A wave of semi-documentary crime films hit the screen after the war. Twentieth Century Fox did quite well with this type of storytelling, a combination of gritty noir and fact-based drama. Eagle-Lion also excelled at producing these stories. The studio had succeeded with pictures like HE WALKED BY NIGHT, T-MEN and TRAPPED. But perhaps the best of these was CANON CITY, filmed in Colorado. CANON CITY does not pretend to be more sophisticated than what it is. The crime doesn’t pay theme works, and so does the idea that you can run but you can’t hide.
I should point out that CANON CITY is not pronounced Cannon City. There is supposed to be a tilde over the ‘N’ and it is pronounced Canyon City. A prison was opened in Canon City, Colorado back in 1871 when Colorado was still a territory. Five years later, in 1876, when Colorado became a state, the territorial prison became a state prison. For years it housed dangerous criminals, many facing execution. An execution chamber was located on site until the 1990s. Today, the prison is still in operation almost 150 years after it first opened. But less dangerous inmates reside there now, and the prison has become a medium-security facility. The deputy warden’s house has never been rebuilt and still looks like something out of the 1800s.
For a century and a half the prison has provided continuous employment for residents that live in the surrounding community. There have been a few occasions when residents of Canon City have faced danger due to events at the facility. In 1929 there was a riot, and in late 1947 there was a prison break. Eagle-Lion’s motion picture is a recreation of the prison break.
Since director Crane Wilbur is utilizing a semi-documentary style, the film begins with a newsreel type tour of the prison as well as a short interview with Warden Roy Best. After the preliminary information is out of the way, we meet Carl Schwartzmiller (Jeff Corey), a lifelong hood and twelve other inmates who will escape with him. One of these men is a very reluctant guy named Jim Sherbondy (Scott Brady). Jim has been inside for almost ten years. He has petitioned the governor for release and thinks Warden Best will recommend him for parole.
Jim’s become one of the warden’s most trusted inmates, and as a result, he has privileges the other men do not enjoy. For instance, he is allowed to run the darkroom, developing x-rays that are used by doctors in the infirmary. Carl and the other guys want Jim to join their group, because they can hide weapons in the darkroom. It’s an ideal place. Since there is no lock on the door, guards must knock before entering in case Jim’s in the middle of developing film. This provides extra time to dispose of weapons if officials catch on to a planned escape.
During a visit with his girl, Jim mentions the pressure the others have been putting on him. Of course she does not wish for him to get out under these circumstances. But when Jim learns that his petition for parole has been denied, he becomes angry. He is now more receptive to Carl’s plans. Soon Jim is helping Carl and the others escape, and he goes along with them. This occurs on the 30th of December 1947. There are some very good exterior sequences filmed on location with the men taking off in a blizzard. They separate and a few of the men find their way to farms outside Canon City.
Much of the action is routine for prison break pictures of the era. But since this one is based on a recent real-life event and has the full cooperation of Warden Best and others who work at the Canon City facility, the filmmakers adhere more closely to the facts. There is fear among members of the local community that some of the escapees, particularly Jim, will enact revenge on the ones who had incarcerated them. It is a situation of high alert that is fraught with suspense and uncertainty. In the sequences that follow, some of the men are either killed or rounded up.
We also see what is going on with the farm families that are taken hostage and forced to accommodate the men. One particularly good segment involves Mrs. Edith Oliver (Mabel Paige). She’s a feisty old gal who seems sweet on the outside but is determined to outfox the interlopers under her roof. She attacks Carl with a frying pan AND breaks a chair over his head. What strength! She gets a special scene at the end of the movie, where her bravery is commended.
Soon all the men except one have been caught. And that man, of course, is Jim Sherbondy. The family that Jim has taken hostage has a seven year old boy whose appendix bursts. Despite his reputation as a violent man, Jim softens and lets the family get medical help, which of course leads to his surrender. Jim has been brought to justice and his brief adventure as a fugitive is over. He is returned to the facility in Canon City where he will continue to serve out the rest of his term. Jim Sherbondy would remain in the Colorado penal system until 1969. At that point he had been working in a prison labor camp, when he escaped again. Police officers shot and killed him on a street in Denver. This is his original mug shot, taken in 1937.
CANON CITY may currently be viewed on YouTube.