The Bette Davis Project: 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)


Life-long criminal Tom Connors, played by Spencer Tracy (Boys Town), arrives at Sing Sing Correctional Facility (New York) 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:

20,000 Years in Sing Sing has lost the edge it had when the activities of the organized crime dominated the headlines. In the end, a variety of peculiarities keep it from being totally forgettable. For example, one character’s crimes go unpunished, and another character pays for crimes he didn’t commit. This is the kind of thing that will disappear as the code of morality began to get enforced in 1934.

Director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca and Mildred Pierce) directs with his usual slam-bang style. The Hungarian filmmaker had a gift for creating an illusion of urgency. Warners’ 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is fast-paced, and Tracy and Davis have nice chemistry, but the story is too far-fetched — the overly naive warden is a bit too much. Writers Wilson Mizner and Brown Holmes took the nonfiction book by Warden Lewis E. Lawes and added a lot of stuff that doesn’t ring true.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing was conceived as a vehicle for James Cagney (The Public Enemy and White Heat), but he was in the midst of one of his many fights with Warners. 20th Century Fox contract player Tracy was brought in to take over the role. Tracy had made a splash on Broadway playing a convict in the prison drama The Last Mile, so he was a natural choice to replace Cagney.

Davis, who was going through a bleached blonde phase, 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). This is their only film together.

The supporting cast is very good. Louis Calhern (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 (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 very entertaining. Remade by Anatole Litvak as Castle on the Hudson (1940), with John Garfield and Ann Sheridan. B&W, 77 minutes, Not Rated.


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