March 5, 2013

For the past month, Film Forum in New York City has been screening a dazzling variety of Hollywood movies from eighty years ago. 1933 was the final flowering of the anything goes pre-code period, before the Production Code Administration was established a year later. While I was grateful to see masterful standbys like The Bitter Tea of General Yen on 35mm, the beauty in series like these is the forgotten films, ones that through chance or neglect haven’t survived into the home video era. I was particularly looking forward to one hard-to-see title: Edward L. Cahn’s Laughter in Hell. Although reported lost in a few publications, it was patiently sitting in the Universal Vaults and had screened in Los Angeles and San Francisco before making it to NYC. It is a nightmarishly violent fable inconceivable after the code that managed to exceed my unrealistic expectations.

Laughter in Hell was another entry in the thriving chain gang genre following the success of Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (WB, 1932). Forced convict labor had become a national political issue when a New Jersey teenager named Arthur Maillefert was found hanging from his own chain  in June of 1932 at the Sunbeam Prison Camp in Florida. The camp’s captain and one of its prison guards were charged with first degree murder. The story became a sensation, and calls for reform spread throughout the country. The movies were quick to pick up on it, and Universal Pictures attempted to cash-in on the trend by securing the rights to hobo-novelist Jim Tully’s book Laughter in Hell. Tully was a vagrant-turned-writer whose Depression scarred narratives became bestsellers. His writing was first adapted to the screen in 1928 by William Wellman, who directed Tully’s loosely autobiographical Beggars of LifeLaughter in Hell was released on January 12, 1933 to poor reviews. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote that, “Where ‘I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang’ was real and dramatic, this current contribution is clumsy and doleful. It is scarcely the type of picture to appeal to audiences during the holiday season.”

Laughter in Hell’s downtrodden inmate is Barney Slaney (Pat O’Brien),  a Tennessee train engineer whose well-ordered life collapses when he catches his wife playing footsie with long-time enemy Grover Perkins (Arthur Vinton). He reacts indelicately, and is sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor. He is imprisoned in what looks like zoo animal cages, and the work camp’s director turns out to be Grover’s’ sociopathic brother Ed, so Barney wisely plans an escape.

It starts as pastoral and segues into nightmare. The rural Southern town of his youth is initially presented as a nurturing community, cycling kids up the economic ladder from the mines to the trains. Barney is introduced as a soot-covered scamp working in a quarry when he receives word of his mother’s passing. Work is closely intertwined with death from the start.  His loss is mourned by the whole town, easing him back into civilization. Director Edward L. Cahn emphasizes this early unity by utilizing long shot pans of the quarry, taking in the groups of workers as they shout at each other to look for Barney. His childhood is a series of bumptious comedy following his initial loss, with old coot Civil War vets decrying technological advances (recorded discs of music) and his awkward shy guy routine winning over his sexually liberated wife Marybelle (Merna Kennedy).

Barney becomes increasingly paranoid about his wife’s erotic adventures, to the point of mental breakdown. Director Edward L. Cahn visualizes this breakdown in a series of complicated, almost experimental shots. He employs a hallucinatory montage of superimpositions during one of Barney’s train runs to convey his fracturing psyche. When he discovers his wife in flagrante delicto, Cahn uses repeated disorienting zooms to eliminate Barney from his surroundings. His violent actions have separated him from the community, and the film enters a somnambulistic state from here on out.

The actors begin speaking in foggy monotones, and the death drive takes over in some of the most despairing scenes in Depression-era cinema. His father promises to kill Barney in the courtroom if he is given the death penalty, but a life of hard labor is not a merciful fate. Barney’s pain is revealed to be just a drop in the oceanic horrors of the chain gang. It is the Black prisoners whose terror runs the deepest. Upon arriving, Barney witnesses a state-sanctioned lynching of four Black men. As the guards beat the other Black prisoners who are kneeling in prayer, Cahn begins a series of extreme close-ups of pug-faced White convicts who get one word each of these phrases in quick succession: “Ah, let ‘em pray,” “Yeah, it’s their religion.” Their faces blend together in a rictus of revulsion at the inhumanity of their captors. The final composition is of kneeling penitents in front of dangling legs, lead weights pulling them closer to the earth.

This pull of flesh towards the earth continues when the chain-gang is moved to a town stricken by the yellow fever. Their job is to dig a mass grave. Cahn picks out detail like the raised pickaxes and shuffling feet of the inmates, ritualized movements of the damned. Ed Perkins glowers at Barney and pal Abraham (a somber Clarence Muse), spitting at them that he’ll make them dig graves until they’re dead. In this literal pit of despair, the prisoners revolt, and Barney escapes into a kind of afterlife. On the road with a girl, he says he feels like a newly hatched eagle. That girl, Lorraine (Gloria Stuart), is also marked by death, her whole family having been killed by the fever. So they light out for the state line, with the assistance of a gimpy farmer who has no use for  Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. He is another unmoored soul, though one who has found a kind of groundedness in this borderland. It ends in mud and rain and a hope for a new beginning.

It is a fearfully intense and angry film, its revulsion with abuse of power and racism manifesting in Cahn’s unsettling use of zooms, extreme close-ups, and unorthodox framing. Its dreamlike atmosphere and violent, fable-like story continually reminded me of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). Both are journeys from darkness into light that seem far more attracted to the former, the lure of obliteration only assuaged by the presence of saintly women who prove that the light is worth pursuing. Edward L. Cahn is mainly known as a prolific purveyor of no-budget 1950′s genre fare (It: The Terror From Beyond Space, 1959), but with Laughter in Hell and the equally astonishing corruption noir Afraid to Talk (aka Merry-Go-Round, 1932), he is clearly an urgent subject for further research.