How The Warner Brothers Fought To End the Chain Gang System

Warner Bros. early on championed the idea that characters on screen talk and act like real people. The result was movies like ‘I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.’

Hulton Archive/Getty

Its breakthrough success in the ’20s was built on the unlikely but sturdy back of Rin Tin Tin. Then, with The Jazz Singer (1927), Warner Bros. became the first major Hollywood studio to introduce sound in movies. Not merely first out of the gate, the studio also led the way in allowing characters on the screen to talk and act like real people with real problems in the very real world of the Depression. While other studios promised diversion to any ticket buyer eager to forget their troubles for a couple of hours in a movie theater, Warners successfully sold the public a different vision: gritty, exciting, and every bit as in your face as that grapefruit Jimmy Cagney smashes in Mae Marsh’s mouth.

In Warner Bros., a biography in Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, the noted film writer David Thomson crafts a group portrait of the brothers and their studio by analyzing the movies they produced over five decades. In the following excerpt, he looks at I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang, a sobering and electrifying movie about an unlucky victim of the Depression, a man who, sucker or not, never gets an even break.


By the early '30s, riding the waves, Warners had days when the brothers could feel they were in the lead. Unprecedented sums of new revenue were coming their way, and production responded. The audience was facing hard times, but that was gasoline for the confidence at Warners. No other studio did hard times with the same panache. Sound became irresistible in a matter of months, and it carried Warners to the top of the business. It was a national company all of a sudden, and a promise of fun.

But there was something awkward in the fun. The glory days of the talking picture are those of Depression and war, during which the Warner brothers (and every other Hollywood boss) became very rich and nearly royal figures, adept at persuading themselves that they were really for the people, the masses, the strangers—that mob of the disappointed and even the dangerous that alarms Nathanael West in The Day of the Locust (1939), when a movie première may turn into a riot. 

In those days, the Hollywood system wanted to believe in its implicit contract with the public: buy a ticket and we’ll cheer you up—you won’t have to be afraid, for now. That uneasy deal made the films celebrated in this book. And Warners deserved the reputation for being ahead of its rivals. The brothers did read the papers; they saw what was coming in Europe; they wanted the American dream to be enlightened and responsible, so long as it didn’t spoil their own dream of being resplendent and unquestioned moguls. The developing conflict between Harry and Jack was a matter of attitude. Harry was ready to let worry show. Jack insisted on his cocksure act. Harry had a sense of posterity, while Jack was all here and now, with a joke to close the show and settle doubts. So Warners owned the snappy answer. 

Jack would say anything, for effect. The screenwriter Casey Robinson was fired once by Jack, over the phone—“I just want you to know, smart ass, that you will walk into a Warner Brothers studio again only over my dead body!” 

He hung up. Robinson was gone. Then time passed, and Robinson was back on another project, and taken to see Jack. They had never met before. Robinson took a chance; he reminded Jack of the phone call. The comic in Jack grinned, “Well, I must be dead! How’s your health? Welcome to Warner Brothers!” 

In silent pictures, characters had uttered, and then intertitles had delivered their speeches as print. It was like translation, slow and formal. But with sound, urgent crosstalk could occur now, like an itch being scratched. And because it was now, the spoken stuff didn’t have to be Gettysburg addresses or fulsome love testaments. It could be, “You dirty rat!” or “I’d kiss you, but I’ve just washed my hair”—those impulsive remarks that can surprise the person saying them, as well as the listener. Things an actor might have thought of on the spur of a moment, as if to add, “Screw the writer, screw the Warner brothers. This is me, now.” As if actors were people. But it was at Warner Brothers that actors and actresses were most aroused by saying stuff. To pretend to history: a once-minor studio, rescued from its natural state of poverty by a willing dog, had become not just a force but the unwitting purveyor of insurrectionary sound and a production base that did gangster pictures and a new kind of showbiz musical like kids doing handstands.

It was also the one outfit where it seemed possible that some boss was asking out loud, “Look, is this 1931, 1932, or whatever? So what are we saying about now? And what are we doing to make movies matter?” If the country was in a crisis— and that idea was gaining ground—then shouldn’t movies be there for the emergency? It was part of this mood that Warner films seemed to move, talk, and shoot quicker than others. Darryl Zanuck often claimed to be that voice (and ready to shout down rivals), and in 1932 he wrote a letter to The Hollywood Reporter advocating what he called “a headline story”: “It must not be confused with the gangster or underworld cycle of productions that have flooded the theaters in the past. Somewhere in its makeup it must have the punch and smash that would entitle it to a headline on the front page of any successful metropolitan daily.”

