I AM ALSO A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG: HELL’S HIGHWAY (1932)

November 3, 2015

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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 overPrizing 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 Sell Anything).

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The sole reason for Hell Highway’s being was to beat 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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

DEATH WATCH: JOSEF VON STERNBERG ADAPTS AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1931)

September 8, 2015

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In 1931 the Paramount Publix Corporation was eager to film an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, having failed to do so since acquiring the rights soon after its publication in 1925. They got close in 1930, when the visiting Sergei Eisenstein wrote an experimental script that was eventually rejected for being too long and uncommercial. So instead they assigned Josef von Sternberg, who was coming off three hits starring Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel, Morocco, and Dishonored), and seemed to have the box office touch for artier, offbeat material. The resulting film, now out on DVD from the Universal Vault (the transfer is likely from an old VHS master, soft but watchable), is an oneiric oddity, using dreamlike visuals to illustrate a story of true crime barbarism – murder by drowning. Water imagery abounds, in lap dissolves and superimpositions – it even breaks up Von Sternberg’s name in the opening credits. Von Sternberg turns Dreiser’s indictment of American society, one that created the conditions for murder, into something more subjective and opaque. Dreiser claimed that Paramount had turned his novel into an “ordinary murder story”, and sued to have the movie’s release halted. The New York Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of Paramount, and the film was released. Motion Picture Herald claimed the decision was, “likely to become an important part of legal tradition and precedent in the relation of the art of literature and the art of the motion picture.” So whenever Hollywood takes creative liberties with a novel, for better or worse, it has Paramount’s An American Tragedy to thank.

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“I have just finished reading the Eisenstein adaptation of An American Tragedy. It was for me a memorable experience; the most moving script I have ever read. It was so effective, that it was positively torturing. When I had finished it, I was so depressed that I wanted to reach for the bourbon bottle. As entertainment, I don’t think it has one chance in a hundred. …Is it too late to try to persuade the enthusiasts of the picture from making it?” – David O. Selznick to B.P. Schulberg, October 8, 1930

In April of 1930 the Vice President of Paramount, Jesse Lasky, signed Eisenstein to a contract – he would receive $900 a week, out of which he would pay his cameraman Eduard Tisse and assistant Grigori Aleksandrov . They all arrived in Hollywood in May, and received the grand tour, visiting Disney, and attending a party at Ernst Lubitsch’s place at which Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg were guests. An American Tragedy was settled upon as the project. Dreiser’s story was based on the real murder of 20-year-old Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in Upstate New York in 1906. They were transposed into the novel and film as farm girl Roberta Alden and son of poverty Clyde Griffiths. Griffiths runs away from his hometown after witnessing a murder, and bounces around menial jobs (bellboy and dishwasher) until he lands a job at a printing and stamping factory. It is there he meets Roberta, and he believes he is in love until he sets his eyes on the upper class charms of Sondra, the hit of the society pages. Clyde will lose his job if his relationship with Roberta comes to light, so thoughts turn to making her disappear. Eisenstein became entranced with the idea of “internal monologue”, which was not simple voiceover but more like stream-of-consciousness audio montage that would ebb and flow with the intensity of the characters’ emotions. A snippet from his script treatment:

“As the boat glides into the darkness of the lake, so Clyde glides into the darkness of his thoughts. Two voice struggle within him — one: ‘Kill — kill!’ the echo of his dark resolve, the frantic cry of all his hopes of Sondra and society; the other: ‘Don’t — don’t kill!’ the expression of his weakness and his fears, of his sadness for Roberta and his shame before her. In the scenes that follow, these voices ripple in the waves that lap from the oars against the boat; they whisper in the beating of his heart; they comment, underscoring, upon the memories and alarums that pass through his mind; each ever struggling with the other for mastery, first one dominating then weakening before the onset of its rival.”

He had more abstract ideas too, in line with the work of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein that he admired: “Then in passionate disconnected speech. nothing but nouns. Or nothing but verbs. Then interjections. With zigzags of aimless shapes, whirling along with these in synchronization.” The script he delivered would run 14 reels (around 154 minutes), and Paramount had no intention of following his whims for such an obvious money losing project. Selznick’s view won out, and Paramount paid Eisenstein $30,000 to end their contract. They turned to von Sternberg to get the film made.

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Sternberg claims to have seen nothing of Eisenstein’s treatment, and considered him a friend from their evenings together. In his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, he recalls, “I was approached by Adolph Zukor. He told me that the company had a dormant investment of half a million dollars in An American Tragedy, and pleaded with me to undertake to salvage this by making an inexpensive version of it. I eliminated the sociological elements [with screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein], which, in my opinion, were far from being responsible for the dramatic accident with which Dreiser had concerned himself.” So gone was the precise detailing of Clyde’s social class, and, so, according to Dreiser, “instead of an indictment of society, the picture is a justification of society and an indictment of Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes).” I would say the film does not justify society as much as ignore it, and it is not an indictment of Griffiths but an attempt to understand him. The film tries to get into his head through the atmospherics provided by DP Lee Garmes and sound recordist Harry D. Mills, who had both worked on Morocco and Dishonored. Though limited by the close attention being paid the project by the censors (Roberta’s (Sylvia Sidney) attempted abortion is implied rather than stated in the film), it tries to sketch out Clyde’s fantasy life.

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The first we glimpse of Clyde’s factory job, he is overseeing his young female clientele, and Garmes’ camera tracks to the right, pausing when Clyde pauses, as the women stare up at him with theatrical flirtations. After Clyde returns to his Spartan office, the floor covered in rejected collars, there is an unusual cut to an extreme close-up underneath the factory tables, of women’s feet and ribbon. It is the only insert in the entire sequence — a peek inside his head, into his limited interests of his erotic imagination. Water is the overarching trigger for Clyde’s desires, however. His first date with Roberta is a canoe ride down a stream, and Von Sternberg utilizes long lap dissolves of water, with scenes melting into and layering on top of each other. In Spring time, the blossom of his love for Roberta, a close-up of the shimmering river is superimposed on top of a long-shot of the same river, creating an abstract image of glimmer, something of the sensorium exploding in Clyde’s head. Later when he hears the newsboy haranguing passersby with headlines of a drowned woman, murder arrives on the horizon of possibilities. Clyde’s hand hovering over a map is then dissolved over an image of a lake, as he begins to assert control over his own violent desires, starts to put them into action.

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This intimate dreamscape, some of Von Sternberg’s most discomfiting work, asking the audience to identify with a fetishistic killer, ends abruptly in the extended courtroom sequence that ends the film, a marathon of stilted exposition. The slow, drowsy build into Clyde’s paranoid mindset turns flat and realist, the fog of mystery lifted in favor of legibility and half-hearted redemption. But a film with as complex a production history as this one couldn’t help but being compromised in the end, with so many demands coming from Paramount, the censors, and Dreiser’s lawsuit. It is two-thirds of a great film.