A plot-level reading of Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which depicts Robert E. Burns’s autobiographical, dual existence as a falsely convicted prisoner and dubiously lionized entrepreneur, does not inspire faith in the integrity of the Southern chain gang penal system. In its promotional campaign, Warner Brothers – Chain Gang’s production studio – publicized H. L. Mencken’s condemnation of the chain gang: “simply a vicious, medieval custom…and is so archaic and barbarous as to be a national disgrace” (Lichtenstein 16). Thus, Burns and Warner Brothers launched a national, progressive movement against Southern forced labor which resonated powerfully with a 1932 audience because it linked the chain gang's brutality to bleak realities of Great Depression America.
Yet, viewing the film as Hollywood’s response to social and economic crises of this period invites skepticism regarding the industry’s motivations for advancing such radical arguments. In other words, why would it have been in the studio’s interest to align a potentially desperate viewer’s sympathies with the film’s subversive message? I will argue that Chain Gang functioned in a complex network of New Deal agitprop which facilitated Roosevelt’s intimate business relationship with Hollywood, most notably with Warner Brothers. If Depression desperation rendered tenuous the dominant industries’ power, it would have protected Hollywood’s concerns to focus a frustrated viewer’s struggles specifically against the chain gangs which the film paints as “so archaic and barbarous as to be a national disgrace.”
Horkheimer and Adorno argue that civilization represses barbarity by attempting to embody its negation. However, savage brutality does not disappear. They explain this as a process of “progress…reverting to regression. That [industries] are obtusely liquidating metaphysics does not matter in itself, but that these are themselves becoming metaphysics, an ideological curtain, within the social whole, behind which real doom is gathering, does matter. That is the basic premise of our fragments” (Horkheimer and Adorno xviii). This attempt to elucidate the dynamics of contradictory forces in modern industrial societies, – that is, culture represses ritual which resurfaces in barbarity – seems particularly relevant to LeRoy’s dichotomized expression of modern industry and penal savagery in Chain Gang.
Thus, the film can be read as at once enacting and promoting alternative readings of modernity’s relationship to tradition. Lichtenstein’s depiction of chain gangs as trapped between old and new systems (although, he argues, closer to the latter, while occupying a space in the public imagination – thanks largely to Burns’s and LeRoy’s efforts – which links them primarily with the former) reflects Horkheimer and Adorno’s modernity paradigm. Might, then, the film’s repression of cultural-historical complexity signify its participation in generating the very conditions which facilitated and prolonged the existence of unjust systems like the chain gang?
Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis of “the culture industry” also confirms arguments that any text produced by Hollywood participates in stifling potential political resistance to capitalism. They assert that “under the dictate of effectiveness, technique is becoming psychotechnique, a procedure for manipulating human beings … everything is directed at overpowering a customer conceived as distracted or resistant” (133). In effect, Chain Gang’s purportedly subversive message can be interpreted as co-opting mounting politically-resistant energies in 1932 American culture.
I will also attempt to analyze Horkheimer and Adorno’s scathing criticisms of Hollywood and American capitalism dialogically with arguments promoted by the very systems the Dialectic of Enlightenment decries. If anything, Chain Gang’s example has instructed me to appreciate the nuanced difficulties posed by classifying any one economy, culture, or form of government as either purely repressive or uniquely revolutionary.
Michel Foucault’s analysis of the evolution of the western penal system resonates with the 1932 national Burns-inspired urge to abolish the chain gang. Foucault recounts the replacement of the chain gang in France in 1837 “by inconspicuous black-painted cell-carts.” Thus, “punishment gradually ceased to be a spectacle” (Foucault 8-9). However, the lack of visibility of brutality does not displace the sinister effects of a now ambiguously-motivated penal system. Foucault argues that discipline’s growing absence of tangible sources renders the system all the more insidious. For, “punishment, then, will tend to become the most hidden part of the penal process… [and] as a result, justice no longer takes public responsibility for the violence that is bound up with its practice” (9). The chain gang in Georgia was indeed subsequently supplanted by a less visible means of penal correction.
Foucault’s concern regarding the penal system’s move toward discretion reflects national fears of Southern racial integration that the chain gangs both facilitated and made visible to the public. The chain gangs evolved out of an antebellum convict labor system designed to prolong the racial, economic, and cultural dynamics established through slavery. Thus, Warner Brothers responded to national anxieties provoked by whites’ conspicuous subjection to a mode of punishment perceived to be designed for blacks.
