20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932): Michael Curtiz Directs Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis in Prison Melodrama, their Only Film Together

Michael Curtiz directed 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, a Pre-Code prison melodrama, which is perhaps best known today for pairing of Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis in their only film together.

The film is based on the book by the real-life Sing Sing warden Lewis E. Lawes, “20,000 Years in Sing Sing.”

Tracy plays crook Tom Connors, who sent to Sing Sing prison, an aberrant criminal who refuses to adhere to the rules.

Sentenced to prison for mob-related crimes, Connors is convinced that his highly paid legal team and the corrupt city contacts would soon get him on parole.

Initially, Connors continues to behave like a big shot even in prison, leading to his mistreatment and solitary confinement.

However, while in solitary confinement, Connors reconsiders his attitude. With the help of the correctional facility’s compassionate warden (Arthur Byron), he becomes a model prisoner, even refusing to participate in a jailbreak. The warden sets up a program that allows prisoners some freedom and an occasional furlough.

When Connors’ girlfriend¬†Fay (Bette Davis) is hurt in an auto accident, he is given a 24 hour pass to visit her. ¬†It’s a test case, if he doesn’t return, the warden will be replaced. While on the “outside,” Connors learns that his old rival (Louis Calhern) was responsible for Fay’s injuries. Fay shoots the rival, who in turn points to Connors as the one responsible.

Both Davis and Tracy, who were under contract to Warner, were in the early phases of their career before their stature as actors and their respective screen images were established.

An underdog, Tracy’s Connors is defeated by his love for Fay: He is executed in the electric chair for a crime he did not commit.

A rattling melodrama, 20,000 years allows viewers to feel empathy for Connors, fighting a system that may be as corrupt as he is, but of course bigger and more powerful.

But despite moral ambiguity, the film makes sure to reassert the moral code and social order at the end.

The picture was remade in 1940 as Castle on the Hudson.