This penitentiary picture is about a tough gangster with a heart of gold, Tommy (Spencer Tracy), his girlfriend and one human credential Fay (Bette Davis), and the bleeding-heart Warden Long (Arthur Byron) who believes that his convicts can be improved and rehabbed through programs built on trust and caring. Tommy enters prison as one of the hardest, most defiant men the Warden’s ever dealt with. Hard labour, humiliation, and isolation make Tommy more cooperative, but he still plans a prison break with inmates Bud (Lyle Talbot) and Hype (Warren Hymer). Their attempt is a deadly disaster, so it’s a good thing Tommy backed out due to his superstition about avoiding major moves on unlucky Saturdays. The Warden sees Tommy’s decision as the sign of a redeemable character, and gives Tommy an unsupervised day pass when his Fay is critically injured. That one Saturday outside ends with Fay killing the rat who landed Tommy in prison (Louis Calhern), with all evidence and a police detective pointing to Tommy as the killer. It looks like worst-case recidivism and a colossally naive mistake by the Warden, who nearly loses his job and reputation, until Tommy, true to his word, returns to Sing Sing and takes the rap for Fay. He’s sent to the electric chair, an innocent man in this crime, but through his sacrifice he proves the worth of his character, rewards the Warden’s faith in him and confirms the restorative powers of the Warden’s theories and methods, even if the outcome isn’t a happy ending for Tommy.
This powerful Michael Curtiz-directed prison reform drama was based on the memoirs of real-life Sing Sing warden Lewis E. Lawes, who was still in a position to help arrange filming in the prison and got script approval. Realistically, the Warden’s practice of secretly letting dangerous inmates out, based on his hunch plus their word of honour, is an incredible risk to the safety of both public and convict. While everybody’s congratulating the Warden on being vindicated, it’s frustrating how few seem to understand how that day out destroyed Tommy’s life. But as a movie fantasy, it’s certainly meaty material with plenty of sympathy built in for these great actors. You see a cocky thug become a noble hero, when he could so easily have escaped, and Tracy makes that a fascinating struggle and change.
Curtiz and crew use some fantastic imagery to capture the drudgery and hard facts of prison life, and lighten things with dark humour, romance, and action. The prison break was sensational, as were the long rows of inmates marching in and out of their cells, and I loved the effect of the prison sentences hovering above each inmate’s head (hence the title’s total of 20,000 years). In this place of order and conformity, where the goal is to break down and tame the rebellious and punish the evil, this melodrama critiques the system, and shows these two men fighting for their ideas of individuality and redemption.