20,000 Years in Sing Sing was originally intended as a vehicle for James Cagney, who was at the time in the midst of one of his periodic battles with his studio for more money and better scripts.
Based on Sing Sing warden Lewis E. Lawes' memoirs, Life and Death in Sing Sing, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was, by the standards of its time, a starkly realistic portrait of life in America's penal system. To achieve much of this realism, Warner Bros. persuaded Lawes to permit filming inside the prison. Curtiz, who later directed such Warner Bros. classics as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Casablanca (1943), makes use of a bleak, semi-documentary style to capture a plausible image of the netherworld of life behind bars. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was one of the earliest Warner Bros. films to provide the gritty street-wise naturalism which became typical of its product in the 1930's.
In the film, a cocky hood, Tom Connors (Tracy), goes to jail where he angrily resists conforming to the rigid rules and regulations. He tries to high-hand Warden Long (Arthur Byron) and they become locked in a battle of wills. When Tom is put in solitary confinement, he finally relents and becomes a model prisoner, struggling to maintain his cockiness while also playing by the rules. His unscrupulous lawyer, Finn (Louis Calhern), who is supposedly working to get Tom out, is actually conspiring to keep him in so that he can seduce Tom's girlfriend, Fay (Bette Davis). When Fay is seriously injured in a car crash caused by Finn, Tom receives a 24-hour leave from the understanding Warden Long to visit her. While Tom is with her, Finn shows up and attempts to intimidate Fay ("a trouble-making broad"). He is stunned to find Tom there to defend her. Tom and Finn get into a fierce fist fight, while a cop, who has tailed Tom from the train station, attempts to get into the locked apartment. Fay, fearing for Tom's safety, fatally shoots Finn. Tom leaves via the window, as the cop breaks down the door to discover Fay alone in bed and Finn's corpse. The cop assumes Tom has murdered Finn and reports this to Long, who takes considerable heat from other law enforcement officials and the press for releasing Tom. Although he considers taking it on the lam, Tom finally returns to prison because he's given his word to Long ("I'll come back--even if it means the chair, I'll come back."). Tom claims he has killed Finn and is sentenced to die in the electric chair, but Fay, still recovering from her injuries, arrives at the prison on the day of Tom's execution to convince Long that she is the one who killed Finn. But Tom, wanting to protect Fay and "do something decent with my life," makes her leave as he prepares to face his sentence. As they part, Tom tries to express his feelings: "And remember, Fay, I love you more than . . . " to which Fay tearfully replies, "Yeah, I know Tommy, more than lift."
20,000 Years in Sing Sing is filled with superb touches reflecting the struggles of the characters. Tom's evolution begins with his arrival at Sing Sing at the beginning of the film. More rowdy boy than man, he is certain that his influential (and corrupt) friends have prepared him a soft life in prison. Tom turns mean, resisting Long's attempts to crush his will, until finally, after months in solitary, Tom repents, but tries to maintain a bit of his toughness. With Fay, Tom is first seen as an ardent and demanding lover ("I'd give a million bucks to be alone with you for a little while, honey," he tells her on the first visitor's day), later as gentle and protective of her (on learning of Fay's critical accident, Tom cries, "Warden, she's the only thing I had--and I can't do a thing."). When a prison breakout is planned by several of the inmates and led by Bud (Lyle Talbot), Tom refuses to go because it is Saturday, his "unlucky" day. When the escapees are killed or captured, Tom sneers at the calendar on his cell wall (one inmate, Hype [Warren Hymer], adds a comic moment when he turns to one guard and, in a thick Brooklynese accent, states, "We didn' t do so good, did we?"). At another point, a rhythmically bouncing handball symbolizes the quickening passage of time as Tom awaits his fate on death row. Fay's final visit to Tom is touchingly played by Tracy and Davis, and is seen in quickly cut counterpoint to shots of prison guards testing the electric chair. And, in one of the most effective touches, as Tom has a final cigarette after Fay's tearful departure, the sympathetic Long's hand shakes as he tries to provide a light and Tom must steady it.
20,000 Years in Sing Sing co-starred Bette Davis, also in the early stages of her career--so young, in fact, she was still playing ingenues. Forty-two years later, thinking of Tracy, Davis wrote that, "One of my great dreams in later years was that we could find a really great script to do together . . . What a marvelous actor he was," but 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was their only co-starring film. Tracy and Davis worked well together (there have been suggestions of an affair between them during the making of the picture), and their believable characterizations (despite her flawlessly lacquered blonde hair and perfect make-up while she lies in bed critically injured) contribute to transforming this otherwise standard prison melodrama into a moving social tragedy.
Mordaunt Hall, writing in The New York Times, described Tracy's 20, 000 Years in Sing Sing performance as "a clever and convincing portrayal, " and the Motion Picture Herald proclaimed that "If you have seen I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, you can appreciate the quality of Spencer Tracy's acting, inasmuch as it is fully on a par with Paul Muni's for effectiveness and pulling his auditors along with him." Within a year of the making of the film, the establishment of the production code meant that such aspects as Fay getting off the hook for Finn's murder would no longer be possible. When 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was remade in 1940 by Warner Bros.-First National with a new title, Castle on the Hudson, and directed by Anatole Litvak, featuring a cast including John Garfield, Pat O'Brien, and Ann Sheridan, such unresolved aspects of the story were altered to conform to the code' s moral guidelines.
By John C. Tibett
Extract from Tibbetts, John, Pre-MGM Spencer Tracy.., Vol. 46, Films in Review, 11-01-1995, pp 2.