – instead its groundbreaking nature came in its revealing look at a corrupt system, its attitude and critical outlook, and its haunting ending.
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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is without a doubt the strongest film I’ve seen during our Pre-Code marathon thus far, and one that I’m glad I finally had an excuse to catch up with. Its screenplay takes a highly critical look at a corrupt and archaic branch of government, and caused an entire nation to change its opinion of said system. It perfectly follows a compelling character during a short, but highly important time of his life, and sees him realistically broken down and built back up again over a period of just 90 minutes. Paul Muni’s lead performance is incredible, and more than makes up for the lack of memorable supporting performances around him. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a thrilling, haunting, and ultimately rather tragic tale of corruption in early 20th century America – its importance cannot be understated. It gets my highest recommendation.

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Pre-Code Hollywood – An Introduction

GirlMissing00011On July 1st, 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code (commonly referred to as the Hays Code) was officially implemented after four years of development. The Code set a list of precedents that all mainstream Hollywood sound films had to adhere to, focusing largely on censoring profanity, sexuality, organized crime and violence, and religious criticism. The Hays Code was made up of two sections – “Don’ts”, which outlined things that were strictly prohibited by the code, and “Be Carefuls”, which were subject to scrutiny by the Production Code Administration (PCA). The two lists featured the following rules and restrictions:

Don’ts:

  • Pointed Profanity
  • Suggestive Nudity
  • Illegal Drug Trafficking
  • Sex Perversion
  • White Slavery
  • Interracial Relationships
  • Sex Hygiene
  • Scenes of Childbirth
  • Children’s Sex Organs
  • Ridicule of the Clergy
  • Offense to Any Nation, Race, or Creed

Be Careful’s:

  • Use of the Flag
  • International Relations
  • Arson
  • Firearms
  • Theft
  • Brutality/Gruesomeness
  • Murder
  • Smuggling
  • Torture
  • Executions
  • Sympathy for Criminals
  • Attitudes Towards Public Figures/Institutions
  • Sedition
  • Cruelty to Children/Animals
  • Branding of People/Animals
  • Sale of Women
  • Rape
  • Wedding Night Scenes
  • Men and Women Sharing a Bed
  • Deliberate Seduction of Women
  • Institution of Marriage
  • Surgery
  • Drug Use
  • Law Enforcement
  • Excessive/Lustful Kissing

As you can see, the Motion Picture Production Code set the groundwork for a great deal of censorship in American cinema. By limiting the content that writers and filmmakers were able to show on screen (or even allude to), the PCA was in turn stifling artistic freedom and creativity in general. Limiting the content allowed in Hollywood films would lead to Hollywood writers, directors, and actors coming up with more subtle, creative ways of getting past the Hays Code. In turn, it sparked a great deal of outrage in Hollywood upon its announcement in 1929, setting in motion a five-year period now known as Pre-Code Hollywood. This Pre-Code era saw the development of many boundary pushing films, featuring strong female protagonists, violent content focusing on gangsters and criminals, and sexual innuendo. The Hays Code was abandoned in the 1960’s when it became clear that studios were no longer willing to enforce the strict rules, and when American culture was in the midst of an undeniable revolution. The collapse of the Motion Picture Production Code would eventually lead to the creation of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), whose film rating system is still in use today.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Film Club will be taking a look at fifteen of the most famous Pre-Code Hollywood films, examining their boundary pushing nature and shedding light on an era of filmmaking that has been sadly forgotten to history. The Pre-Code Hollywood films that will be covered include:

  1. In Old Arizona (1929) (dir. Irving Cummings, Raoul Walsh)
  2. The Divorcee (1930) (dir. Robert Z. Leonard)
  3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (dir. Rouben Mamoulian)
  4. Night Nurse (1931) (dir. William A. Wellman)
  5. The Public Enemy (1931) (dir. William A. Wellman)
  6. Blonde Venus (1932) (dir. Josef von Sternberg)
  7. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) (dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
  8. The Most Dangerous Game (1932) (dir. Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
  9. Red-Headed Woman (1932) (dir. Jack Conway)
  10. Scarface (1932) (dir. Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson)
  11. The Sign of the Cross (1932) (dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
  12. Baby Face (1933) (dir. Alfred E. Green)
  13. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) (dir. Frank Capra)
  14. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley)
  15. Of Human Bondage (1934) (dir. John Cromwell)

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