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Have You Seen…? Episode 17

Paul Muni in ‘I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’
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Paul Muni in ‘I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’

In 1932 actor Paul Muni starred in two classic films, the original Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf talk about these groundbreaking movies on this episode of Have You Seen…?

[Clip from ‘I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen the film. It's an amazing film. Very impressive for its time. Very realistic. And just an incredible movie.

DH: It is one of 2 movies that were released in 1932 starring Paul Muni. Some people pronounce [Muni] Who is an actor that may be largely forgotten nowadays, but he was huge in the 1930's. This actor only appeared in 23 movies in his career, most of them in the 30's, and out of those 23 movies he got 6 Best Actor Academy Award nominations.

SVW: And I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is also a movie where his acting is kind of understated compared to some of his other roles.

DH: Yeah, he was sometimes accused of over acting a little bit. But it's just because he put everything into it and is widely regarded as just a great actor. The first movie that that released in 1932, the movie that made Paul Mooney into a star after having only been a couple of movies in 1929, was Scarface directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Howard Hughes. When people look back at the classic gangster movies from the 30's, they think of James Cagney, Edward G Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft…but many film critics and historians regard Scarface as the greatest gangster film of them all and the most influential.

SVW: And of course a modern audience know Scarface from the remake starring Al Pachino from the 1980's.

DH: Yeah, which apparently Pachino quite admired the original, everybody admires the original and it was the movie that made him a star, you know, really coming almost out of nowhere. He plays a gangster, Tony Comante, who rises from hitman and errand runner for the mob in Chicago to be the boss of everything. And he's pretty much based on Al Capone in Chicago, in the 20's.

SVW: They even have a scene that sort of reminiscent of the Valentine's Day Massacre.

DH: It is the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. They show it. It's one of the wonderful moments of, you know, incredible cinematography in this movie that was shot by a very famous cinematographer Lee Garms. They show the whole St. Valentine’s massacre in silhouette. It's like shadows on the wall. You don't you don't actually see the actors directly on, it was really brilliantly shot.

SVW: And another thing that I really was impressed with in terms of shooting was that they're trying to represent Chicago. Of course, it's on a Hollywood set and the way the camera moves and shows the streets, the street lights, the signs that are lit up and also the way that the automobiles are used throughout the movie, just in terms of the way that there's a there's a certain amount of choreography with automobiles throughout the street scenes.

DH: They are using the sets to their biggest possible use. A lot of times people can't believe how much they did on those Hollywood sound stages with cars and depth.

SVW: It is also an extremely pre-code film. Talk about that.

DH: Yes, I mean, it's made 1932 as was I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, but Scarface in particular is very pre-code and it was it was controversial. So “pre-code” meaning before the production code started in the middle of 1934. It has a great deal of violence in the kind of sexuality that would not be allowed in Hollywood films starting just a couple years later. One example is his relationship with his sister Cesca, who's played by a wonderful actress, mostly known from the 1930's work, Ann Dvorak. And this relationship is creepy because he seems to be to keep her in line, his younger sister, away from men might take advantage of her. But there's a definite hint of incest going on there. She even says something like, “You seem like my brother, but you don't act like my brother.”

SVW: That's later in the film. The early scenes with her, it does look like he's just being the over-protective brother which is ironic given his own lifestyle.

DH: Yeah, exactly. Well, he’s sort of like I can do these things and I bring the money to the family. I take care of the family. You know, the gangster attitude. This movie was so incredibly controversial. Before the code went into effect in before they really start to enforce it in July of 1934, there still was the Hays Office, the Office of Censorship. And they looked at scripts and they had some say, but not overwhelming. And the script went to the Hays office and they outright rejected it. In fact, I'll read the quote, they wrote to Howard Hughes, the producer, “under no circumstances is this film to be made. If you should be foolhardy enough to make Scarface, this office will make certain it is never released.” And then Howard Hughes in response sent a memo to director Howard Hawks and said, quote, “screw the Hays office, start the picture and make it as realistic, as exciting, and as grisly as possible.”

SVW: And really we talked about the relationship with the main character in a sister. It's what they thought of as glorification of violence, showing the violence was really what the Hays office with so concerned about.

DH: Right, and so there's a little, you know, the little bits tagged in there at the beginning and opening the words on the screen, talking about the scourge of gangsterism, and then there was actually an alternate ending shot. What ended up happening, in those days, they even had to make different versions for different states based on the level of censorship in the states and they sort of sanitized it. But ultimately, you know, it was so successful. It was such a big box office hit and the controversy just made it more so, that probably by the end, most people sought the way the director and producer intended.

SVW: There's also, you mentioned, the alternate ending, but also there's the there's a scene towards the middle of the film or maybe the last 3rd where it's newspaperman and politicians and citizens in a room where they grandstand about how, you know it, it's our country and we can do something about this violence.

