Where's That Been? - Chain Gang (1950)
'Lord knows I'll never make an Academy Award movie,' legendary movie producer 'Jungle' Sam Katzman reputedly observed at one time, 'but then I am just so happy to get my achievement plaques from the bank every year.' A filmmaker who founded B-picture studio Victory Pictures Corporation (in addition to several others), Katzman was churning out cheap East Side Kids vehicles and Bela Lugosi horror programmers (and on two occasions, combined them both) when he was asked by Columbia Pictures in 1945 to take over their serials department.
It was a sweetheart deal for Sam; he got to use the studio's facilities (not to mention the crews and contract players) in exchange for 25% of the profits...and after working wonders with the chapter plays, Katzman soon moved up into feature films, where he oversaw quickies like the Jungle Jim series.
Katzman had 11 productions in the hopper in 1950-nine of them eventually released to theaters. Chain Gang (1950) is fairly representative of that output; a programmer that capitalizes on topical sensationalism (Sam often bragged that the subjects of his movies were 'torn from today's headlines'-which made him the Dick Wolf of his day) but in the end is merely a down-and-dirty way to kill seventy minutes of screen time. The script for Chain Gang was written by Howard J. Green, who co-wrote one of the seminal prison films of the 1930s, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)...but I'm willing to bet none of you will be surprised to learn that the thought-provoking social content of that picture is nowhere in evidence in this one.
In Capitol City, a nearby prison riot that has resulted in three prisoner deaths is the subject under discussion during a state senate investigative committee hearing...and the more cynical among us will not be shocked to learn that nothing is going to be done about the corruption that pervades the penal system, because too many politicians and local businessmen are pocketing the graft that results from the exploitation of prison labor. Evening Standard reporter Cliff Roberts (Douglas Kennedy) is nevertheless determined to rip the lid off the scandal, and convinces his editor Henry 'Pop' O'Donnell (played to pipe-smoking perfection by character great Harry Cheshire) to pull some strings and get him an undercover job as a guard at the prison. Planting a cover story involving a fishing trip, Cliff bades his girlfriend (also a reporter, albeit for a rival paper) Rita McKelvey (Marjorie Lord) a fond adieu and goes to work at the prison posing as 'Jack Granger.
The head of the prison, Captain Duncan (Emory Parnell), shows 'Granger' the ropes, and the reporter/guard soon learns that abuse and violence are essential components of the rigors of convict life...something to which the compassionate 'Granger' has difficulty adopting. Case in point: 'Granger' is ordered by Duncan to administer a bullwhip to a convict named Roy Snead (William 'Bill' Phillips) after Snead commits an infraction of the rules. The reporter has to maintain his cover, and so gives Snead a vicious beating. Later, he pays Snead a visit in solitary confinement and tries to smooth things over by offering him a sandwich and confiding in the prisoner his true purpose for being there. ('Gosh...you shared a ham-and-cheese with me after walloping me to within an inch of my life. You're good people.')
With the help of a camera hidden inside a cigarette lighter (I guess the newspaper has its own 'Q' Division), 'Granger' gets some great snapshots of the chicanery inside the prison. Meanwhile, on the outside, girlfriend Rita makes an astonishing discovery: the mastermind behind the exploitation of the prison labor (the chain gang is working on a road project in which several people are profiting with kickbacks) is none other than her stepfather (Thurston Hall), who also owns the rival newspaper and apparently everyone in town (quelle surprise!)! Rita quits her job and applies for a position at the Standard, where 'Pop' fills her in on Cliff's undercover assignment. Pop even publishes a full page photo spread of the pictures taken by his ace reporter, accompanied by hot copy. Apparently there's something in that pipe the editor is smoking because he does all this while Cliff is still working inside the prison...
Yes, in order to put our hero in eminent danger, scribe Green takes the lazy way out with this unfathomable plot twist...and then the dominoes start to fall. The foreman (William Tannen) on the road project recognizes Cliff in a photograph at Rita's home; he tips off the stepdad; Duncan and his guards work 'Granger' over. (Yeah, beat up the man who's put your picture in the paper, Dunky-smooth P.R. move!) Luckily for the ink-stained wretch, his pal Snead has made a break for it at the same time, so while the men attempt to round up the fugitive prisoner 'Granger' heads for the tall grass as well. Our hero finds refuge at a nearby farmhouse, and eventually the naughty ol' prison employees are brought to justice along with Rita's stepfather (I think they made him a stepfather to spare her the agony of finding out that a flesh-and-blood relative was a wanker).
Despite plot loopholes that you could drive a Humvee through, Chain Gang is an entertaining little picture; it moves along at a rapid clip (thanks to its helmsman, Lew Landers...who might not have ever been considered a great director but he made them move and always on budget) and the acting, while also not of Oscar caliber, is solid and dependable. As always, my enjoyment comes from watching old character actor pros work-and there's plenty of that in evidence with veterans like Parnell, Hall and Cheshire.
As a person who's seen more B-pictures than Carter has little liver pills, spotting utility players like Stanley Blystone, George Eldredge, John Hart, Don C. Harvey, Herbert Rawlinson, Rusty Wescoatt and Frank Wilcox is also a treat (most of these people I know from serials and B-westerns); I found it hard in particular to suppress a laugh seeing William Fawcett, who plays a trustee named Zeke. Zeke is a prisoner who serves up drinks to the prison staff (how many penal institutions do you know that have a happy hour?) and when the staff files out to attend to a fire that's erupted on the grounds, Zeke runs around like mad, draining everyone's glass.
Douglas Kennedy is the hero in this one; a second lead who had roles in Dark Passage (1947) and Nora Prentiss (1947), his best remembered screen turn is that of the cop whose body becomes the home for the Invaders From Mars in that 1953 sci-fi classic. Kennedy later appeared on TV as Steve Donovan, Western Marshal (1955-56) and also had a recurring role as the lawman on The Big Valley. Doug's female co-star, Marjorie Lord, would later become better known as Kathy O'Hara, the woman who married entertainer Danny Williams on the revamped Make Room for Daddy-The Danny Thomas Show.
Months before the release of Gang, Katzman explored similar prison territory with State Penitentiary (1950); in addition, he cast Kennedy and convict Philips in another crime mellerdrammer, Revenue Agent (1950)-also directed by Landers and release a month after Gang. 'Jungle' Sam will never be mistaken for an auteur...but the man certainly knew the formula for making a quick buck.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr is the associate editor at ClassicFlix...because he's the only one who'll associate with the editor. He blogs about classic film, vintage TV and old-time radio at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. 'Where's That Been?' is a regular review column that highlights overlooked or under appreciated films from the golden age.