At least not for another couple of months. RKO rushed Hell’s Hellway to theaters in order to beat the prison camp film that Warner Brothers was working on. That one was titled I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and I’m betting if you’ve only seen one of these titles it would have been that one.
And rightfully so. It's a classic. But Hell's Highway is well worth exploring for fans of the better known film starring Paul Muni or the prison genre in general.
RKO did beat Warner Brothers to theaters. Hell’s Highway premiered September 23, 1932 while I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang did not open in New York until that November 11 and nationwide eight days after that.
Mordaunt Hall’s New York Times review of Hell’s Highway chastised its producers for being “overeager to horrify audiences by depicting the cruel treatment of the chain-gang convicts.”
Well, so does the slightly later Warner Brothers movie. Unfortunately a different Times reviewer tackled that one, so we don't know how Hall felt about Warner Brothers' Chain Gang.
Hall also rips the Duke Ellis character played by Richard Dix because he “preaches about the torturing of the felons, which would be all very well if it came from an upstanding character, and not, as it does, from a bank robber.”
There is a very definite difference between career criminal Duke Ellis and Paul Muni’s James Allen in Chain Gang. Allen is best identified as a forgotten man from the Great War. Duke served too, we find that out deeper into Hell’s Highway, but his service is not used to soften any aspect of his character. We’re meant to empathize with Muni from the very beginning of Chain Gang but in Hell’s Highway audiences are left to root for general justice rather than any particular character, as none of the Hell’s Highway crew have any beef about their actual sentence.
We don’t want Dix or anyone else released in Hell’s Highway. We just want them to get a square deal while they do their time.
Hell’s Highway becomes easier to forget because of its ending. A tacked on compromise that once more goes to show that filmmakers still had to adhere to the general standards of the times even during the largely wild and woolly pre-code era.
The original ending has been described as a far harsher scene. But it wasn’t outside censors who demanded a change, it was RKO’s own executive B.B. Kahane who ordered that some “gruesome and brutal” scenes be excised from the end of the film after they were poorly received at a preview.
Apparently then the audience did find themselves rooting for at least one of the Hell’s Highway characters.
There was more general compromise as well. At least in comparison to I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
What makes Chain Gang so daring is its open attack on the state’s system of punishment. That is blunted in Hell’s Highway by placing a crooked private contractor in between the state and the prisoners and leaving him to take the biggest fall in a warped final two minutes featuring the Governor arriving to save the day. The message is that while the system isn’t perfect, the U.S. government is doing it’s best to make sure justice prevails under their watch.
Perhaps the true hero of Hell’s Highway then, if it has one, is Stanley Fields as Whiteside, the prison inspector who arrives to camp at the same time as Duke’s brother, Johnny Ellis (Tom Brown).
While the contractor, Billings (Oscar Apfel), cares only about construction being completed on his highway, and his man in charge, Skinner (C. Henry Gordon), makes for an especially vicious overseer of the chain gang, it is government employee Whiteside who has been dispatched to investigate the reports of torture and abuse which have been trickling out of the camp and into the newspapers. No, Whiteside hasn’t come to mount a more effective cover-up campaign. He is a vigilant government worker who has arrived to discover the truth.
But before the awkward ending sours it, Hell’s Highway is one hour of wild action interspersed with horrific scenes of prison camp conditions that I don’t even think the rightfully more celebrated I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang tops.
There are brutalities depicted throughout Hell’s Highway but the harshest penalty of all is the sweat box. We meet it in a montage of damning newspaper headlines before even seeing any characters and it takes only as long as watching the prisoners rise and shine to begin their day before this torture device is shown in action.
The men are all lined up, swinging their picks, when a young prisoner loses his grip and stops to stare at the torn and tethered palms of his hands. He’s distracted from this horror when a guard’s whip cracks across his back, urging him back to work. He swings once more before collapsing to the ground.
Duke Ellis, the career bank robber played by Richard Dix, is bold enough to tell the boss, Skinner, to go light on the new kid. Skinner seems like he may not be all bad when he says, “Sure, he probably needs a good tonic. Take him down the hospital and give him the best we got.”
Turns out that the hospital is just prison speak for the sweat box that we’ve been prepared for with all of those earlier headlines.
