Tuesday, April 08, 2003


RKO released this about two months before Warners released Paul Muni's I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, but this is the one that feels like a cheap retread of the same material. It's got a B-movie feel and a largely second string cast, but it has its moments. The movie is anchored by a solid performance from silent film star Richard Dix as a career criminal stuck on a chain gang, though he never really comes as scruffy or hardened as he should. An escape that Dix and some pals are about to pull off is derailed with the arrival of Dix's younger brother (Tom Brown). The clean cut innocent is clearly not the criminal type and a sympathetic overseer (Stanley Fields) knows that, so he arranges for Brown to get a fairly soft clerking position, and Dix doesn't join the breakout, opting to stay and watch out for his brother. There's a weird subplot involving a polygamous prisoner (Charles Middleton, coming off a lot like John Carradine) who pretends to be able to read people's fortunes in the stars; Warner Richmond plays a guard who is driven to kill his wife based on Middleton's predictions of adultery. The use of a sweatbox as punishment leads to a prisoner's death and brings unwanted pressure on a construction boss (Oscar Apfel) who is using the gang to finish a project and the overseeing warden (C. Henry Gordon, who briefly shows a softer side to his character when we see him practicing his violin). An uprising, triggered unwittingly by Brown, leads to fire and mass escape and death. Dix, who discovers he has been sentenced to death, redeems himself at the end. Also with Louise Beavers as a prisoner's wife and Rochelle Hudson as Brown's girl. The soundtrack has a lot of gloomy spirituals sung impeccably by the segregated black prisoners. Short and fairly well paced, though it has nowhere near the power of the Paul Muni chain gang movie.

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