DH: So that that's the exact example of it. And that scene the shot with no creativity whatsoever, almost on purpose, if Howard Hawkes shot it, I assume Hawks did. There was actually an alternate ending made which Hawks refused to shoot. And if you get the DVD or something, you can sometimes see that. But that scene you're talking about even if Hawkes shot it, he shot it in one big static shot. And it's sort of like, OK, let's have this this 2 minute scene that we have to insert where they, you know, get all preaching about it. The thing is, though, you know, it's understandable. You know, there was a certain amount of audiences in the depression. You know, there was an allure to the gangsters, they sort of admired them as a way to get back at the system that was failing them. But if you look at Tony Camonte in this, he is a really evil, bad guy, kind of crazy and psychotic and in no way promoting what he's doing.

SVW: No, in fact, the where we really see his psychosis coming up in a major way is when he's introduced to a machine gun when he realizes what a machine gun can do and he goes absolutely, in fact, before even has one in his hands when they're shooting at him, he seems to be reveling in the in the weapon.

DH: Yeah, they're shooting and they're driving by another get rival gang is blasting them with Tommy guns and he's excited by it. He’s like they got machine guns you can carry. We've got to get those. And of course, they do. And he takes over the whole bootlegging scene in Chicago.

SVW: And, you know, I can see why some critics think that this is such a or one of the greatest early gangster film, because it's such a template for things that, you know, you go to look at The Godfather trilogy, you look at Martin Scorsese's Films. And you also look at things like The Sopranos and the way that the of the rivalries and then the infighting among gangsters

DH: And the role of family, right? You know, that's one of the things about the Godfather that has this irony throughout both Godfather movies. You're watching them, and it's like these are just ruthless murders, but there completely loyal to their family and you care about their family. So, yeah, that template is in this movie, too.

SVW: So, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. I can understand why Scarface would be considered the greater movie of the 2. But I think in my watching the 2 films I enjoyed I Am a Fugitive more so.

DH: Why’s that?

SVW: I don't know. Probably because I've seen so many gangster films.

DH: Yeah.

SVW: And this is the first time I've ever seen a movie about a chain gang.

DH: Yeah, it's a social message picture, right? It's a movie about a social problem. The prison system and particularly the really awful prison system of chain gangs that existed then in the 30's. But it does it, there's a little bit of those kind of documentary type scenes inserted in there. But for the most part, they let the storytelling, you know, make the point. And it's great. Scarface was, you know, Scarface was so successful that Warner Brothers immediately sign Paul Muni to a 7 picture contract. And the first one was I'm a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. So in 1932, these 2 movies came out one after the other. And they were just, you know, 2 of the greatest movies of the decade.

SVW: Yeah, and one of the things that made it so interesting for me to watch was a once he becomes, once he’s in the chain gang, just looking at the methodical ways that the people are living, both the prisoners and the guards and how the day begins and ends the same, but it the, the oppression is so deep.

DH: Yeah, and that's really well shown. Mervyn LeRoy, the director does some really great stuff to show that. For example, they show the chain gang prisoners being chained a certain way and they show mules being chained the exact same way. And it's an obvious parallel. They're showing that they're being treated exactly like animals. And then there's that part about the black prisoners, right, who are segregated and the way that the black prisoners are shown and even the way there they're singing songs. They almost sound like spirituals; you realize he's making the point. This is really no different than slavery.

SVW: And and the fact that yes, slavery and and the fact that through the course of the picture, once he becomes a fugitive and he's wanted the the state of Georgia, this is where he was at. He ends up in a northern state in Illinois in Chicago. And he let he tells the press what it's really like to be in a chain gang. And we don't really reveal any of the ending spoil any of the final sequence. Yeah, but he does. They find them but this is not so much a spoiler and he has, is, it the way that he is telling the press about how awful be the situation is, but it's such a a vital, probably a vital economic resource for the state of Georgia.

DH: They don't actually ever say Georgia in the movie, but this is based on a true story in a book that a guy wrote, who was a prisoner in a chain gang who escaped and …

SVW: Well, they show they show maps where he's moving around. They show that he's in in Georgia on screen, I thought.

DH: I think, well you see them in the south and then the and then the camera tracks, you know, kind of up toward Chicago to show where he ends up. But, you know, I think they left off the label Georgie. Just see it moving from south to north. So, you know, he's been in the South.

SVW: Okay, so that they didn't want to condemn an entire state.

DH: Yeah, they were afraid of getting in trouble. But but, yeah, how about that ending? I mean, we can't talk about it. But the final scene and the final shot are just stunning. You know, famous in film history. And I will say another thing about these movies. I'm a big fan of movies that come in around 90 minutes long or shorter, not enough of a maid. Both of these movies are like 92 93 minutes long. People listening can watch both of these movies in the time that you would spend binging a few episodes of some TV series.

SVW: And that ending that you're talking about. So so so powerful because of how the movie begins. He's a A World War One soldier who returns to his hometown. He doesn't want to work the factory job that he had before, that he wants to build things. He was working as an engineer in the military. He wants to travel and experience life. He wants to be free is essentially says I want freedom and where he ends up as a as a as a victim of circumstances is the complete opposite.

DH: So, would it be fair to say that that, you know, we love movies in the 30's. We've talked about screwball comedies and all that kind of stuff that comes from the 30's musicals. But would it be fair to say that if you want to see a perfect example of the great 1930's drama and how good Hollywood got early? These 2 movies with would fit the bill.

SVW: Right on.

DH: All right, Scott, well thanks.

[Clip from Scarface]

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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