However, the film for the most part ignores arguments that address these racial tensions. Might Hollywood have relished portraying the chain gang as a hyper-visible site of injustice in order to facilitate its manipulation of pre-existing national fears surrounding chain gangs? In other words, the chain gangs – which arguably embodied a tense conflict between Southern modernity and lingering effects of its post-slavery economy – rendered racial tension and physical violence spectacles, thereby generating national anxiety which posed threats to established cultural and economic hierarchies (Hollywood, at the top of these hierarchies).
I do not suggest that a national return to a chain gang penal system would be appropriate. Rather, in 1932, the existence of the chain gang was not purely regressive, but complex and deeply imbricated in modernity. Thus, the film’s structural misreading of the chain gang – a system which in many ways literalizes the studios' symbolic perpetuation of violence and inequality – can be read as motivated by Hollywood’s fears regarding the chain gang’s cultural and economic self-exposure.
(This post is an extension of a longer post on the Crisis).
An ad from the March 1932 issue promoting tourism in South Africa. "Near Durban -- "Pearl of the East African Coast" -- you will meet the black man in all his native glory -- quaint kraals, age-old tribal customs, primitive musical instruments, wild war dances!" This description suggests how Sebastian, the African-American character who frees James Allen from his chains, might have been received by Chain Gang's audience. LeRoy aestheticizes this character's robust black body which flourishes on the chain gang, juxtaposed to the many emaciated and struggling white figures which the chain gang apparently annihilates.
The film's representation of a modern/anti-modern South dichotomy indicates a similar logic motivating its racial arguments. On a visual level, LeRoy suggests that the black man exists naturally and fruitfully under a regressive and exploitative forced labor system. In terms of its 1932 reception, this visual logic no doubt confirmed many American viewers’ preconceived notions of a relationship between social position and skin color. Although Chain Gang’s racial politics can be read as more subtle and nuanced, the film constructs its arguments through the individual example of a white man, even though the injustice of the chain gang system deeply reflects Southern histories of slavery and post-slavery economic exploitation of forced black labor.
Roffman and Purdy describe the social problem film as politically rather tame, arguing that “there is no direct relationship between the problem film and social change” (304). However, they posit as an exception to this paradigm “examples of isolated reforms—in chain-gang regulations after Fugitive” (304). Chain Gang’s lack of narrative closure at the end, which suggests the failures of a malfunctioning society, approaches, they argue, a sincere and radical criticism of Great Depression politics and culture.
Roffman and Purdy’s reading of the film demonstrates a counter-argument to my own. Despite Chain Gang’s uniquely bleak ending, historical evidence refutes Roffman and Purdy’s claims. Warner Brothers, who enjoyed a longstanding political collaboration with President Roosevelt, released the film a week after FDR’s election to office. In a production context, I group Chain Gang with other films that propagandize the New Deal Administration. Its criticism of Depression society condemns Hoover’s failures thereby aligning a potentially desperate viewer’s political energies with subsequent New Deal propaganda campaigns.
Chain Gang’s historical misreading of the southern penal system, which Roffman and Purdy also overlook, reinforces its function as New Deal agitprop. By depicting the South’s cultural backwardness as antithetical to modernity (epitomized by industries like Hollywood), Chain Gang fosters a dichotomized interpretation of malfunctioning Depression American society. According to the film’s logic, anti-modern Georgia opposes modern Chicago, whereas evidence suggests that the South’s convict labor and subsequent chain gang penal systems evolved in with Northern industry. The film annihilates the chain gang’s profound complexities framing it as purely antagonistic in a typical codified Hollywood good-cop/bad-cop conversation.
In other words, I strongly disagree with Roffman and Purdy’s historical reading of the film’s politics.
Muscio describes Roosevelt’s collusion with Hollywood: FDR overlooked Hollywood’s oligopoly in exchange for its help propagandizing his administration. Hollywood’s investment in the New Deal facilitated Roosevelt’s assertion of political and economic stability (at least for the already dominant industries), counteracting voices that demanded more revolutionary political changes. In these senses, Muscio depicts Roosevelt politics as rather conservative, in spite of their expression of / appeal to liberal ideologies.
