Warner Bros.' hard-hitting chain-gang movie was a faithful adaptation of the similarly titled autobiography of Robert Elliot Burns. Paul Muni plays World War I veteran James Allen, whose plans of becoming a master architect evaporate in the cold light of economic realities.
Flat broke, Allen is forced to pawn his war medals, which have become a glut on the market. When Allen is innocently involved in a restaurant holdup, the police don't buy his story that the robber (Preston S. Foster) had forced him to clean out the cash register, and Allen is sentenced to ten years on a chain gang.
The brutal scenes that follow make the later chain-gang movie Cool Hand Luke (1967) look like a picnic in the country. Unable to stand any more, Allen escapes and heads to Chicago. Using an alias, he builds a new life for himself and within five years is the respected president of a bridge-building firm.
His landlady (Glenda Farrell), learning about his past, forces Allen to marry her. When he falls in love with another girl (Helen Vinson) and asks for a divorce, his wife turns him over to the authorities.
The real-life Robert Elliot Burns was still a fugitive when he wrote his exposé of the chain-gang system; the publication of Burns' book led to the abolishment of that system and an erasure of Burns' sentence.