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Hell's Highway

Hell's Highway(1932)


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The film 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." The working titles for this film were Chain Gang and Liberty Road. According to RKO inter-office memos, producer David Selznick and other executives were concerned about a possible plagiarism lawsuit regarding Robert Burns's book I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, and Warner Bros. film version of Burns's book, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which was in production at the same time as Hell's Highway . After a careful appraisal of Burns's book, RKO executives, who desperately wanted their film to beat Warner Bros.' picture to the theaters, made a few deletions and alterations in the film and were then satisfied that no legal action would be taken against the studio. Deletions were also made to avoid any similarity to Agnes Christine Johnston's work Freedom, which also depicted chain-gang life. (Johnston was a screenwriter who worked at RKO, but it is not known if Freedom was a script or a novel.) According to a late July 1932 Film Daily news item, Selznick assigned director John Cromwell to "complete" the picture. The extent of his contribution is not known. A September 1932 Film Daily news item announced that "eleven songs sung by the Etude Ethiopian Chorus of twenty-five male voices" would be included in the film, but the participation of this group in the final film has not been confirmed. In the viewed print, parts of a few black spirituals are heard. After a preview screening of the film, RKO executive B. B. Kahane ordered that certain "gruesome and brutal" scenes at the end, which showed "the capture and slaughter of convicts" be cut. According to various reviews, in a preview print, Dix's character is shot and killed after saving his brother. This ending was altered before the film's general release. In a February 1937 letter to studio head Samuel J. Briskin, Joseph I. Breen, Director of the PCA, stated that his office would grant RKO a censorship approval certificate for a re-issue of Hell's Highway if a few objectionable lines and scenes were eliminated. In particular, Breen objected to the portrayal of an overtly effeminate character named "Burgess." It is not known whether these cuts were made, but no evidence that the film was ever re-issued has been found.