Seeing this was a pre-code movie about the notoriously tough prison in New York, directed by the great Michael Curtiz, I expected a disturbing, no-holds barred film, maybe something even tougher than the prison scenes in Each Dawn I Die.
So I was a bit surprised at how tame this film often feels by comparison with that movie, made just seven years later. By contrast with the snarling, brutal warders in Each Dawn I Die, the guards in 20,000 Years seem quite well-meaning, while the warden himself – played by Arthur Byron – is positively saintly, and only interested in reforming and helping his “boys”, rather than in sadistically exercising his power over them. As I watched the film, I kept on wondering why the warden was painted in such glowing colours, and only realised the answer when I discovered that the movie is based on a book written by his real-life original, Lewis Lawes – who also had final script approval. To be fair, he does appear to have been a genuine reformer. The title is based on adding up all the terms being served by the men in the prison, as the opening and closing titles make clear.
Spoilers behind the cut – plus picture of Bette Davis
I had also expected a powerful performance by the young Bette Davis. However, this time she only has a relatively small part, as a devoted moll, and, though she makes the most of every line, she doesn’t have a chance to show what a great actress she is. Instead, the movie is dominated by the young Spencer Tracy, who swaggers into the jail as gormless gangster Tommy Connors, expecting to own the place. He soon learns the error of his ways, as the incorruptible warden contemptuously refuses an offer of money to go easy on the lad (indeed, he sets fire to a roll of dollars), and instead sets about changing him.
The film pretty well turns into a buddy movie between Byron and Tracy, as the gangster duly falls under the governor’s reforming spell. (Byron’s pious character reminded me of Pat O’Brien’s roles as priests, so I was intrigued to discover that the warden was later played by O’Brien in a remake.)
I’d say the movie is worth seeing mainly for the haunting footage of the prison, including a number of shots on location. According to the TCM website, some scenes were filmed using actual prisoners. The shocking view of the rows of tiny cells, stacked above one another, works against any attempt at whitewashing the regime. The pictures which will stay in my mind are the cameras sweeping across what are in effect small cages, with each isolated inmate bleakly looking out.
As the film goes on, there are some powerful and disturbing scenes set during a prison riot, including a chilling moment where one desperate unnamed man plunges to his death, and, looking down at his broken body, a guard remarks: “He won’t be causing us any more trouble.”
The plot seems rather unbelievable when the warden allows Tracy to have a day out from jail after Davis is injured in a car crash, trusting on his “word of honour” that he will return from visiting her in hospital. How about sending a guard with him? Tommy promises to return, even if it means facing the electric chair – and, inevitably, his words come back to haunt him, as he is wrongly accused of a murder in fact committed by his girlfriend – and does go to the chair.
The final scenes, with Tracy on a busy Death Row, give a startling sense of just how many young men were being executed at this time. There’s an odd cheeriness and camaraderie between the doomed, as they discuss who is likely to die first. The sight of these apparently pleasant, friendly young men being sent to their deaths must, surely, have made some of the audience question the death penalty. At their last meeting, Davis tells Tracy “I’ll never want anyone but you”. He retorts: “Well, you can’t have me, because I belong to the state of New York – and in a few hours the state of New York is going to take me out into the yard and burn me and put my brains in a jar.” He has already made a “far, far better thing” type comment about how this death will redeem him , but the sense of waste is the thing which will stick in my mind.
According to information on the TCM site, the makers of this movie wouldn’t have been able to get away with letting an innocent man be executed, and the killer survive, once the code came in. However, I’m editing this in May 2010, after finally seeing the remake, Castle on the Hudson (1940), because I’ve just belatedly discovered that the ending in the second version still sees Tommy wrongly executed, code or no code!