Ever since watching the Michael Curtiz pre-Code prison movie 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, starring Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, I’ve been interested in seeing the Anatole Litvak remake with John Garfield and Ann Sheridan taking over their roles. Now at last I’ve had the chance, after the release of the title in the Warner Archive series. I don’t think the print has been remastered, but it looks and sounds fairly good all the same. As with the original, there is some footage which was shot on location, in Sing Sing prison, and the shots of the long rows of small cells make a powerful impression.
Unfortunately it is now a couple of years since I saw the earlier version on TV and I apparently failed to keep a copy of the movie, so I can’t make detailed comparisons – but a look back at my review confirms my impression that the two are very close, with almost identical scripts. Like the original, this is the tale of a cocky young gangster, Tommy Gordon (though his name is spelt ‘Gordan’ in the newspaper headlines running all through this version) who swaggers into prison under the impression he is entitled to special treatment, but changes his ways of thinking under the guidance of the prison governor, Warden Long. Both films are based on the memoirs of the original of Long, real-life warden Lewis E Lawes, so it is no surprise that the character is glowingly presented – although, to be fair, he does seem to have been a reforming figure in real life.
There’s a scene near the start of the movie where Gordon refuses to wear an outsize prison uniform, and is “allowed” to go around in long underwear as a result – being put in an icehouse for a short time for good measure. He is also put in an isolation cell for three months after he refuses to work, until he finally cracks and begs for a job. When I watched 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, as I remember, it struck me that these scenes could easily be more disturbing than they are, but, because Tracy seems so young and robust, the film just about gets away with presenting the warden’s methods as “cruel to be kind”, rather than just cruel. Garfield, despite being a movie tough guy, to me seems somehow more vulnerable than Tracy, and in this version the scenes of him huddled in the ice house and then behind bars in the isolation cell, with heavy stubble and haunted eyes, can’t be so easily dismissed.
The whole relationship between Gordon and Long also seems less of a buddy act in this version than I remember it in the original, with more distance between them. While watching the earlier movie, I kept thinking that the character of the warden would be an ideal role for Pat O’Brien, as it seems so close to some of the older mentors he plays in his teamings with James Cagney. So I was intrigued to learn that O’Brien actually plays the part of the warden in this remake – and also that Cagney was originally intended to play the part of Gordon in Curtiz’s movie, but was having one of his disputes with Warner and was replaced by Tracy. However, I have to say that, to me, O’Brien doesn’t seem to add much to the part of the older man, maybe because it is so much the case of “same again” for him. I thought there is something slightly tired and dejected about his portrayal, maybe to suggest the strain that the warden is under, but maybe also a sign of how Warner kept on forcing him to play endless variations of the same role.
Ann Sheridan briefly starred with Garfield in an early film of his, They Made Me a Criminal. Here they have more screen time together, with her playing Tommy’s devoted girlfriend, Kay, who sticks by him while he serves his sentence. She gives a fine performance and I’d say there is plenty of chemistry between them.
I’ll be discussing the ending in this next bit, so you might want to stop reading if you haven’t seen either version. I also mention the ending of Angels With Dirty Faces.
Tommy refuses to take part in a prison breakout because it is on his “unlucky day”, Saturday, and gains Long’s trust as a result. When Kay is critically injured in a car crash, jumping from the moving vehicle to escape a crooked lawyer who makes a pass at her, warden Long gives Tommy a pass to go out of jail and see her. He relies on his word of honour to return - something which seems rather unlikely to me, frankly. It also seems a bit odd that, despite apparently being on her deathbed, Kay is at home with a nurse rather than being in hospital. In any case, Tommy goes to see her and is attacked by the dodgy lawyer. Kay shoots the lawyer dead - and, instead of making a run for it, Tommy goes back to jail to justify the warden’s trust. He takes the rap for his girlfriend and is sent to the electric chair as a result.
The TCM site claims in its review of 20,000 Years In Sing Sing that the ending with Tommy dying for a crime he didn’t commit, and the true killer escaping justice, wouldn’t have been possible under the Code, giving the impression that the ending is different in the remake. In fact, however, it is exactly the same – ending with Tommy setting off on the walk to his death, which he suggests, in an echo of A Tale of Two Cities, will redeem his wasted life.
One difference between the two versions is that Tommy in this version seems more frightened of dying – there is a brief shot of Garfield behind the bars in the condemned cell, with tears in his eyes. And this fear is also shared by the fellow inmates waiting to die. Another Death Row prisoner, Mike (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) a cheery but not very bright character, mentions jokily that he has been learning to play the mouth organ and would have mastered it if he only had more time. Then suddenly he bursts out crying, pleading with the guards to give him more time, wailing “I don’t want to die”, like Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces, only in this film there is no suggestion of the fear being put on - the scene simply expresses the sadness and terror of the young man being dragged off to his death. I think Litvak does tend to let men show their emotions in his films, judging by those I’ve seen so far, like The Sisters and All This, And Heaven Too.
Earlier, after the aborted escape, there is a great scene where one of the inmates, college graduate Steve (Burgess Meredith, giving a powerful performance), who has killed a guard, plunges to his death from the top deck of the prison rather than face the chair. This scene, and the one of the weeping prisoner being dragged away by the guards, work against any portrayal of the prison as simply a place of kindness. Our hero ends up reformed, but dead.