James Cagney usually gets the nod as the first true star of gangster films with such great entries in the genre as The Public Enemy and others. There is a lesser known movie, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which was supposed to star James Cagney as well, but didn’t. As Cagney was in the middle of a contract dispute with Warners at the time, relative newcomer Spencer Tracy fills in the role of gangster Tommy Connors, a role which was originally intended for Cagney.
Tracy, though never known for his action films, does an admirable job as a connected small town hood who initially believes his friends in high places will help get him out of Sing Sing in far less time than his actual sentence is. However, his jawing with the warden gets him in solitary and it is only when his girlfriend Fay is hurt that the warden lets Connors out on his honor that he will return to prison after visiting Fay.
Fay is a smaller part but played well by another newcomer of the time who you may have heard of, one Bette Davis. She is rather good in this picture even with a lesser role, and doubtless Ms. Davis would not include 20,000 Years in Sing Sing among her B movie grievances against the studio.
While away and during Tommy’s visit, Fay gets into a scuffle and inadvertently shoots another man. True to his word, Tommy returns to prison and even takes the fall for Fay’s murder, in a typical act of redemption indicative of the early thirties when the picture was made.
Ultimately Tommy gets the electric chair and there is some good buildup as he progresses through the final end stages of the prison system- his final visit from Fay, final discourse with the warden, and of course your typical gallows humor.
None of it is overdone and the cinematography is well done from the opening shots. At a typically tight 78 minute runtime and Michael Curtiz’ expert direction, we are not permitted to stray too far from the path. If one looks there is quite a bit of pre-noir suggestions here, especially in the interplay of some of the shadows in several significant shots.
Also worth mention is the opening title sequence, which goes beyond the typical title cards of the day. As the camera opens and pans over a long line of inmates, their prison term in years appears over their respective heads. Although they don’t total to 20,000 years you get the general implication.
Like many films of the era, this one sits squarely in Warner’s area of expertise for the era and they don’t disappoint. It has been released from the Warner Archives in a pretty standard release, and comes without the “Remastered Edition” banner that frequents most of their newer releases. Get it at The WB Shop.
That being said, the video quality of the feature is not bad considering the age of the film, though at times grain is a bit excessive and there is more than a few odd flickers in the negative. The sound quality leaves a bit more to be desired, but it too is very listenable and more than acceptable given the age of the surviving elements and obvious lack of large scale restoration.
It is a good film, if somewhat unspectacular given Warner Brothers rich history in this area. Although some would classify this as a commentary on prison reform (or the need for it), I find it more of a level headed twist on the classic bad boy does good story, with the gangster and prison twists.
Also very good to see Spencer Tracy in what would become a bit of an atypical role for him. (And he goes counter to some of his stereotypical staid on-screen proclivities as well.) Another strong plus is the presence of Bette Davis in what is definitely one of her stronger early roles, even if it isn’t the lead.
No review copy provided.