Since Chain Gang was released a week after Roosevelt’s election to office, and in light of the striking myth-making similarities between Chain Gang and Roosevelt’s platform (e.g. emphasis on the plight of the forgotten man), and considering Warner Brothers’ especially friendly relationship with Roosevelt, it seems absurd to argue that Chain Gang did not play a strong role in aligning American popular culture with New Deal politics.
Muscio also takes into account the emergence of sound technology and studio self-censorship codes’ roles in facilitating and defining Hollywood’s relationship with Roosevelt. She cites Lizabeth Cohen’s argument that “the talking audience for silent pictures became a silent audience for talking pictures” (75). Although the critical implications of the industry’s transition from silent to sound warrant more nuanced readings, Muscio’s arguments stress 1932 technology’s essential role in manipulating American political culture. The sound film, by approaching what audiences perceive as verisimilitude, sutures its viewer into becoming a voyeur, all the while naturalizing its own artifice. This basic understanding of sound technology’s impact on traditions of film receptivity in America suggests the singularity of the emergence of the New Deal’s and thus Chain Gang’s historical moment. Chain Gang’s aesthetic, narrative logic, and social arguments articulate a dynamic synthesis of cultural, technological, and political forces unique to 1932.
The Hays Code, which too facilitated Hollywood’s control over the market, further engendered the film industry’s alignment with the government. In the context of Chain Gang, a pre-Code film – i.e. post-Production Code, pre Joseph Breen’s rigid enforcement of said Code – the dynamics of a political and market codified aesthetic generate many ambiguities. Chain Gang’s iconoclastic renarrativization of Hollywood formulae, which actually transgresses censorship regulations in a fairly typical way for this period, aligned its viewer’s plight with the studio’s thereby establishing Warner Brothers as the “socially-conscious studio.” This image facilitated WB’s maintenance of industry control over mounting societal tensions that posed threats to Hollywood and fostered a space in American culture for the popularity of New Deal politics.
Burns’s autobiography recounts his traumatic experiences on a Georgia chain gang: Burns returns from WWI, can’t find work, is sentenced to ten years of hard labor in 1921 for petty larceny, he escapes, makes good as a magazine publisher in Chicago, is exposed as a fugitive convict by his wife with whom he has an antagonistic relationship, is tricked into returning to Georgia and denied his promised reprieve, escapes a second time, and is laying low in New Jersey in 1932 when the book was published.
His brother, Reverend Vincent Burns’s asserts in his introduction the book’s intended impact on its reader. “If people will only read his story with sympathetic understanding and pass it on for others to read there will inevitably be a wave of great indignation against this most inhuman, most un-American system—the chain gang. The public, once vividly conscious of the horrors and brutalities of chain-gang life, will rise in its wrath and force a clean-up” (35). This statement represents a fair assessment of the book’s political logic: wage struggles for political change based on subjective arguments that appeal foremost to a reader’s emotions by evoking vague senses of myth and patriotism. In fact, this book and its subsequent adaptation to film by Hollywood did launch a national reform movement against the chain gangs – which some argue was successful although evidence suggests that the Southern penal system’s eventual reform was motivated by economic factors.
Of course, there is little doubt regarding the injustice of Burns’s individual experiences on the chain gang. Evidence too confirms the ethical dubiousness of the chain gang’s political-economic ties to Georgia’s government and reigning elite citizens, as well as its inhumane and violent treatment of its prisoners. However, Burns completely misrepresents the chain gangs, which he condemns, in the words of H.L. Mencken, as “so archaic and barbarous as to be a national disgrace.” The chain gangs were far from archaic; their corruption and violence were deeply motivated by modernity (see my post on Alex Lichtenstein’s book, Twice the Work of Free Labor). Furthermore, Burns’s story overshadowed other considerably more radical condemnations of the Southern chain gangs. It participated in a 1932 myth-making culture that distracted the public from revolutionary or historically accurate arguments, and propagandized New Deal politics.
A wonderful piece of Warner Brothers 1932 New Deal agitprop directed by Mervyn LeRoy and released a week after Roosevelt's election to office. It depicts the life of James Allen / Allen James, a falsely convicted prisoner, ex-soldier, twice escaped chain gang fugitive who makes good, has a messy romantic life, and is plagued by the flagrant injustice of the Southern chain gang penal system. Very exciting even though it gets its history wrong (see my bibliography on this film).
