20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

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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.

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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.

This post is part of the HOT & BOTHERED: FILMS OF 1932 BLOGATHON hosted by Theresa of CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. Click to see more.

HOT & BOTHERED BLOGATHON ~ ( Shanghai Express )

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22 thoughts on “20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)”

  1. Kristina,

    Really enjoyed reading this on a film I’ve never seen despite my admiration for Tracy and Davis. Also fascinating backstory. I was shocked for a moment to learn of the warden’s practices, but then reality hit. Entertainment news is more shocking these days.

    Thanks for the entry. I look forward to watching this.

    Aurora

    1. True, it’s a well-done and interesting movie with this nice cast, the only one Tracy and Davis made together (too bad). I read it was supposed to be Cagney as Tommy, and that would’ve been fun too but Tracy was good. Thanks!

    1. I really like Byron in this, the part where he’s with his family and starts to think he might’ve been wrong about Tommy, waits up all night, really good stuff. No, haven’t seen that remake but will look for it. This is a good one, glad I saw it.

  2. Haven’t seen the movie, but I used to work two blocks from Sing Sing prison after I graduated from college in Briarcliff Manor (the next down over). It’s in the town of Ossining, NY. The town’s name is a variation of the Native American name for the area “Sinck Sinck” meaning rock upon rock. The prison is not isolated like other prisons. In fact, you can walk by it easily and there is a park near by. It wasn’t uncommon to hear “Prisoner #44455 get back in line” over the loudspeakers. Actors Peter Falk and Anne Francis were from Ossining. Now I’ll have to see the movie.

    1. Well that’s all very interesting, thanks for sharing. It’s a place most likely know from the movies, I probably first heard of it in cartoons, come to think of it, so it’s fun to hear more about it as a real place!

  3. I have been wanting to catch up with this film for a long time. Sounds well worth bumping it higher up on my ‘Watch List’.

    1. It’s a fun one not only for the mix of gangster/prison/melodrama but if you’re a fan of Tracy and Davis, a must-see. Thanks!

    1. Bette was really good and it’s a shame this is the only one she did with Tracy. Will do, there are a lot of great posts in this blogathon! Thank you!

  4. Really sounds like a good one, at least in terms of characters. Yesh, soemtimes you have to leave the realistic implication out and just enjoy the emotional journey 🙂

    1. That pairing is a huge draw, the very reason I picked it to watch! Love Curtiz and there are some very forward-looking, noirish things in this.

  5. Kristina ~
    Girl, did you pick a doozy! Your writing has such gravitas, I feel smart after I read your work. I saw “Castle on the Hudson” first, so many years ago, an easy breezy Bros. Warner prison film that by 1940 was starting to wane. But “…Sing Sing”? It’s rough and tough thanks to the Acting of one of the premiere talents of the 30’s ( Tracy ) and coming up fast in the fast lane ( Davis ).

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this one. Thanks for the reminder…and thanxx again for your contribution to our blogathon, and gettin’ us all hot and bothered in prison. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, what a nice compliment! I need to see Castle, really curious to compare! This does have some tough stuff, the prison break is brutal and pretty noir. My pleasure to join in your blogathons, always fun! Best

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