Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 1932. Warner Bros.. Screenplay by Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes, based on the story by Robert E. Burns. Cinematography by Sol Polito. Produced by Hal B. Wallis. Music by Bernhard Kaun. Production Design by Jack Okey. Costume Design by Orry-Kelly. Film Editing by William Holmes. Academy Awards 1932/1933.
A mere two years after The Big House and the movies have clearly grown up a lot, with leaps in technology and storytelling in evidence when this excellent pre-cursor to Cool Hand Luke is released. Paul Muni is excellent as a decorated World War I veteran who comes home from the war and decides that the factory job in his town is dull and he wants to see the world. Getting let go from one gig means looking for a new job in a new town, which becomes more difficult with each dismissal until, one unfortunate night, he makes friends with the wrong guy in a flophouse and unwittingly takes part in a crime. This gets him sentenced to the cruelty of a chain gang despite essentially being an innocent man, and rather than succumb to the pain and torture of his incarceration, Muni escapes and makes his way to Chicago where he works his way up to a very successful job in the financial market. His status as an escaped convict provides for some vulnerabilities, particularly when pressed into marriage with a blackmailing hussy who sees him as her personal bank account; eventually he is exposed for his past and has plenty of support from lawyers and politicians who want to keep him out of the clink, but Muni decides to go for a clean record and strikes a deal for a reduced sentence if he goes back willingly. The negative publicity he has whipped up about the inhuman treatment of prisoners, however, has made him some enemies in prison and the promises of his jailers turn out to be flimsy. Made before the era of Crime Doesn’t Pay Hoover propaganda, the film is a smart examination of the link between Depression-era economic conditions and the rising tide of crime and bodies in prisons. The film is full of social commentary meant to question a society trying to maintain order under extremely difficult circumstances: Muni goes to prison because he can’t afford to stay in a cleaner place, and gets a haircut and a suit as soon as he escapes and suddenly the authorities are completely blind to him in plain sight. The film metes plenty of punishment to its main character for his choosing his own destiny over society’s rules, but it doesn’t seem to do so in the spirit of emphasizing social order over humane understanding.