Bosley Crowther reviews Preston Sturges’ work. He focuses on Sullivan’s Travels, in which a Hollywood director with Marxist sympathies tires of making light musical comedies, and desires to make politically significant pictures which “hold a mirror up to life.” After an altercation with a policeman and a case of mistaken identity, Sullivan finds himself on a brutal Southern chain gang, confesses to murdering the mysteriously disappeared film director John Sullivan thereby enacting his own media death in order to publicize his whereabouts and to save himself from literal death and the physical torments of life on a chain gang. During his time on the chain gang, his one release is viewing a funny cartoon, so he abandons his serious filmmaking ambitions and decides to make comedies.
Crowther sums up Sullivan’s Travel’s arguments: “Now, to all intents and purposes, Mr. Sturges is ably arguing that pictures which “stink with messages” are so much tommy-rot and the screen’s fundamental service is to hold life at an arm’s-length.” Crowther locates what he describes as “a most ingenious paradox” in Sturges’ work: cinema as an outlet for escapism, and frequently a metaphorical narration of its own escapist traditions (e.g. Chain Gang which contemplates the political implications of escaping or disappearing from society).
Chain Gang depicts spectacular escapes while advertising its own denial of narrative closure at the end, even though Great Depression film was always expected to provide an outlet for escapism and release from financial hard times. Chain Gang not only refused to provide its viewer with narrative closure, but flaunted its own display of brutality as a capitalist gimmick to attract spectatorship (real chains from chain gang in theater lobby). Whereas economic modernity argument (see Lichtenstein tag) suggests that Chain Gang elicits and co-opts political energy, the film’s commercial pitch – provoking capitalist desires to view a film that in many ways challenges them – would imply a different relationship. In the end, Chain Gang’s commercialization of its own subversion of American government participated in an elaborate New Deal propaganda campaign. However, Chain Gang’s meditation upon its implication in traditions of film escapism can be read as resisting the film’s own politics.
Doherty’s history contextualizes Hollywood production efforts during its pre-Code era, from the publication of the Production Code in 1930 to Joseph Breen’s rigid enforcement said Code in 1934. Doherty separates the history into different modes of transgression, exploring sexual innuendo in Mae West films, eroticization of foreign and “primitive” cultures in films like King Kong, the alignment of Hollywood with the sympathetic gangster figures particularly in the WB crime films, and the political implications of the social problem film, paying special attention to Chain Gang.
Although Chain Gang used its own portrayal of brutality as a publicity gimmick, Doherty emphasizes theater owners’ hesitation about the picture due to its bleak themes and unhappy ending. ““My personal opinion is that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang would do 25% more business if it had a happy ending,” complained a theater owner.” Motion Picture Herald warned the film's producers against portraying the gruesomeness of the chain gang too explicitly. For example, the notorious sweatbox punishment torture device depicted in Sullivan’s Travels and Cool Hand Luke is omitted from Chain Gang’s diegesis. These measures were justified “for fear of alienating a feminine portion of the patronage in particular.” If Chain Gang participated in a historical moment which established political stability during shaky times and fostered a profound alliance between media and government, then – like the film’s failure properly to address racial issues – women’s purported exclusion from its political energy reveals the patriarchal culture it fostered.
During these years, a prevalent freight-train riding youth culture also emerged. Children and teenagers left impoverished homes to ride illegally on freight trains across America. Doherty groups Wild Boys of the Road, a “politically subversive” film from 1933 which explores youth freight train culture, with Chain Gang. He asserts that “adults of the Great Depression understood perfectly why their children were acting up. Given the present, who could blame them for behaving as if they had no future?” From its title, I AM a Fugitive, which engages the present moment, to its temporal overlap with legal struggles over Burns’s extradition, Chain Gang exploits this “futureless” mythos thereby paradoxically enabling the New Deal’s future political success by responding to the public’s bewilderment regarding its own future.
