November 3, 2015
In 1932 the treatment of prisoners on chain gangs became an issue of national import. In January Robert Elliott Burns published I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang!, which recounts two escapes, eight years apart, from brutal prison camps. Warner Brothers would rush to adapt it into I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang for a November release. In June Arthur Maillefert died inside a “sweat box” at the Sunbeam Prison Camp in Florida, a chain wrapped around his neck and wooden stocks nailed around his feet. The camp’s captain was charged with first degree murder and found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Calls for reform reverberated across the country, and the film studios were eager to capitalize on the nation’s interest. Universal was developing Laughter in Hell (which I wrote about here), adapted from a Jim Tully novel, while RKO was fast-tracking Hell’s Highway, which combines Burns and Maillefert’s stories into a narrative they hoped not to get sued over. Prizing speed above all else, RKO got Hell’s Highway into theaters first on September 23rd, beating Fugitive to screens by almost two months (Laughter in Hell didn’t arrive until January of 1933). Brought to the screen by the famously combative director Rowland Brown, Hell’s Highway is cynical and punchy, but compromised by studio meddling. The Warner Archive has made Hell’s Highway available on DVD as part of “Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9″, the latest in their series of pre-code DVD sets (it also includes Big City Blues, The Cabin in the Cotton, When Ladies Meet, and I Sell Anything).
The sole reason for Hell Highway’s being was to beat I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang into theaters, regardless how it accomplished that goal. Producer David O. Selznick and writers Samuel Ornitz, Robert Tasker, and Rowland Brown cobbled together a script culled from the Burns novel, the Maillefert story, and Agnes Christine Johnson’s Freedom, another book about chain gangs. Then Selznick cut out anything he thought might get them sued. This “original” tale focused on Duke Ellis (Richard Dix), a prisoner on a chain gang continually looking for an escape. He nearly breaks loose thanks to a distraction from the fortune-telling bigamist Matthew (Charles Middleton), but had to call it off when he discovers his young brother Johnny (Tom Brown) has been detained in the same camp. After a Maillefert-like prisoner dies in a sweatbox, the inmates start advocating for revolt. Johnny receives word that Duke is about to be extradited to Michigan to serve a life sentence, so Johnny decides to bust Duke loose. The attempted escape triggers an all out riot that burns the prison camp to the ground, and Duke and Johnny try to stumble their way to survival.
Brown gets a lot of mileage out of symmetrical shots out of chained feet, men lined up at the cafeteria table and trudging to work to build a road. They are effectively dehumanized, herded like cattle and whipped like dogs. Duke is the one who can’t be broken, a hard-bitten cynic who seems to have been raised in jails and resents every authority figure he’s ever met. The warden and all the guards are depicted as ignorant goofs or sadistic fascists, not exceptions but representatives of a violent system. It is missing I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang’s meticulous attention to detail and Laughter in Hell’s death-drive delirium, but it does have dirt and grime and an atmosphere of desperation, ably lensed by DP Edward Cronjager (Heaven Can Wait).
Martin Scorsese was a fan, and wrote for TCM, “There are moments that you will never forget. There’s a remarkable scene that we included in my documentary on American cinema: the prisoner played by Richard Dix is about to be whipped by a guard, who suddenly flinches when he sees the tattoo on Dix’s back and recognizes that he’s a fellow WWI vet. And there’s another passage that is quite unlike anything else in American cinema of the period, in which the story of a cuckolded guard and his cheating wife is told in an impromptu Frankie and Johnny ballad.” The latter is a bizarre interlude unrelated to the rest of the action. There is a group of black prisoners, segregated from the whites, who sing spirituals in their off hours. But one of them is a talented caricaturist, and sketches out a few cartoon panels of one of the guard’s cheating wife. The story is told through song. It is graphic, funny, and a completely different tone from the quiet desperation of the rest of the feature. It’s hard to say why Selznick did not cut that sequence, when he did so many more, as well as re-shooting the ending. He had John Cromwell come in to shoot an absurdly upbeat ending that inserts a benevolent bureaucrat who punishes the staff and implicitly exonerates the prison-industrial system.
Director Rowland Brown is one of those great Hollywood enigmas. He only directed three well-regarded films (Quick Millions, Blood Money and Hell’s Highway) before reportedly punching out a producer and never directing again, though he maintained a career as a writer up through the ’50s (he received a story credit on Kansas City Confidential (’52)). He was born in Ohio, and got his start in the arts as an illustrator and sports cartoonist. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and became a day laborer at the studios. According to James Curtis’ Spencer Tracy biography Brown, “turned to screenwriting under the auspices of the late Kenneth Hawks [Howard’s brother], went to Universal for a short while, then sold a grim mob story, “A Handful of Clouds”, to Warner Brothers, shot as The Doorway to Hell (1930, directed by Archie Mayo). Brown was reportedly involved with the mob, and was rumored to have made a living as a bootlegger during prohibition, and was said to have been an acquaintance of Bugsy Siegel. This all lent an air of legitimacy to his gangster films, and perhaps got him the opportunity to direct his script for Quick Millions (1931), a movie about a small time protections racket starring Spencer Tracy. What is remarkable about Brown is how much remains unclear. It doesn’t seem like anyone knows for sure his true relationship to the mob, or who he actually punched at RKO. It was rumored to be David O. Selznick or Frank Davis, the producer on The Devil is a Sissy, from which Brown was fired and replaced by W.S. Van Dyke. Let’s just say I will buy the Rowland Brown biography if it is ever published.
Despite it’s beating I Am a Fugitive On a Chain Gang into theaters, the comparatively slim and cheap Hell’s Highway was soon overwhelmed at the box office, and it has disappeared from view aside from the chatter of a few Rowland Brown cultists. It is a strange, tough little film with a grim view of American incarceration, one that was kneecapped by Selznick’s re-shoots, but one that still retains its ability to shock.