Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hell's Highway (1932)

A hot topic in the news and in stories being written about in the early 1930s was the subject about the abuse and mistreatment of prisoners working in chain-gangs. Headlines would hit newsstands of men dying in chain-gangs and slapping of the word "murder" hit the justice system as convicts seemed to drop dead regularly from exhaustive work and ill-kept conditions. Stories based off real life tales men in these chain-gangs were being produced, the most popular being the autobiography of Robert Elliot Burns called "I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang." It would be so popular Warner Bros. would purchase the rights to the story to produce a motion picture on it. Another studio, RKO, would want in on a piece of the audience interested on the subject matter as well rushing out their own chain-gang picture, Hell's Highway. RKO's production would hit theaters first, but it still would be Warner Bros.' film that would get the notoriety. Hell's Highway would be a great example of how Hollywood studios would pounce on movie ideas hoping to bank more on plot ideas over the competition.

Hell's Highway is the story of how one man gives up his chance at escaping his chain gang when he discovers his younger brother joins the gang, and instead opts to stay behind to look after his brother's well being. The picture opens to a plea for an end to the horrors of chain gangs in the American justice system as we are introduced to the harsh conditions that men are put through literally working themselves to death, dying of exhaustion and heatstroke from the "sweat boxes" some men are punished to. Set in a Michigan chain gang Duke Ellis (Richard Dix) is a tough, street wise convict whose chance to escape is thwarted when he discovers his teenage brother Johnny (Tom Brown) is convicted and sent to serve in the same chain gang he is in. Duke decides he must watch after his naive brother, making sure he is protected form the abuse of the work and the other prisoners. The climax to the picture is a mass escape effort of all the prisoners triggered by the fool-hearted decision of Johnny. Duke would help save his younger brother's life during a deadly manhunt where the chain-gang operator (played by Oscar Apfel) is cracked down on for the use of the sweat box.

Despite the picture being an attempt to cash in on the market of chain gang stories floating around America at that time and rushing to release before I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, which would come out two months later, Hell's Highway is a picture that is trying to take a political stand. The film opens with a dedication to the end of such harsh conditions ends with justice being served for the mistreatment of prisoners. The film's lead actor Richard Dix serves as the sole star power of the picture, having been nominated for best actor the year before in Cimirron. The film is rather short, just over an hour in length, but has a tight story that served it purpose. The production quality is fair, but does have its share of small controversial stereotypes. African American are used as more or less background music as a choir of sorrow at a couple of points in the picture, and the film has one gay character, or rather a flamboyant male that eyes fellow men. These subjects leave open the object of discussion for anyone looking back on viewpoints from a different time in America.

RKO pictures, a major studio in Hollywood during its golden age, attempted to make its profit in a small booming idea of stories chain gangs, which would be mostly cashed in by Warner Bros.' picture I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Hollywood tends to go through phases where certain ideas are hot subjects in films and multiple studios would try to out produce each other with pictures releasing around the same time. Example subjects are films include Wyatt Earp seen in 1992-93 with Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, Robin Hood films seen in 1991 (Robin Hood and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), or even superhero film seen in the 2000s (Spiderman, Batman Begins, Superman Returns). Despite Warner Bros. having the material and the head start, RKO rushed to production with the inspiration from the same story WB would use for their film. RKO would hit theaters two months before WB , changing the the plot points enough to not be accused of plagiarizing the story. The ending was originally to have Duke try to escape and be shot dead, a more true to life like ending, but it was decided to have a happier ending so to not disturb audiences who grew fond of the sympathetic character.

Richard Dix would be the star of choice RKO had for the manly role. He would not be as well known as his counterparts through time, but was a fairly well recognized star from the 20s and 30s. His quailty of acting could be likened to the future star John Wayne, with his handsome looks and confident, heroic manner. Dix would prove to do a fine job as the brave, tough character of Duke. (See what I did there? His name was Duke and I compared him to the Duke, John Wayne. Nice, huh?) His supporting cast would be a list of rather unknown actors who played main small roles in various films from the silent age into the early talkie era. The cast included Tom Brown, a young actor with a very long career in small roles all the way into television work, Rochelle Hudson as she was just starting her acting career cast in the small role as Johnny's love interest, character actor Charles B. Middleton, C. Henry Gordon playing officer overlooking the chain gang, and long time man of the silent screen Oscar Apfel. So you can see star power was not on RKO's side.

Hell's Highway did rather average if not below average business as the superior production quailty and star power of Warner Brother's chain gang picture would greatly over-shine this film. Hell's Highway is said be a grittier depiction of the chain gang pictures, portraying more realistically the life of the harsh conditions seen in such situations. This motion picture would not leave the lasting impact through the tales of time, but made a great effort to produce a quality picture that would peek a fraction of the public's interest. With the stories and movies being made about chain gangs, the issue would be helped to become problems of the past, helping in the abolishment of chain gangs as cruel punishment of prisoners. It may not be as grand as other pictures, but Hell's Highway can be remembered as a good example of how Hollywood many times is a competition between studios to make profits off hot subject matter in the world.

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