The Crisis was the official journal of the NAACP. I address a number of articles from late 1932 to early 1933 in my research. In the November 1932 issue, Lester A. Walton describes Hoover’s attempts to recover the black vote, reminding his reader of Hoover’s “three years of apathy and unfriendliness.” Later in this issue, Hoover’s ineffectiveness is framed in terms a complex national forgotten man trope, upon which Chain Gang draws extensively, which describes the plight of the WWI soldier who made profound sacrifices for a country which can no longer contain or accommodate him. “The forgotten black man” refers to Hoover’s failure to address “the extraordinary and unprecedented struggle of the American Negro, his handicaps and disadvantages, not to mention his continuing illegal oppression.” Thus, the NAACP draws on the same cultural mythology which facilitated Chain Gang’s national resonance. Furthermore, this issue was printed the same month as Chain Gang’s release. It would be difficult to imagine that “the forgotten black man” reference excludes allusions to forgotten-soldier sentiments that Chain Gang aroused.
At the end of this issue, the Crisis addresses problems of the unequal distribution of wealth across racial lines in America. If the chain gang represented essential Southern racial injustice, in that the desire for modernity was facilitated primarily by the exploitation of poor black labor, then the film’s misrepresentation of the South’s penal system can be viewed as even more insidious. The film condemns the chain gang because it thwarts an individual, educated, ambitious white man. Thus, the film vilifies the chain gang less for its injustices, and more for its subjection of whites to these injustices.
In its December 1932 issue, the Crisis featured a full-page ad promoting the New Deal administration in which Roosevelt asserts: “The Negro is included in my plan to aid the plight of the forgotten man, -- absolutely and impartially.” This publicity demonstrates collaboration between the NAACP and the New Deal Administration, through its common use of the forgotten man myth, which perhaps excuses Hollywood’s failure to address African-American issues in Chain Gang and in other examples of its adoption of black culture and history to advance its New Deal propaganda.
However, in its March 1933 issue, the Crisis criticizes popular appropriation of African-American political history. “While the Governor of Georgia is frothing at the mouth and the Montgomery Advertiser, Alabama, is waxing sarcastic over New Jersey and Michigan for refusing to return fugitives to the South, Negroes are continuing to suffer injustice.” The Crisis references the overwhelming mass reaction to LeRoy’s film and Burns’s book as a national distraction from NAACP concerns. Furthermore, these controversies over two white fugitives evoke runaway slave histories, perhaps most explicitly conjuring the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which denied blacks in the North any legal representation after being claimed by their purported owners. Again, these examples demonstrate a dominant white culture’s appropriation of black political histories to advance its own concerns while for the most part omitting overt representation of the African-Americans'.
Lichtenstein traces a history of the Southern antebellum labor economy, focusing on its convict labor penal system. Lichtenstein cites LeRoy's film specifically, arguing that the film (and Burns’s autobiography) position southern chain gangs against modernity. However, chain gangs represented the South’s attempt to participate in northern economic industrialism. Chain gangs developed roads and infrastructures, enriching the south’s economy and expanding its participation in American culture and accelerated networks of communication. Thus, Lichtenstein "joins a growing number of studies that reject the dichotomy between a modern and antimodern South, and instead seek to link the region’s most appalling features to the process of modernization itself” (xvi). Chain gangs facilitated the South's response to economic and cultural pressures posed by the nation's dominant industries. Thus, the financial corruption and penal brutality which the chain gangs made conspicuous to the nation represent the South’s efforts to progress and to modernize.
If mounting Depression social anxieties also threatened Hollywood's cultural and economic dominance in 1932, then Warner Brothers' total vilification of the chain gangs, which it depicts as embodying a barbaric and regressive South, suggests a financial motivation for the studio's misreading of the Southern penal system. Of course, markets incentives motivated every aspect of Hollywood production, from Warner Brothers’ propagandization of Chain Gang as a uniquely subversive film – to lure audiences who tended to shy away from overtly political films in 1932 – to the studios’ collusion with FDR to circumvent antitrust proceedings. However, Lichtenstein’s situation of the film within a more complex modernity dialogue puts pressure on conservative Jack Warner’s selection of this story as a vehicle for conveying to the nation his studio’s radical politics. By denying technology and modern industry’s implication in a variety of problems associated with Great Depression society, WB propagandized commercial cinema as a revolutionary alternative to sites of purported cultural backwardness which are in reality much more complex than a Hollywood film reveals.