So much of silent cinema had been literary. It was drawn from plays, novels, the classical repertoire of history—the Bible, even! This was natural, but it could be pretentious, tiring, and archaic; it was an effort to convince society (and the filmmakers) that movies were serious and worthy, instead of now. Even The Jazz Singer had had an achingly old-fashioned moral purpose so much at odds with the immediacy of sound. The breakthrough picture had also been a retreat to an enclosing and fatuous past. 

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Talking pictures didn’t have to be that way. In Europe, there were documentaries made just before sound that simply dwelled on what was happening as time passed. Films like Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Man with a Movie Camera were captivated by an exciting new relationship between this recording device (movie) and what was out there waiting to be seen and heard. America had seldom enjoyed this relationship, but sound insisted on it. In just a few years, from Berlin, Christopher Isherwood would suggest, “I am a camera,” foreseeing so many new technologies and the bereft human condition that came with them. But in the empire of silent cinema, the pious assumption had been, “We are a theater.” Still, a few people were reckoning that if you stood on a street corner for ten minutes, the untidy elements of a movie might appear. If you really understood the stupid, accepting nature of a camera. 

At the end of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), its stricken hero, James Allen (Paul Muni), is reunited for a moment with his girl. He has found her just to say farewell. But he cannot stay long, for fear of being recaptured. His life is rootless and unlit, forever on the run; he is that American who must always keep moving in one of the few films that understands how tormented that urge can be. 

“How do you live?” the girl asks him, as touched and troubled as any viewer of the film. We see Allen as the outline of a face receding into darkness. “I steal,” he says, savage and without self-pity, and then he reenters the night. It is one of the great punch lines in American films, and 85 years later it sustains the aching present tense in the title. For Allen is still a fugitive in an America where fairness can be as remote or absurd as ever. So we are left to ask ourselves, “What are escapist movies for?,” and few asked that question more pointedly than this Vitaphone picture. 

That conclusion was settled at the last minute, and it was the decision of Darryl Zanuck (he said). Or was the ending a beneficiary of chance: as they shot that last scene, did the lights on the set really fail, so that the image disappeared? If that was a mistake, in which Allen was consumed by darkness, director Mervyn LeRoy and Zanuck would say they realized that the chance effect was better than their intentions. So they kept the error and it became classic. It’s a lovely Warneresque story, but something very close to the effect was already in the script by Howard Green and Brown Holmes. 

Sometimes, in later years, when the Production Code had tried to soften the edge of 1932, that ending was dropped. But today it is judged to be the essential conclusion to Zanuck’s most unremitting film, and one of the movies that most indicates Warner Brothers. The ending hurts more than the spectacular death throes of any of the studio’s gangsters. James Allen is the most wounded Everyman figure out of Warner Brothers. I Am a Fugitive refuses to exclude the prospect that another kind of film—hopeless yet ecstatic—was possible. 

The film is shockingly simple and direct; it never feels pondered over, and barely a moment seems composed for its own sake. This is the cinema of journalism. Allen returns from the war, decorated, older and wiser. His mother and his unctuous prelate brother want him to resume the old clerical job that has been kept open for him. But Allen learned engineering in the army. He wants to build and do new things. So he dodges the drab job lined up for him and branches out. But he gets nowhere and is not far from being a vagrant when he is involved in a minor holdup in a diner. He is sentenced to the chain gang. This is remorselessly unfair, but there is never a hint of legal maneuvers that might free him. (It’s as if Allen is black now.) He goes away to do his time, like a leaf in the wind. And this plight is one that we feel in the square, naked face of Paul Muni. 

This is the very year in which Muni overacted as Tony Camonte in Scarface. In I Am a Fugitive, he has the sense to trust the tragic story. We know Allen is a decent man, with worthy ambitions and ability; so the trap that closes on him is more desperate than the elegant fatalism in a Fritz Lang film. Seen today, Muni looks a lot like Ronald Reagan (no one knew that in 1932), which is enough to remind us now that Reaganesque nice guys can turn out hopeless cases if they are not saved by acting, elections, and the celebrity status of those roles. We never feel starriness or self-confidence in Muni’s Allen. He seems ordinary and unlucky, just as most movie leads are blessed and glamorous. The mainstream of American movies, then and now, has not liked to admit that bad luck can kill us. 

