HELL`S HIGHWAY (1932 U.S.) D/W: ROWLAND BROWN W: SAMUEL ORNITZ/ROBERT TASKER EXEC P: DAVID O. SELZNICK
Real-life convict and WWI vet "Robert E. Burns" (a pseudonym for the Rev. Vincent G. Burns)`s autobiographical I Was A Fugitive From A Georgia Chain Gang was first serialized in True Detective magazine in 1931. Warners bought the rights to officially adapt it as the classic I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, but RKO managed to get this unauthorized b/w rip-off (that runs just over an hour) into theatres first. It`s not as good, but well worth watching, with some fascinating details left out of the other version. Robert Dix stars as a repeat-offending bank robber doing time on a chain gang road crew. The men are whipped, wear painted white targets on their backs and one dies chained-up in a sweat box. Oscar Apfel (once a very prolific Director who co-helmed features with Cecil B. DeMille and Raoul Walsh) is a corrupt contractor worried about not getting enough work out of his free labourers (of course sadistic warden C. Henry Gordon is getting his cut). Black convicts are segregated when not working (old railroad cars are used as cells with bunks). They include The Basin Street Boys, who sing (but the work songs heard are actually by The Ethude Ethiopia Chorus, also heard in Laurel & Hardy`s PARDON US). Clarence Muse (who appears) is also credited with writing some of the black convict music. Tom Brown co-stars as Dix`s little brother, who turns up at the same prison farm, causing Dix to postpone his planned escape. But there`s a fire and mass breakout in the final reel. Charles Middleton (FLASH GORDON`s Ming!) is fun as a bigamist religious huckster. With Stanely Fields, Louise Beavers, Rochelle Hudson, Warner P. Richmond, Fuzzy Knight, Allan Cavan, Robert Homans, Eddie Hart as a camp gay cook, Frank Marlowe, Bob Perry and former boxer John Lester Johnson (who`s next role was in the infamous OUR GANG short THE KID FROM BORNEO). Director Brown seemed to care about social reform, and was a Wobbly unionist along with Woody Guthrie. Futhermore, Ornitz was later blacklisted as one of The Hollywood Ten. Tasker co-wrote DOCTOR X (from the same year). Val Kilmer later played Burns in the tv movie THE MAN WHO BROKE 1,000 CHAINS.

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