This film, an adaptation of Robert E. Burns’ autobiographical novel made in 1932, makes a startlingly radical statement–it’s practically a call to revolution. You have to take the timing of its release into account: 1932 was the worst year of the Great Depression. The country was on the verge of hysteria. And this movie ain’t good for the nerves.
It begins by introducing a group of soldiers returning from World War One, focusing particularly upon one James Allen (played by Paul Muni), a man who declares that his experiences have taught him to expect more from life than “the old grind of the factory.” He hopes to find a “man’s job”, one in which he can feel he is doing something truly constructive. These dreams are shattered immediately upon his return home, where he is greeted by his almost demonically obtuse family and his former boss, who offers him his old position. At home, Jim explains his reluctance to return to the shoe factory, and his sanctimonious elder brother (a minister!) berates him for his “ingratitude”. Allen caves into the rhetoric–he is exhorted to become a “soldier of peace, instead of a soldier of war.” Uh, okay, sure.
He returns to work, but he despises the routine, and spends much of his time gazing through the window at a bridge that is being erected nearby. Soon, Allen chucks it all and goes on the road. A montage tracks his cross-country search for meaningful employment. He drives a tractor in New England, goes hungry in New Orleans, gets behind the wheel of a truck in Wisconsin… There’s a scene in St. Louis in which Allen saunters into a pawn shop, prepared to cash in his war medal for the price of a burger–the broker sighs and silently directs his attention toward a glass case which contains a mountain of discarded medals. The theme of the forgotten war hero, which also figures prominently in Leroy’s (and Warners’) Gold Diggers of 1933, was a topical one in 1932, the year of the bonus march on Washington.
After this scene, Allen hops on a freight car headed south-east. Each leg of his journey is charted on a map, although (for legal reasons) the final destination is not shown. Through the agency of this device, any viewer with even a passing knowledge of U.S. geography gets the message that Allen’s ordel takes place in Georgia, although the film never once names that state.
Once Allen reaches Gerogia, the film slows down to a more leisurely pace. He meets a fellow tramp in a hostel who invites him to a diner whose owner is a “soft touch” for a hand-out. The two bums take their seats and, while Allen drools at the sight of a patty on the grill, his new friend draws a gun. The tramp orders Allen to empty the cash register, which he reluctantly does. Just then, a pair of policemen enter the diner and a shootout ensues, during the course of which the instigator of all of this nonsense is killed. Allen takes off, but is quickly cornered–and the five dollars he removed from the till is found on his person. Quickly, the director cuts to a stern judge who sentences Allen to ten years’ hard labour, stating that he “sees no reason for leniency in this matter.” The judge slams down his gavel and of course the gavel is transformed by the camera into a hammer forging the chain which Allen has been condemned to wear. In order to stress that Allen has not received a fair trial, he is shown facing the judge alone, there is no lawyer in the scene. The message of the sequence is clear–the law, and, by implication, the state, solves the unemployment problem by shackling surplus workers.
Allen’s new home is a brutal place. He is beaten without provocation by sadistic guards, endures his first encounter with breakfast (his friend Bomber explains that the grub is a mixture of pig fat, grease and sorghum) and heads out for a day on the rock-pile. The prisoners are transported to and from the site of their drudgery in overcrowded trucks. The men are segregated, of course, but Leroy’s camera makes no distinction between the white and black inmates. All are viewed sympathetically. All are victims of an unjust order.
After bearing his enslavement for a year, Allen makes a daring escape through the neighboring swamps. He has several harrowing encounters with the law, but finally makes it across the state line and heads northward. Allen arrives in Chicago in 1924, at the height of twenties prosperity. Naturally, he enjoys an Horatio Alger-style acscent. He finds a job at a construction company and begins to work his way up. He makes an astute suggestion or two and soon he’s got a suit on. He studies civil engineering. A montage of pay-slips show Allen’s position and salary mounting year-by-year. Allen is a respected member of the community by 1929, at which point his luck runs out, because his obnoxious landlady (Glenda Farrell) gets the goods on him and blackmails him into marrying her! She is not pleasant to live with, believe me…
At a business fuction, Allen meets Helen Vinson, and they get along quite well. They sneak out of the party and get acquainted. Soon they are in love and Allen asks his wife for a divorce. She sniggers drunkenly and laughs it off, reminding him that she can expose him to the police any time she wants. He tells her that “going back to the chain gang would be no worse than serving out my time with you”. She is actually insulted by this and calls the cops. Need I add that all of this craziness occurs in the year of the Crash?
The unnamed southern state files to extradite Allen from Illinois. There is a massive campaign in the Chicago papers pleading for the clemency toward a convict who “made good”. Allen, however, is eager to wipe the slate clean, and actually agrees to return voluntarily, on the assurance of a pardon in ninety days.
Unfortunately, when he gets down there, he is informed that the “Clerical job” he was promised is a fiction and he is reinstated on the chain gang. The new warden informs Allen that he will be shot if he attempts another escape. After the stipulated ninety days go by, a prison board decides not to award him the pardon after all. Then the chairman of the commision makes a crazy attempt to vindicate the chain gang system against the charges of inhumanity that Allen had made in a Chicago interview. At this point it becomes clear that the state is actually conducting a vendetta against Allen and doesn’t ever intend to set him free. When his brother arrives at the camp with the terrible news, an anguished Allen cries out: “why their crimes are worse than mine! Worse than anybody’s here! They’re the ones who should be in chains!”
Crazed with anger, Allen plots another escape, this time accompanied by his friend Bomber. They commandeer a supply truck and a wild chase ensues. Leroy adds a nice touch by showing Allen, the man who wanted to “build things and create”, grinning maniacally as he cements his escape by dynamiting a bridge.
This time Allen merely escapes into the vaster prison of Depression America, in which all Horatio Alger stories have been outlawed. In the justly famous final scene, Allen emerges from obscurity to confront Helen in a parking lot:
Helen: Jim! Why Haven’t you come before?
Jim: I was afraid to…
Helen: But you could have written, it’s been almost a year since you escaped!
Jim: But I haven’t escaped! They’re still after me! They’ll always be after me! I’ve had jobs, but I can’t keep them. Something happens… someone turns up…I hide in rooms all day and travel by night…No friends, no rest, no peace. Keep moving.. that’s all that’s left for me! Forgive me Helen. I had to take a chance to see you tonight…just to say goodbye…
Helen: Oh Jim! It was all going to be so different…
Jim: It is different… they’ve made it different! (a noise startles him) I’ve got to go!
Helen: I can’t let you go like this!
Jim: I’ve got to!
Helen: Can’t you tell me where you’re going? (he shakes his head, glassy-eyed) Will you write?(he shakes his head) Do you need any money? (again, a shake) Jim! How do you live? (he is completely obscured by shadows now)
Jim: (a disembodied voice emanating from a black screen) I steal!
No problem solved by deus ex machina. No subverter of the American Dream identified and exposed. The state itself is indicted for its role in the reduction of Allen to a non-person. The film does not offer any hope of redress from within the system. And Jim doesn’t even get to be a martyr.