The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
Based on I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!, the autobiographical book of chain gang escapee Robert E. Burns, Mervyn LeRoy’s uncompromising and starkly realistic 1932 drama, about an out of work veteran twice railroaded into the hell of a Georgia chain gang, still has the power to shock. Paul Muni commands the screen in a brilliantly lived-in performance as a man whose only prospect is a life perpetually on the run, and the film’s gritty realism spares no anger at a cruel and unjust legal system. Eighty years later, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang remains the studio era’s greatest social message film and it stands as a crucial turning point for Warner Bros., Paul Muni, Robert E. Burns, and the American prison system.
New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary from 2005 by film historian Richard B. Jewell
Vintage musical short 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang!
In anticipation of our next proposal for the Criterion Collection, MMC! will lead the way a series of “Son of Wholphin” posts focusing on a group of short films that will set a path to and through our next feature subject. We start with People of the Cumberland, a documentary short from 1937 directed by Elia Kazan, William Watts, Eugene Hill (credited as Jay Leyda), and Sidney Meyers (credited as Eugene Hill). The film concerns a progressive adult education project, Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School, located in the mountain community of Monteagle, Tennessee. Demonstrating the School’s impact on the impoverished coal mining region, the short pivots toward the growing labour movement and advocates for a “new kind of America” free from economic exploitation and privation. The film was made under the auspices of the Work Projects Administration, a New Deal agency, and as part of the Federal Arts Project program. Written by Erskine Caldwell and Ben Maddow (credited as David Wolff), the short is an excellent document of its time and a rousingly populist essay thanks to the narration of Richard Blaine and the footage shot by Ralph Steiner.
Nothing says Christmas like a post-apocalyptic rumination on peace by anthropomorphic rodents and so MMC! happily presents Hugh Harman’s Peace on Earth (1939) and its Cinemascope remake, Joseph Barbera and William Hanna’s Good Will To Men (1955). Peace on Earth’s anti-war sentiment is expressed through a grandfather squirrel who describes the senseless self-destruction of humankind through war (guessed at as a battle between vegetarians and meat-eaters). The short’s rotoscoped depictions of gas masked soldiers are chilling and provide a rather staggering contrast to the pleasantly plump and happily caricatured animals that now claim domain over the Earth. Hanna and Barbera’s post-World War II version manages to be even grimmer in its details, taking images of infantry helmets and gas masks and adding flame-throwers, machine guns, bazookas, missiles, and nuclear annihilation. In doing so, Good Will To Men brings man’s capacity for mutual destruction into fearsome relief. Both of these MGM shorts garnered Academy Award nominations and Peace on Earth in particular has developed a reputation in the animation field as being Harman’s masterpiece and a heralded classic of the form.
To all those who stumble into the blog (intentionally or not), Make Mine Criterion!wishes you and yours a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season!
Stay safe, share some love, and watch something amazing!
MMC! keeps our creepy October rolling with Dave Fleischer’s spook-errific animation classic, Snow-White (1933). This Betty Boop masterpiece was animated almost single-handed by Roland Crandall over six months, his reward for loyal service to Fleischer Studios. The short features an array of creepy gags and set-pieces, the highlight of which is the Mystery Cave portion where a rotoscoped Cab Calloway performs “St. James Infirmary Blues” as a ghostly Koko the Clown. I first saw Snow-White in a class on the Disney Company where the very knowledgeable professor cited the rotoscoped appearance of Cab Calloway as an introduction of realism into the film, something I never understood given the very fantastic animation applied to the phantom Koko transforms into and the almost unnatural, counter-intuitive physics of Calloway’s glides and moonwalks. Snow-White has been preserved by the National Film Registry and can be found on Blu-ray in Volume 4 of Olive Films’Betty Boop: The Essential Collections.
With December announcements being decidedly reserved on all fronts, this latest “Trailer Tuesday” at MMC! requires a different tack and so we start with a future Criterion title a few years still to come – Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018). For all of Anderson’s intricate, youthful peccadilloes, he’s never really stooped to fanboy fascination with Japan and I suppose that should have surprised. Isle of Dogs has the director jump into the deep end of Japan’s pop cultural swimming pool with this dystopic, retro, sci-fi story of a boy and his dog(s) (and as one of those fanboys myself, I couldn’t be happier). My next Arrow Video proposal has had me thinking about dogs a lot and so this announcement hits a particular chord. I love those dog sneezes!
The Criterion Collection’s March 2017 announcements are certainly getting folks excited. I’m likely going against the grain in saying that I’m most interested in Canoa: A Shameful Memory (Felipe Cazals, 1976) than heavy-hitters like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) or Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979), but the film that has long been on my “need to watch” list as a potential MMC! title and I’m very happy to see more Mexican cinema in the Collection. With that said, the prospect of a forthcoming Criterion edition of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy is even more interesting, with new restorations of Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and César (1936) undertaken by Janus Films serving as prelude to a box set bearing a wacky “C.” Quelle surprise!