July 12, 2009
Chain Gang

This is based on a true story according to Wikipedia. Paul Muni, who had just finished Scarface, plays James Allen, a veteran of WWI who has been unable to find work, and winds up becoming a participant in a robbery that nets him $5.00, and a 10 year jail sentence. The film shows the brutality of the Southern chain gang system, and since it is one of the pre-Code films it is relatively frank, but non-pornographic, in its portrayal of sex. (It conveys the idea that Paul Muni and one of the honeys in the movie have a one night stand. There’s no nudity, and no vulgar language.) Allen escapes, and lives a decent life in Chicago. He falls in love and asks his wife for a divorce. She turns him in. He agrees to go back on the verbal promise that he’ll get a pardon after 90 days. He should have heeded the word of the movie mogul who said “A verbal contract is worth the paper it’s written on.” His 90 days becomes a year, and he’s driven to escape again. This time he’s forced to steal. Cue unhappy ending.

As I mentioned in the post on Sullivan’s Travels, this is one of the social commentary films that Warner Brothers did. It is supposed to have helped end the chain gang system in the South.

It is tense, and while there are wince inducing scenes of torture, they are not as bad as what’s on 24. (Note: I am a huge fan of 24, and am in my second go round of watching seasons 1 through 6. I don’t think the torture scenes in 24, at least on the part of the CTU agents, are ever about mere sadism.) The scenes of brutality in Sullivan’s Travels, because they jar so completely with the previous tone of the movie, are in a way worse than the brutality in this movie.

Update: August 22, 2009

Way oút in Unh-húnh
Califórny, Unh-húnh
Where ol StéwballUnh-húnh
Was born Was born
All de jockeysUnh-húnh
In de coúntryUnh-húnh
Said he bléw thereUnh-húnh
In a stórm, In a stórm
In a stórm, man, Unh-húnh
In a stórm, In a stórm

There’s a scene in the movie where the chain gang is singing Working All The Live-Long Day. If I remember correctly, the prisoners time their hammer swings to the beats of the music. One of the actual work-songs from the chain gangs was recorded by John and Alan Lomax in American Ballads and Folk Songs. It’s called Skewball. The accents show the beats for the hammer fall:

If you say it, or shout it I think you can hear the muscular clink of hammer on rock.

 The picture over there on the left is Leadbelly in prison. Leadbelly recorded the version given by Lomax pere et fils. You can hear one of his versions by clicking on the play button below the picture. There is a multi-CD set available from Amazon over on the right with this song and many more.