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Sunday, May 03, 2020

Richard Dix A Prisoner On An RKO Chain Gang

Pure Precode Hell On Earth

There's a target on Richard Dix's back as he and convicts break loose from chain gang hell-hole in an unspecified state that could be Anywhere, USA. From whence came sudden interest in prison exposes? Maybe Depression dwellers took to identifying with men locked up. Anyway, there was movement toward reforms, if not at state government level, then in theatres at least where crowds got roused over right guys like Dix or Paul Muni done wrong by a cruel system. Note these ads, some all but calling for social revolution. How close were we to forced overthrow? You'd think by RKO's salesmanship that the company was behind whatever self-help an aggrieved public might take to fix broken wheel that was 30's America. Business was bad anyway ... maybe a revolution would sort stuff out. Photoplay warned, Leave the children at home, but kids packed particularly for precode, theatres a school that taught harsh reality of the Crash and its consequences. As in other desperate times, people sometimes stole to eat, so it was presumed that many other than hard criminals filled prisons. In other words, what happens to Dix and company could happen to anyone.

The deck was stacked even higher in Warner's I Am A Prisoner From A Chain Gang, where Paul Muni is pure victim from a start and we're meant to feel every stroke of whips that lash him. At least Hell's Highway, which came first by a few months, is more honest in letting its Richard Dix lead be an unrepentant bank robber who is sympathetic for being more cunning than his captors. Director Rowland Brown knew his way around hardship. Little is known of him outside terse style and way with writing more striking even than he accomplished as helmsman. Brown could heat up where he saw efforts compromised, outcome of Hell’s Highway causing him to demand his name be taken off it. Like so many great ideas at a start, this one, said Hollywood Filmograph, “was lost between the front office and the cutting room.” Interesting how a thing we’d call more than satisfactory could so displease those who poured life blood into what they’d forever regard a botch. Here is why writers, directors were so often nonplussed by years-later interviewers wanting them to recall “classics” from their past. They unfortunately, knew too well how their effort should have turned out.

Directing Rowland Brown signed but three features, flamed out early, possibly over an incident where he is said to have decked a studio exec. That may have happened at Metro, where Brown was slated to follow up Hell’s Highway with a vehicle for Jean Harlow. He got known for starting projects, then quitting in pique over one-or-another “principle” being challenged or betrayed. Brown was recognized as a tough guy, said to have boxed with Dempsey and maybe got in some damaging licks to the champ. Also whispered was Brown being chummy with gangland elements … could this be why his crime mellers played so authentic? (Quick Millions, The Doorway To Hell) The Harlow job didn’t materialize, for reasons left obscure. Even closest friends couldn’t fully figure Brown out. Less sympathetic observers said he was a Communist whose writing agitated against a system already fragile. I read John C. Tibbett’s fine career essay on Brown and noted that the writer-director had four children. Have any of them spoken up about their father and his work? Or maybe they assume no one would remember him. Unfortunately, that does seem to be largely the case.

Mock-Up Prison Front For This Showman's Hell's Highway Engagement

Did movies like Hell’s Highway and Blood Money incite revolt? Maybe if they had been wider seen, they would have. Today, you could barely find any of Brown’s three directorial efforts with a divining rod. Hell’s Highway shows up occasional on TCM, but, appropriate for his output, Quick Millions and Blood Money are tough to quality-fine even if you have a good DVD bootlegger. Brown being largely MIA is precode’s loss, to be sure. As a writer, he would resurface with The Devil Is A Sissy and Angels With Dirty Faces to remind an industry how much real life (his own?) could enhance otherwise formula melodrama, but here’s another rub … Angels With Dirty Faces is now withdrawn and isn’t shown anywhere. A disc can be had from a years-back “Gangster” box from Warners, but being off TCM is a gaping hole their legal department should address.

Ultra-Iconoclast Rowland Brown with Spencer Tracy on the Quick Millions Set.

