When I was a kid, anytime I saw a reference to the film 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932), I was confused. What crime could someone commit that would get them that many years in prison? No one could possibly live that long. And there was no way Sing Sing prison (in upstate New York) had been around that long. What gives?
What gives is cleverly explained during the title sequence of this crackerjack prison drama that I watched for the first time the other evening. The film opens with a montage of prisoners walking through the halls and yards of Sing Sing. Each man has a number super imposed upon his chest, a number signifying how long his sentence is. There are hundreds of men, each with a number, which if added up, would amount to 20,000 years.
Spencer Tracy stars as tough guy Tommy Connors who gets 30 years in prison for robbery and assault. He has a chance to escape but doesn't take it. When Tommy's girlfriend Fay (Bette Davis), is injured in an automobile accident, the liberal/progressive warden Paul Long (Arthur Byron), grants Tommy 24 hours to leave the prison to see Fay on the condition that he must return when his time is up.
Fay has been injured by one of Tommy's associates, a mobster named Joe Finn (Louis Calhern). Finn tries to finish Fay off but Tommy intervenes and the two fight. Fay shoots and kills Finn but Tommy takes the rap for her. He returns to prison where he's tried and convicted and sentenced to death. He goes to the electric chair knowing that he was ultimately a stand-up guy who kept his word to the warden who always treated him fairly.
20,000 YEARS is a rock solid template for almost every prison picture that followed. All of the genre tropes are here including a bravura escape attempt set piece that's well staged. At this stage in their respective careers, Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis had both yet to become SPENCER TRACY and BETTE DAVIS. They were not yet stars with well developed screen personas but they were both extremely capable actors able to play any role they were assigned. Tracy is very good as is Davis, who appears here during the fifteen minutes of her career when she was actually pretty. Joan Crawford had the same amount of time for onscreen beauty.
Kudos must go to screenwriters Courtney Terrett and Robert Lord who adapted the book by real-life prison warden Lewis E. Lawes. The script is tight and compact and moves swiftly during the 78 minutes of running time. The real standout here is director Michael Curtiz, one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history. His filmography is loaded with good to great films including such varied classics as DOCTOR X (1932), THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933), CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), DODGE CITY (1939), CASABLANCA (1942), YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954).