It’s a box with dimensions similar to a coffin and a worthy precursor. Its occupant is secured inside with shackles around the feet and a chain strapped around the neck to help hold the prisoner in place.
The young prisoner, Carter (John Arledge), hasn’t been shut up in the sweat box for too very long before the hound dogs begin to howl. “That means somebody’s dead,” says a prisoner played by Clarence Muse.
Sure enough the slow speaking Matthew (Charles Middleton), each of his lines possessing a holy tinge, reports, “Carter’s dead. Strangled to death in the sweat box. The contractor says the boy committed suicide.”
In a scene reminiscent of when Cagney receives word about his mother in White Heat (1949) the cons whisper, “Carter’s dead,” man by man down the line of the chain gang. Inside the mess hall it’s Dix’s Duke who shouts out “Where’s Carter?” causing a ripple effect throughout the hall where the prisoners have little else to do facing bowls of soup without any spoons. Another Skinner punishment.
The sweat box is shown in operation later in Hell’s Highway when Duke’s little brother, Johnny Ellis, finds himself locked inside.
The convicts in Hell’s Highway are hardened criminals. At least the white ones are, with Johnny an exception. They are of course segregated by color with the black convicts mostly limited to singing hymns and catchy choruses.
This is only natural since they are largely composed of Frieta Shaw’s Etude Ethiopian Chorus.
The Etude Ethiopian Chorus had previously appeared alongside Laurel and Hardy in Pardon Us (1931) and, according to Donald Bogle, can be heard in parts of Imitation of Life (1934).
The chorus, composed of 25 to 40 performers, though with the focus limited to four or five members in each Hells’ Highway and Pardon Us, is used to great effect after prophet Matthew reads the stars for one of the guards, Pop Eye (Warner Richmond). Matthew tells Pop Eye that not only is his wife cheating on him, she’s fooling around right now.
The Etude Ethiopian Chorus sang the story the following morning, one of its members illustrating the scenes on paper as they quite accurately imagine what happened:
Frankie was a no good woman,
Most everybody knows,
Made her man pay 60 dollars a month,
For the man get all her clothes …
Unfortunately the chorus is only heard faintly in the background for a few moments while Whiteside has a conversation with Hell’s Highway’s token, yet by typical standards underplayed, gay convict, Burgess (Eddie Hart). The story continues as we return to the black prisoners:
Pop Eye went down to the mine house,
He knocked and he rang the door bell,
Come out of there, Frankie, Pop Eye cried, I’m going to blow you straight to--
They all point down as they hum.
You ain’t no good,
Cause you done me wrong.
Six men all dressed up in mourning,
Six men all dressed up in black,
Took Pop Eye’s wife to the graveyard, they did not bring her back,
They buried that gal,
Who done all her men wrong,
She had a good man,
But she done him wrong.
Co-star Clarence Muse is said to have composed a song for Hell’s Highway. I wonder if this may possibly be it? A clipping from the Salt Lake Tribune specifically credits Muse for the “semispiritual Liberty Bond,” but again, I’m not sure if this is it.
By the way, since I mentioned Imitation of Life earlier I’ll add that Hell’s Highway contains yet another Louise Beavers sighting. She shows up on visiting day to meet her husband. That would be Muse, of course.
“You ain’t tired, is ya?” she asks him.
“Sweetheart, you don’t know how tired a man does get when he don’t get no lovin’.”
Visiting day also bring Duke’s mother (Louise Carter) and Johnny’s girl, Mary Ellen (Rochelle Hudson), to the camp. They are only in the movie for a moment, this single scene, but I thought I’d mention it because Louise Carter could soon be seen in a slightly larger role playing Paul Muni’s mother in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Interesting connection!
Richard Dix stars as Duke Ellis in a role Film Daily originally reported that Ricardo Cortez had been tabbed for. The right choice was made here, Hell’s Highway would have been a bit too brutal for the suave Cortez.
It is deep into Hell’s Highway before Duke’s war background is colorfully revealed. By this point the information serves more to explain him than excuse him. That said Duke served in the renowned 167th Infantry of the 42nd Rainbow Division during the war, an honor that probably would have brought an immediate cheer from 1932 crowds rather than the delayed reaction my own confused Googling affords it.
