Cast & Crew
Tommy Connors, a cocky tough guy, is sent to Sing Sing but is confident that he will not have to follow the rules of prison life. When his smooth lawyer, Joe Finn, tries unsuccessfully to bribe warden Paul Long, however, it becomes clear that Connors is now just another number. Connors and Long battle in a contest of wills, in which Long practices his modern theories of reform. Long begins to see results when Connors does not participate in an escape attempt designed by educated convict Bud Sauders. Eventually, Long puts his honor system to the test when he trusts Connors outside the walls. Hoping to help, Connors' girl friend, Fay Wilson, makes friends with Finn, but when he attacks her during an automobile trip, she jumps from the car and is badly injured. Long allows Connors to visit Fay, who is critically ill, but upon discovering that Finn is responsible for her injuries, he initiates a fight. Fay shoots and kills Finn, but it is Connors who is convicted for the murder. After Fay recovers, Connors is sentenced to death, and the couple is briefly reunited on death row. Fay attempts to confess her crime to Long, but her pleas are in vain. Connors is left alone to face the electric chair, asking only for one last cigarette.
Edward J. Mcnamara
William Le Maire
George Pat Collins
Leo F. Forbstein
20,000 Years in Sing Sing
By today's standards, the plot of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is highly melodramatic with some suspension of disbelief required but still engrossing: a cocky mobster named Tom Connors (Spencer Tracy) is sent to Sing Sing on a felony rap expecting to get a fast parole through his crooked political connections. Instead, his supposedly influential friends desert him and his combative attitude, which sparks a near-riot, earns him a three-month stretch in solitary confinement. Connors eventually sees the error of his ways, declining to participate in a prison break and winning the warden's confidence. When his girlfriend Fay (Bette Davis) is injured in an automobile accident, Connors is granted permission by the warden to visit her without a guard. Bad mistake. At Fay's apartment, Connors encounters Joe Finn (Louis Calhern), the gangster who was responsible for his incarceration. There is a struggle and Finn is shot and killed by Fay though Connors takes the blame and is sentenced to death in the subsequent trial.
20,000 Years in Sing Sing marks the only time Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis would ever appear together in a movie though Davis would state in the Whitney Stine biography, Mother Goddam, "One of my great dreams in later years was that we could find a really great script to do together. Spencer and I were both born on April 5. What a marvelous actor he was." Tracy, however, was not the original actor cast in Sing Sing. James Cagney was supposed to play Tom Connors but was embroiled in a legal dispute with Warner Bros. at the time. Having appeared in eleven hit films over a two year period, he demanded a pay raise from $1,250 a week to $3,000. By the time the conflict was resolved, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was already in production so Cagney went to work on Hard to Handle (1933) on the adjoining sound stage.
Michael Curtiz, the director of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, was not the sort of craftsman who endeared himself to actors. He could be a tyrant and a slave driver on film sets and was well known for his clashes with such big name stars as Errol Flynn. In the Bette Davis biography, Fasten Your Seat Belts by Lawrence J. Quirk, co-star Louis Calhern recalled, "Mike was a fine director for this kind of hurly-burly action stuff, but he was a difficult and temperamental man to work with. I know Bette found him a pain in the neck, and for that matter, so did Tracy. Of course he didn't dare treat Tracy disrespectfully - at least not beyond a point - or Tracy would have hauled off and hit him. Not that Bette was timid either - she'd scream back at him and snarl and even spit at him if he went too far. I suspect Mike sort of enjoyed egging her on."
On the positive side, Curtiz was a much more innovative director than film scholars give him credit for. Besides the rare practice of shooting on-location for some sequences in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, he also liked peppering his films with documentary footage to achieve a certain degree of authenticity - a technique that's also particularly effective in Curtiz's subsequent features, Casablanca (1942), Mission to Moscow (1943), and Force of Arms (1951). So effective, in fact, that other directors began to copy it after the release of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. Curtiz also felt strongly about the issue of prison reform and returned to champion it again and again in such movies as Front Page Woman (1935), The Walking Dead (1936) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). And unlike the grim tone established in these later films, Curtiz manages to inject some gallows humor and even a little romance into 20,000 Years in Sing Sing.
Although the film was overlooked in the 1932-33 Oscar® race where I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was the clear favorite, it made a strong impression on audiences and generated excellent reviews. The New York Times stated that "In this rapidly paced film there are some extraordinarily interesting glimpses of prison routine..." and the Motion Picture Herald commented that Spencer Tracy's performance "is fully on a par with Paul Muni's [in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang] for effectiveness and pulling his auditors along with him." Sing Sing is also notable for its Pre-Code ending in which an innocent man is sent to the electric chair. A year later the Production Code would have required the true killer - Fay - to pay for her crime. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was later remade in 1940 as Castle on the Hudson with John Garfield and Ann Sheridan in the starring roles.
Producer: Raymond Griffith, Robert Lord, Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Courtney Terrett, Robert Lord, Wilson Mizner, Brown Holmes, Lewis E. Lawes (book)
Cinematography: Barney McGill
Film Editing: George Amy
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Bernhard Kaun
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Tom Connors), Bette Davis (Fay Wilson), Arthur Byron (Warden Paul Long), Lyle Talbot (Bud Saunders), Warren Hymer (Hype), Louis Calhern (Finny).
BW-78m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford
20,000 Years in Sing Sing
James Cagney was originally set for the male lead.
Writer Lewis E. Lawes was still warden of Sing Sing prison during filming and allowed the crew to film inside and outside the prison, including mob scenes.
Author Lewis E. Lawes was warden of Sing Sing Prison for many years and allowed the filmmakers to shoot scenes inside the prison, including mob scenes. He wrote another book, entitled Life and Death in Sing Sing (Garden City, NY, 1928), about his prison experiences. According to production reports in the file on the film at the AMPAS Library, the film took thirty days to shoot and was made for a total cost of $215,000. According to modern sources, James Cagney was first choice for the role of Tommy Connors, but when a salary dispute kept Cagney from playing the part, Tracy was cast in the lead. Shots of the exterior of Sing Sing were intercut with studio recreations, according to modern sources. Modern sources list as additional cast members: Rockcliffe Fellows, Lucille Collins, Clarence Wilson and James Donlan. The film was remade by First National as Castle on the Hudson in 1940.