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Sunday, April 8, 2018

HELL'S HIGHWAY (1932)

R.K.O. must have rushed this out to beat Warners’ I AM A FUGITIVE ON A CHAIN GANG/’32 in the marketplace with their own Chain Gang Exposé. Muckraking and reform-minded on prison violence & the cruel atrocities used to keep discipline & control in these incarceration Hellholes, it’s certainly a shocker. Too bad they forgot to include a plot. Odd since Rowland Brown was less director (3 credits) than writer (24 credits). Even with great support from cinematographer Edward Cronjager, dark and contrasty, he’s unable to arrange shots for rhythm or dramatic suspense, bumping along from one horrific incident to the next as tough-guy prisoner Richard Dix stops spitting in the face of authority when kid brother Tom Brown shows up in the pen (literally) and immediately gets into trouble. Fortunately, new inspector Stanley Fields is around to take notes on what’s going on and help the Governor confront the corrupt authorities for a little bit of justice in a sop to Southern Censorship Boards. Still, worth a look, with Dix showing a big improvement in Talkie technique from his stiff perf in last year’s award-winning CIMARRON/’31 though unable to convince us that Tom Brown, twenty years his junior, could possibly be his brother.

DOUBLE-BILL: Fact-inspired I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG holds up well both in and out of prison; while Universal got into the act of condemning Southern penal systems a year later with Pat O’Brien in LAUGHTER IN HELL/’33. Often OTT, but with some remarkable Southern location stuff under low-budget workhorse director Edward L. Cahn. Disinterred from studio vaults just a couple of year ago, it may yet show up on DVD.

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