But there’s no doubt Duke has been hardened a lot more than Muni’s Chain Gang character had been since that same war. While the circumstances leading to Duke’s life of crime are never explained in Hell’s Highway it is made clear that he is a habitual offender with zero chance of reform this late in the game.
Duke is civil to Matthew, but they are far from friends. The only goodness we really see from him is in reaction to his family. This is mostly his brother, whose arrival puts Duke in a difficult position as orneriest, toughest, and most respected prisoner in camp. He has to drop that veil a bit because it's obvious that he cares about someone other than himself.
The popular Dix, a former silent star whose career was in fresh bloom after his Oscar nominated lead in 1931’s Best Picture Cimarron (1931), was coming off a couple of crowd pleasers for RKO. He played a former World War I flier turned Hollywood stunt man in The Lost Squadron and was an alcoholic riverboat captain stuck in Manchuria in Roar of the Dragon (1932). He’d follow up Hell’s Highway as star of William A. Wellman’s The Conquerors (1932), an exciting story of the West sweeping several decades with the knock of being a bit too much like Cimarron.
Post Cimarron Dix had a solid stay at RKO from 1931 until his contract expired in 1935, but there were no additional hits of the Academy Award winning film’s caliber during the period. For a fuller biography of Dix I recommend checking out Dan Van Neste’s excellent book about The Whistler series which includes the most complete biography written to date about the square jawed star of the 1920s-40s.
Dix is far and away the star of Hell’s Highway with his name listed on the credits in type about five times the size of everyone else. Tom Brown is competent as his little brother but third billed Rochelle Hudson as Brown's girl doesn't even appear in the film long enough to be worthy of comment. She may have edged out Louise Beavers in screen time.
I’m used to seeing Stanley Fields as a heavy, so this was refreshing, though I kept expecting his prison official to take a bad turn because of my previous experiences. Speaking of villains, I enjoyed C. Henry Gordon more than usual in Hell’s Highway. It’s amusing to see his otherwise sadistic Skinner relax with violin lessons via a correspondence course!
Charles Middleton is interesting as Matthew, who despite the holy aura is unstable enough to be scary. Clarence Muse does his usual thing in a small part and Oscar Apfel doesn’t do a lot to distinguish himself.
The action of the climactic camp break is furious and violent. It moves fast and is filled with gun shot and blazing fire. The aftermath reminded me of Night of the Living Dead (1968) as a posse of townsfolk covered the area around Hell’s Highway in similar manner, rifles over their shoulders stalking what they certainly saw as inhuman prey.
One exception is a boy who shoots one of the men and then stands horrified by the result. Some tears drip from his eyes before he and this three friends turn and run from the scene. The hunt was not the fun and games they had expected. Zombies would have been more satisfying.
Beginning production as Liberty Road, Hell's Highway was a David O. Selznick film during his RKO tenure. Rowland Brown is credited as director but John Cromwell finished the project after Selznick loaned Brown to MGM, for what I’m not sure.
Rowland Brown was primarily a writer, only credited as director on two other films besides Hell’s Highway. He does have some nice writing credits though including source material for The Doorway to Hell (1930) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), each of which would gain him an Oscar nomination. Brown also wrote one of my favorites, The Devil Is a Sissy (1936). He shared a writing credit on Hell’s Highway with Samuel Ornitz and Robert Tasker.
Period reviews for Hell’s Highway seem mixed. The movie appears to have been immediately eclipsed by the film it was trying to beat, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. After Film Daily reviewed it, positively, it didn’t gain another mention. Around the U.S. it was promoted in newspapers through January 1933 with the occasional stray mention after that. Not a long period at all for a movie to make its way through the entire country.
Barring the final couple of minutes, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Hell’s Highway today. If you’ve seen I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang than this is one you want want to miss. And remember, it did come first.
I couldn't find a video release at any time for Hell's Highway. It does air on Turner Classic Movies occasionally as that is where my copy and the accompanying screen shots illustrating this post come from. Surprisingly it is available online for free viewing at the Internet Archive HERE.
- “’Hell’s Highway’ Is Expose of Prison Camps.” Daily Capital News and Post Tribune. 27 Nov 1932: 6. NewspaperArchive. Web. 20 Jan 2013.
- Bogle, Donald. Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams. New York: Ballantine, 2005.
- Hall, Mordaunt. “Hell’s Highway.” New York Times 26 Sep 1932.