Although this may be the “Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn blogathon” I took the liberty of choosing a lesser known movie starring the former.
20,000 Years in Sing Sing is a pre-code (one of my favorite eras) drama set in the real-life Sing Sing penitentiary location in Ossining New York- a few miles outside of the 5 boroughs of New York City.
Tommy Conners is a cocky, brash loud-mouthed gangster who has been sentenced to 5 to 30 years in prison at Sing Sing for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.
Despite Sing Sing’s notorious reputation, Tommy is sure that ‘his boys’ on the outside will be able to get him out of this. His lawyer, Joe Finn (played by Louis Calhern) attempts to sweet-talk the warden (played by Arthur Byron) with bribes, to no avail – Tommy Connors is out of luck.
Connors wants to be taken seriously at Sing Sing, so much so that he’s strutting around the prison like he bought it with his own money. This shtick of his gets shut down fairly swiftly (after multiple beatings and seven months in solitary confinement) and Tommy begins rapidly learns his place.
Beaten but not broken, fellow prison mate Bud Saunders (played by Lyle Talbot) recruits Connors and another prisoner named Hype (played by Warren Hymer) for a highly elaborate escape plan.
All sides of the party agree, but, when the night of the getaway falls on a Saturday, which Tommy regards as a day that’s always unlucky for him, he backs out of it leaving Bud to adjust his idea ‘on the fly’.
Bud’s plan continues without him and fails – spectacularly.
The warden was tipped off to this scheme and preemptively sends guards to spoil it, losing two of them and one prisoner in the process.
When prisoners aren’t trying to flee the steely gray walls of Sing Sing, Tommy’s girlfriend Fay Wilson (played by Bette Davis) visits him regularly every weekend.
In a desperate plea to get him out of jail, Fay admits to Connors that she’s been intimately meeting with Finn with the hope that he could do her a favor and get him released from jail.
Enraged by the thought of Fay with another man, Tommy forbids her from seeing him again, even if that means staying in jail for permanently.
A couple of days after their meeting, Connors gets called to the warden’s office where he’s handed a telegram with tragic news:
Fay’s on her deathbed, with life-threatening injuries from a car accident.
Seeing as this has physically and emotionally affected him, the warden, incredibly – gives Tommy 24 hours to see her before she passes away, on the condition that he was to return as soon as possible.
Tommy gives the warden his word and jumps at this opportunity to leave his jail cell. When he gets Fay’s apartment he sees her wounds, he is understandably upset. Wanting to know who did this to his sweetheart, he presses Fay into giving him the answer.
Fay confesses that it was Finn driving the car she was in.
The first rule of Gangster flicks is to NEVER mess with their girlfriends, or else they go crazy.
After learning about this, Tommy grabs the nearest gun and is on a one-man mission to kill Finn. Before he could step out of the door, however, Finn shows up with a letter exonerating Connors for the crimes he committed in exchange for the $5000 dollars Fay was going to use to get him discharged from prison.
Tommy lunges at him, striking Finn in the head with a fallen telephone. Just as it seemed Connors was about to be murdered, Fay in her weakened state picks up the gun Tommy dropped and shoots Finn in the back – killing him instantly.
Tommy bolts from the scene taking the gun and – unknowingly thanks to Fay – the $5000 dollars. The police arrive at Fay’s apartment a few moments after Tommy leaves but with just enough time for Finn to name him as his killer.
His confession leads police on a national manhunt and lands the warden in hot water due to his decision to let Connors walk free.
Just as the warden is about to resign, Tommy returns to Sing Sing fully knowing that he’ll be charged with murder.
He’s sentenced to death by electric chair, accepting complete responsibility. Fay, fully recovered, tries to explain to the warden that she was the one who shot Finn, but her cries land on deaf ears. In the final scene of the movie, Tommy and Fay comfort each other, realizing that this would be the last time that they would be together.
Though this film has no Katharine Hepburn, I still very much enjoyed it.
Directed by Michael Curtiz, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was positively wonderful.
I went in expecting it to be a dross and dreary gangster film that I’ve so often seen in classic films but luckily for me, this wasn’t the case.
The directing was impeccable, the shadows, the black and white contrast, and the quirky camera angle gave this movie an extra kick. The chemistry between Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy was excellent.
The scene where Bette‘s character Fay is at Sing Sing for conjugal visits, whispering sweet nothings to Tracy‘s Connors like it was the last time they’ll meet is heartbreakingly adorable.
As for the supporting cast, they did just as good a job as the two leads and further deepened my sense of immersion during the movie.
All in all, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is a wonderful pre-code film with great acting, directing and set design. Even though there’s no Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis made a more than capable substitution.
I hope that you’ll have the chance to see this film because I genuinely believed it’s one of the more underrated pictures in both Tracy‘s and Davis‘ filmography. It deserves to be seen, and I implore you to watch it as soon as possible.