After decades of copy-cats, lifts & parody, there’s still a lot of juice & legitimate outrage in this fact-based, socially-conscious saga that set the standard for those classic Warners muckraking melodramas. Paul Muni, a WWI vet who unjustly lands in a Southern chain-gang prison, is at his considerable best in what amounts to a modern LES MISERABLES. Working without the elaborate historical getups he became known for, he instead puts out an aura of stoppered violence, holding the film at constant attention while inferring a charge of indifference at his audience. A few players still affect early Talkie mannerisms, but most of the large cast is very strong, particularly Glenda Farrell in a self-lacerating perf as a golddigging spouse. Mervyn LeRoy helms in his early, pacey manner, before success, bigger budgets & the easy life @ M-G-M stifled his better instincts. Yet much of the film’s effect undoubtedly stems from the sheer luck of coming out just as the Talkies were finding an early maturity. The lack of polish and background musical score lend a near-documentary flavor, perfectly matching the subject matter. With its lack of grandstanding, tight structure and unflinching, gasp-worthy Black-Out finale*, the film still does Hollywood proud.
READ ALL ABOUT IT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *In his auto-bio, LeRoy claims that a blown fuse during rehearsal suggested the visually striking last shot. Unmentioned there (or anywhere in the book), is the great cinematographer Sol Polito, responsible for shooting virtually all of LeRoy’s best work @ Warners.
DOUBLE-BILL: Oscar® tidied up their calendar year by skipping festivities in 1933, resetting eligibility dates with a year and a half’s worth of films for ‘34. And what a list of nominees! - A FAREWELL TO ARMS; SMILIN’ THROUGH; and FUGITIVE all left over from the second-half of ‘32; with 42ND STREET; LADY FOR A DAY; LITTLE WOMEN; PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII; & STATE FAIR from ‘33; along with prestige winner, CAVALCADE, Noël Coward’s UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS/DOWNTON ABBEY precursor. All that, plus Disney’s THREE LITTLE PIGS win for animated short.