(I am currently in the process of cleaning out my DVR. I recorded the 1932 film, 20,000 Years In Sing Sing, off of TCM on January 31st.)
I was somewhat surprised to discover that I had this 1930s prison film on my DVR. I’m not sure what led to me deciding to record it though, if I had to guess, I’d say that it was probably the title. I probably assumed it was about a prisoner who served a 20,000 year sentence. I mean, that sounds interesting, right?
It turns out I was wrong though. The film starts with a shot of a line of prisoners walking into a prison, with their sentence superimposed over their heads. One guy is in for 7 years. Someone else has a 50 year sentence. Another person has a 33 year sentence. I’m guessing that if you added all of the sentence up, you would end up with 20,000 years.
That’s a lot of angry men, all trapped in one location. Fortunately, Sing Sing Prison has a compassionate warden. Paul Long (Arthur Byron) is a good man, a criminal justice reformer who believe that prison should be about more than punishment. He is tough but fair and he runs his prison on the honor system. Break the rules and you’ll be tossed into solitary. Respect the rules and the Warden might even let you leave the prison for a day or two. The press and the bureaucrats may think that Warden Long is naive but prison guards love him. “We’re behind you,” the head guard says when it appears that Long might be about to lose his job. And the prisoners respect him, even if few of them are willing to admit it.
Tommy Connors (Spencer Tracy) is the newest prisoner. He’s been sentenced to 5 to 30 years for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. Tommy’s a tough guy, the type who speaks in the rat-a-tat manner that will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a 30s gangster film. He’s a tough guy so he ends every sentence with “see?,” as in, “No prison is going to break me, see?” Tommy’s the type of guy who brags that, even if they send him to solitary, he can do his time standing on his head. When he gets called into the Warden’s office, he tosses a lit cigarette on the floor. Can the Warden reform even as rough a customer as Tommy Connors!?
It doesn’t help, of course, that Tommy has a friend named Joe Finn (Louis Calhern) and, even though Joe is on the outside, he’s constantly encouraging Tommy to break the rules. Joe has an ulterior motive for wanting to keep Tommy in prison for as long as possible. That motive is his desire for Fay (Bette Davis), Tommy’s loyal girlfriend. When Fay is injured in an accident, the Warden agrees to let Tommy visit her on the condition that Tommy return in 24 hours. However, when Tommy’s visit leads to murder, the Warden is blamed. It gets even worse when the Warden announces that he is sure that, despite the charges against him, Tommy will honor his word and return to the prison.
Will Tommy do the right thing? Or will he flee and destroy the Warden’s career?
20,000 Years in Sing Sing was produced by Warner Bros and it features the studio’s typical pre-code combination of a B-movie action and progressive politics. Seen today, it’s a watchable but minor film, one that often seems dated in its view of criminal behavior. (Even I, a huge believer in the need for criminal justice reform, thought the warden was being incredibly naive when he put the convicts on the honor system.) That said, it’s always interesting to see Bette Davis in the days before she became the Bette Davis and was just another ingenue trying to make an impression while surviving the studio system. As well, since Spencer Tracy eventually became best known for portraying wise, plainspoken men, it’s interesting to see him playing the cocky and disrespectful Tommy.
Still, I think there is a place for a movie about someone spending 20,000 Years in Sing Sing.
(I imagine that, after the first 10,000 years, it gets easier.)