Bad boy Tom Connors, played by Spencer Tracy (Boys Town), arrives at Sing Sing Correctional Facility with delusions of grandeur. The sympathetic warden (Arthur Byron, The Mummy) tries to help Connors, but the convict wants none of that. When Connors’s girlfriend, played by Bette Davis, suffers a serious car accident, the warden decides to allow the mercurial inmate to visit her, but they all live to regret the decision.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“No Tom. I haven’t gotten a chance.”
Once considered a hard-hitting prison drama, Warners’ 20,000 Years in Sing Sing has definitely lost its edge, but good performances and a variety of peculiarities keep this Pre-Code melodrama from being totally forgettable.
Director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca and Mildred Pierce) directs with his usual slam-bang style. The Hungarian filmmaker had a gift for creating a sense of urgency. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is fast-paced, but the story is far-fetched — Writers Wilson Mizner and Brown Holmes took the nonfiction book by Warden Lewis E. Lawes and added a lot of stuff that simply doesn’t ring true.
20,000 Years in Sing Sing was conceived as a vehicle for tough-guy James Cagney (The Public Enemy and White Heat), but he was in the midst of one of his many fights with Warner Bros studio. 20th Century Fox contract player Spencer Tracy was brought in to take over the role. Tracy had made a splash on Broadway playing a convict in the popular stage play The Last Mile and was a natural choice to replace Cagney.
Bette Davis has a few good scenes, but her role is not all that interesting. Well, at least she is working with someone of equal talent. Neither Tracy nor Davis liked the material, but they enjoyed working together (they shared the same birthday: April 5th). The actors have good chemistry, but sadly, this is their only film together.
The supporting cast is very good. Louis Calhern (The Asphalt Jungle and Annie Get Your Gun) is delightfully slimy as a lawyer who’s trying to get into Davis’s undergarments. Character actor Grant Mitchell (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) plays an IQ tester. The cast also includes Lyle Talbot (Three on a Match and 42nd Street), Arthur Hoyt (The Palm Beach Story) and Pat Collins (Dead End).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
20,000 Years in Sing Sing is not one of Warners’ strongest prison dramas, but it’s well-crafted and very entertaining. Plus, you get to see Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis work together for the first and only time in their long careers. Remade by Anatole Litvak (The Snake Pit and Anastasia) as Castle on the Hudson (1940), starring John Garfield and Anne Sheridan. B&W, 77 minutes, Not Rated.