Despite being “a specially exploited production” for RKO (The New Movie Magazine), Hell’s Highway was "too morbid and brutal," said trades, Hollywood Filmograph speculating of producer David Selznick, “You can bet all the tea from here to China that he will try hard to fix this sick sister before he even thinks of anything else.” The mag also passed word that writing director Rowland Brown wanted his name taken off Hell's Highway, so unhappy was he with RKO finished product. Hell's Highway was inexpensive (negative cost: $272K), giving it a roughhewn integrity. The pic wasn't so obvious at hammering home a social message as I Am A Fugitive, which perhaps was a better picture, but not a more austere one. As if to confirm an era's certainty that you just can't win, Hell's Highway lost money ($50K), mostly on account of very poor foreign receipts. We could hardly expect folks over there to concern themselves with US prison conditions.

To be specific, said International Photographer, it was Florida incidents that inspired Hell’s Highway, including recent and newsworthy strangulation of a prisoner bound up in a “sweatbox,” circumstances in the drama “identical with” what was permitted to happen in the Sunshine State. The columnist expressed little hope that Hell’s Highway could make a difference: “It is not likely the circulation and showing of these subjects will result in any reformation of the practices exposed.” Already on notice of the upcoming Warners pic (I Am A Fugitive …), Georgia exhibs got skittish to book Hell’s Highway. Would state authorities step in? Variety reassured, “No unusual reaction either way when (the) film was screened.” You could wonder how much plumping went on among studios to make their product controversial, hopefully enough to inspire effort at suppression that could win wider (and free) publicity. I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang got in on some of that action, thanks to based-on-fact narrative and its principal character still being a wanted man (who even met with press where they could be snuck before him). Hell’s Highway was heir to nothing like this sort of luck.

Family Man Richard Dix Helps Celebrate His Parents' Golden Wedding Anniversary

Were films really anything more than occasional bee stings to annoy politicians and lawmakers? A Hell’s Highway, if anything, came and went too fast in a crowded marketplace to exert much impact. Planted press said that Hell's Highway "will arouse humanity," and we may assume it at least embarrassed backwood enclaves that used convicts for slave labor and tortured them for their trouble. Sugar Coated? Hell, No!, said ads that must have raised eyebrows when submitted to local editors. It wasn't unknown for a sheet to reject theatre bally too overheated. You had to balance needed sensation against innocent eyes reading, but how innocent was anyone circa 1932 with daily access to stops-off precode? What shocked was promotion that shouted, So This Is America!, and asked what we were going to do about it. Unemployed? Broke? Then you are guilty! You can be convicted of vagrancy and sold into slavery ... right here in America. Now this sort of hyperbole went far enough beyond even narrative of Hell's Highway to make you wonder what sort of social engineers were at work for RKO in 1932.

Promoting for Hell's Highway anticipated horror movies to come, but for reality it proposed to depict. Showmen were invited to construct torture devices in the lobby, lead bloodhounds through the streets, and confront patronage with a "Sweat Box" that could be entrance-displayed or put on a truck bed for citywide ballyhoo. Wax figures were proposed to hang the lifeless on whipping posts and stocks, though merchandisers left leeway for human volunteers to take lobby punishment: The use of live men as a ballyhoo in these devices is debatable. It is something for the theatre manager's judgment to decide. Avoid any chance of an endurance sitter becoming exhausted in such a stunt. Putting men on streets in chains and ankle irons, the requisite target painted on shirt backs, was good as well for publicity. You wonder if a lot of this might have terrified business away from theatres. Certainly it needed stern stuff to submit to Hell's Highway after onslaught of such promotion.


Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

Hi John. Where can I find Tibbett's essay on Brown? Thanks.

3:50 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

It is a chapter in the book, "Between Action and Cut: Five American Directors," edited by Frank Thompson, and published by Scarecrow Press.

4:16 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Saw this once circa 1989, and found it shocking; one of my first pre-code crime movies. And is this the one where Dix casually spits out a stream of toothpaste? That really took me by surprise.

Those ballyhoo suggestions almost seem like parodies of the real thing. This is the kind of stuff I'll show my daughter, just to see her reaction. It never gets old!

1:05 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Hi John,
Just want to say thanks for your continuing posts during this pandemic. One of the few normal things I can look forward to these days. But I'm lucky enough to be able to work from home so I have no complaints. Hats off to you and Glen Ericson! Mike D

10:54 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Appreciate your generous thought, Mike D. Writing has never been so therapeutic for me as it is these days. Glad to know it can offer you some enjoyment.

3:32 PM  

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