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Similar to the journalism trends of the late twenties and early thirties when muckraking and scandals within the government and local communities were hot newspaper topics, the early sound era in Hollywood saw a number of social expose films produced which attacked various institutions in need of reform. One of the most fascinating -- and least known of these -- is Hell's Highway (1932), which opens with the following foreword: "Dedicated to an early end of the conditions portrayed herein -- which, though a throw-back to the Middle Ages, actually exist today." This is followed by a flurry of sensationalistic newspaper headlines like "Prison Guards Accused of Murder as Tortured Youth Dies Chained in Sweat Box" before delving into the story of Duke Ellis (Richard Dix), a bank robber sentenced to hard labor on a chain gang that is currently laying the new "Liberty Road" highway. Ellis quickly finds himself at the mercy of the sadistic prison camp director and his foreman, both of whom push the inmates beyond their physical limits in order to complete the highway by the contract date. Subjected to starvation, beatings and abysmal living conditions, Ellis is plotting his escape when his younger brother, Johnny, suddenly turns up in the camp as a newly incarcerated prisoner. Ellis's problem then becomes one of trying to prevent his hot-headed brother from incurring the wrath of the prison guards and jeopardizing his safety.
Released shortly before I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang in 1932, Hell's Highway, directed by Rowland Brown, shared many similarities with the former title, but due to its more modest budget and lack of major stars was overshadowed by the Warner Brothers social drama. Yet, in some ways, Hell's Highway is just as powerful and unsettling as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang with its frank depiction of prison guard violence, corrupt government officials and implied inmate homosexuality.
Originally, the working titles for Brown's film were Chain Gang and Liberty Road but RKO producer David O. Selznick was worried about the possibility of a plagiarism lawsuit regarding Robert Burns' book, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang (which was in production at the time at Warner Brothers), so they settled on Hell's Highway. Selznick also instructed the screenwriters to avoid any similarities to the Burns book or Freedom, another bestseller about chain-gang life by Agnes Christine Johnston. When the resulting film was screened before the RKO brass, studio executive B. B. Kahane demanded that certain "gruesome and brutal" scenes be cut from the film. Joseph I. Breen, director of the PCA, also stated he would not grant the film censorship approval without the removal of certain dialogue and situations, particularly one involving an effeminate inmate named Burgess. Even the original ending, in which Ellis is shot and killed after saving his brother, was changed prior to its theatrical release.
None of these changes, however, blunt the power of Hell's Highway, which beat I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to theaters and is full of indelible images that resonate long after the film is over: the scene where a deaf mute prison escapee is unable to hear the approaching posse and is shot in the back, the funeral sequence where a black convict singing a spiritual is intercut with black-and-white editorial cartoons drawn by an anonymous hand, the sweat-box torture segments and the prisoners' riot against their tormentors. The film is also admirable for refusing to simplify the moral issues raised by the protagonist's dilemma. Ellis is a habitual criminal but Hell's Highway is not interested in whether he is innocent or guilty of any crime; instead the focus is on the inhuman conditions of the camp, which no one deserves. Even the prison riot and eventual jailbreak are seen in a positive light since they briefly topple the corrupt power structure of the camp warden. The highly melodramatic I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang might have won the lion's share of critical acclaim and audience recognition but Hell's Highway remains a model of cool detachment in comparison and a testament to Rowland Brown's talent as a director. (His crime drama, Blood Money (1933), is also highly regarded and is featured in Danny Peary's book, Cult Movies 2.)
Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: Rowland Brown
Screenplay: Samuel Ornitz, Robert Tasker, Rowland Brown
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Cinematography: Edward J. Cronjager
Editing: Willaim Hamilton
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Richard Dix (Frank "Duke" Ellis), Tom Brown (Johnny Ellis), Louise Carter (Mrs. Ellis), Rochelle Hudson (Mary Ellen), C. Henry Gordon (Blacksnake Skinner), Oscar Apfel (William Billings), Clarence Muse (Rascal), Louise Beavers (Rascal's sweetheart).
by Jeff Stafford