20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

  • For starters, I think I mentally avoided watching this movie for as long as I did because every time I scrolled past it on my Recordings List, I inadvertently thought, “20,000 years. Wow. That’s a long time. I don’t have that kind of time to devote to a movie I don’t really know anything about.” Turns out the movie is an hour and eighteen minutes long. Not 20,000 years. Go figure.
  • The opening shot is of a train. ‘Cause there’s always gotta be a fuckin’ train. As far as opening train shots go, though, this one’s kinda fun because it’s a shaky aerial shot of a really fast-moving train. Kinda unique, for an opening train shot. Kinda.
  • Question, 18 minutes in: Where is Bette Davis?
  • Answer, 21 minutes in: Oh. There she is.
  • Lyle Talbot’s character (Bud Saunders) just pieced together a gun from gun parts he stashed in his mattress. Where did these come from? How did they craft finely tuned gun parts with shoemaking equipment? This reminds me of the time James Stewart built guns while incarcerated (CARBINE WILLIAMS, 1952) – except I recall that gun-crafting plot line being much more thoroughly explained.
  • The warden has “heard somebody’s gonna try to make a break”? Really? How? For the record, he has zero inclination as to who it might be, but somehow, he knows it’s “somebody.” Great.
  • There are some interesting camera angles in this movie – a lot of straightforward ones, but also some unique ones. More on this later.
  • I’m sorry…what? Spencer Tracy just declined to break out of prison because it’s Saturday. “Saturdays are my jinx.” Dumb.
  • Okay, so for real though, about this camera work. In addition to the unique angles, there are some really dramatic shots involving light & shadow (specifically during the jail break sequence). Pretty striking stuff.
  • Would like to note that I am watching this on a Saturday. With Tracy’s apparent obsession with this particular day, this seems wildly appropriate. Good work, me.
  • I feel like individually, Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy’s characters played their love story well – I mean, each of their performances was spot on – but despite this, there seemed to be lack of chemistry between them. As individual sides to a love story, they were both perfect – but as a whole, there was something about it that didn’t quite succeed. (Interesting, right?)
  • At the beginning of the movie, I thought that was really going to be impressed with the Warden character (played by Arthur Byron), with him going toe-to-toe with Tracy and all that…but by the end of the film, I had begun to think that the character was actually quite silly. I will say, though, that the ending shot of the film is pretty brilliant, and it definitely stuck with me. The warden’s shaking hand? Hell. Yes. Nicely done.
  • My only other comment on this movie is about how much goddamn weight Spencer Tracy carries on the screen. I’m not talking physical weight – I’m talking about Tracy’s total embodiment of a character, and the way that comes across on film. It’s crazy how enormous that is; when I look at Tracy in a movie, I want to see just another average guy not doing anything special or significant, just so I can contradict the millions of people who’ve commented throughout the years on the subtle brilliance of Tracy. But no – I can’t do it. I can’t lie. He has this thing that makes him better than everyone else, and it becomes more apparent the more roles I see him inhabit. Geez.

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