The film’s chain gang is a hellish place, a deliberate dwelling in the horrors of institutional life, and a warped but cruel concentrated camp. This involves the nightmare of the chains, the senselessness of breaking rocks and lives at the same time, the wretched food, the demeaning attitudes, and the lash. Though I Am a Fugitive does not exploit violence (as the gangster films did), its impact is harsh and terrifying. The lashing is conveyed in sound, more than in visuals, but the screams are unforgettable (and more wounding, I think, than the whipping in 12 Years a Slave). This prison life is a mockery of every American ideal—except that American free expression has delivered it. So Allen makes a desperate escape, and tries to become the citizen he might have been. 

He gets a construction job in which his talent is noticed. He is promoted; he becomes successful and prosperous; he marries—though the woman (Glenda Farrell) proves to be a heartless slut, and it is suggested that she informs on him. Thus fate closes in again and he is recaptured. Like an idiot—and this is the one touch of implausibility in the film—he falls for the offered deal (based on his new respectability) of going back to prison for 90 days in return for a pardon. That contract revels in torture, because we guess it’s a trick. So Allen rediscovers his earlier hopelessness and is driven to a second escape, in which he blows up a bridge—thus mocking the straight life he yearned for. This second escape leaves him as the haunted fugitive at the end of the movie. In his life of darkness there are newspaper stories glimpsed that ask, “Is he too just another forgotten man?” (The picture was released in November 1932, a week after the election of Roosevelt, and just a few months before the opening of Gold Diggers of 1933, with its poignant song, “Remember My Forgotten Man.”) 

That sounds like an agenda, yet we don’t know how organized Zanuck’s thinking was—or how far it was put before Jack or Harry Warner for approval. Harry especially was high-minded, and eager to save the world, but he was deeply conservative and opposed to the ideas that chance could be fatal, or that rescue need be radical. But Zanuck did promote a leftist attitude at Warners, hiring writers who would prove to be leftists. One of these was John Bright, a full-fledged Communist, who helped write The Public Enemy, Taxi! and Blonde Crazy. He regarded Zanuck as “a tin pot Mussolini,” yet he respected the producer’s competence and authority. 

But in the spring of 1933, offended by studio orders for salary cuts across the board, Zanuck quit Warners and was on his way to Twentieth Century–Fox, where he would be known for his social conscience but was never again as tough. His celebrated The Grapes of Wrath for Fox (directed by John Ford) is a testament to that history, but its rather self-conscious poetry leaves the stark splendor and unhealed realism of I Am a Fugitive painfully clear. 

Any trained Hollywood spectator watching the 1932 film expects relief, if not a happy ending. Next year’s Baby Face does turn soft and ready for love at its close. But nothing comes to ease James Allen’s closing darkness. The title stayed I Am a Fugitive . . . and surely hunched figures leaving the theater in 1932 looked warily at their fellows, and at themselves. 

As directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the film is made like a newspaper story: the filming is emphatic and cocksure, greedy for action and faces; and the editing hurtles forward, never diverted from the anguish in Muni’s performance, but not milking it for pathos. Every record suggests that Zanuck controlled that editing. It’s striking how swiftly the idioms of sound narrative had been adopted. The taut simplicity understands the finality of the script and its dark and unsentimental sense of America. It leaves our contemporary gangster films looking fancy and indulgent, and without a thought of changing the world. 

In his memoir, Jack Warner was proud of what he called “our celluloid preachment against brutality” in I Am a Fugitive. He even claimed that the movie “forecast the end of the chain gang system.” But that penal format lasted in the South until 1955, and even now The New York Times is full of stories of corruption, brutality, and torture by guards at Rikers Island (on top of whatever prisoners have been doing to each other as a matter of course). The mark of shallow-minded reformism is its belief that it has succeeded. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is proof of there never being an excuse for complacency. In fact, the Robert E. Burns who wrote the book that prompted the film, and who had led a life like that of James Allen, was arrested late in 1932, still on the run. (He had secretly advised Warners on details of the film.) He might have been deported to Georgia to serve more time, and he was reckless in helping promote the film (he seems to have felt he was a celebrity), but the governor of New Jersey refused to sign the deportation order. Still, it was 1945 before Burns was officially pardoned by the state of Georgia. 

Excerpted from Warner Bros: the Making of an American Movie Studio by DavidThomson, new from Yale University Press/Jewish Lives. Published by permission. All rights reserved.