Hell’s Highway (1932)

Takin’ It Off Here Boss

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Hell’s Highway is the lesser-known chain gang picture from 1932, overshadowed by its more famous counterpart, Warner Bros. I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, however, according to sources, this RKO production was released two months prior to the Warner Bros. picture. There are some notable differences between the two socially-conscience, pre-code films. Unlike I Am A Fugitive…, the majority of Hell’s Highway takes place within the chain gang itself rather than the events leading to the protagonist being imprisoned. Richard Dix stars as Frank ‘Duke’ Ellis, whom unlike Paul Muni’s character in IAAFFAGC, is not an innocent man who has been falsely imprisoned, therefore as a viewer, one’s sympathies lie differently with him. The film cleverly creates sympathy for the character in two ways. Firstly it is established he has been locked up for the crime of bank robbery, which means he isn’t as morally reprehensible as say a murderer. Secondly, he forgoes an escape opportunity when he learns his idolizing younger brother Johnny (Tom Brown) has also been sentenced to the chain gang, thus Duke remains put in order to protect him. Duke is also a World War I veteran; however, the manner in which this is revealed is a brilliant piece of visual storytelling. In a scene in which Duke has been tied up to receive a whipping on the back, the guard is apprehensive about doing so. The camera then pans to Duke’s shirtless back to reveal a giant Tattoo of the American flag accompanied by the text “42nd Machine Gun Co, 167th INF.”, as the screen then fades to black – powerful stuff. Dix himself is a silent-era holdover and like his contemporary’s such as Richard Barthelmess, he has an intense presence and a face which is able to convey so much.

While Duke Ellis is a man who has been rightfully locked up, Hell’s Highway does raise the question of when does the punishment outdo the crime? When does punishment become even too hardcore for the likes of Dirty Harry – a system which has prisoners are in bondage the majority of the day, even as they sleep and eat in the mess hall. One of the most distinguishing images in Hell’s Highway is the prison uniforms which have a target on the back of them, a target for prison guards or bounty hunters to aim at as seen later in the film (however, I can’t find any real-life example of these uniforms actually existing). Likewise, the trousers worn by the prisoners have flaps on their rear ends, looking like an exposed diaper and another way (whether intentional or not) of removing dignity from these men. However, it’s the sweat box which is the most inhumane piece of torture present in the film. Alec Guinness might have survived one on the River Kwai but here it is a death sentence, as occurs early in the picture as indicated by the haunting sound of a crying dog (although one minor criticism I would deliver is from this moment having its impact weakened as a character immediately explains the dog’s crying means someone has died rather than just allowing the moment speak for itself).

Hell’s Highway opens with a prologue stating “Dedicated to an early end of the conditions portrayed herein – which though a throwback to the Middle Ages, actually exists today”, followed by a montage of newspaper headlines covering abuses taking place in chain gangs across the states. I am unable to find any evidence these headlines are real. For example, one of them reads “Prison Guards Accused Of Murder As Tortured Youth Dies Chained In Sweat Box” from the Seattle Post, a publication of which I can’t find any evidence of actually existing. Regardless, this along with the haunting acapella of chain gang singers over the opening credits sets the tone for the film. These chain gang chants serve as the film’s diegetic soundtrack (with prolific composer Max Steiner acting as the picture’s music director), which is put to its most effective use during a memorable montage which is accompanied by sketches made by prisoners depicting previous events in the film.

Hell’s Highway is one dirty, sweaty film full of fascinating, rugged faces which say a thousand words. Firstly I have to ask is the character of Maxie (Sandy Roth) supposed to look like the film’s producer David O. Selznick? Furthermore, it wouldn’t be a pre-code film without an overtly homosexual man thrown in; a prisoner who does what else, cooks the food and does the laundry.  Moreover, the head guard of the chain gang, Mr. Skinner (C. Henry Gordan) has a moustache primed for twirling. However, throughout the course of the film, he is seen trying to learn the violin in his downtime – a corny but effective way to make him more human and show he has a soft side. However, if the film has one show stealer it has to be religious/spiritual prisoner Mathew, a man who claims to be Christian despite having three wives at once and an expansive knowledge of astrology (of which he highfalutin, astrological predictions do come true throughout the film). When I first watched Hell’s Highway I had to know who this actor was a dead ringer for Harry Dean Stanton (or certainty in this picture at least). It turns out the actor is known as Charles Middleton, whose biggest claim to fame was playing Ming With Merciless in three Flash Gordon serials made between 1936-1940.

Hell’s Highway concludes with justice actually being served by the film’s end in which the Of Michigan State Governor arrives at the chain gang prison to issue injunctions against the corrupt prison officials for their violation of state law (although it is not stated where the film is actually set until ¾ into the picture). The Governor himself is presented in one of the most comically, stereotypical images of an American authority figure (usually a southerner but not always the case as seen here) wearing the Col. Sanders white suit, hat, shoes and the black bow tie. The ending is another major deviation from I Am A Fugitive…, which does not conclude in such a manner with everything being neatly tied up. It’s not a bad ending by any means, but I do feel the film’s impact could have been stronger with justice not remaining delivered at the end. Regardless, perspective viewers can find this pre-code gem on the Warner Archive Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume 9.

Thirteen Women (1932)

Mean Girls

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Aeons before the likes of Michael, Jason, Freddy or even Norman there was Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy).Thirteen Women is one of the earliest prototypes of the slasher film (made at a time when most horror movies featured supernatural creatures) in which the half-Hindu, half-Javanese Ursula (even though Georgi is a name of European origin) seeks revenge on her former high school peers due to their racist mistreatment through the use of horoscopes which don’t predict a happy or successful future. Whether or not Loy actually enjoyed doing exotic roles such as this during her early career, she remains professional and doesn’t phone it in. I delight at that stoic dialogue she delivers and when she gives you that blank stare you know you’re done for, not to mention she goes through many a memorable costume change throughout the film’s short runtime.

Throughout the picture Ursula has control over her victims, leading them to commit suicide. However, the film does not make it clear if she has supernatural mind control abilities (“I was his brain as I am yours”) or simply can just manipulate her victims though psychological means as the film’s opening prologue appears to imply: 

 “Suggestion is a very common occurrence in the life of every normal individual…

…waves of certain types of crime, waves of suicide are to be explained by the power of suggestion upon certain types of mind.”

Pages 94 and 105 of Applied Psychology by Professors Hollingsworth and Hoffenberger, Columbia University.

The extent of the mistreatment towards Ursula is not made clear. In her final monologue at the film’s climax, Ursula speaks of she tried to become white and it was almost in her hands when the sorority of girls wouldn’t let her “cross the colour line”, subsequently followed by the sorority’s leader Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne) acknowledging their cruel treatment. The film’s racial subject matter was frank for the time – this was after all when screen star Merle Oberon was hiding her mixed-race origins from the public.

Thirteen Women is an oddity in the career of Irene Dunne, being her only macabre picture in a filmography of generally light-hearted fare. Laura is the only woman in the sorority who attempts not to act so gullible and take superstitions seriously (not to mention she has one fine Beverly Hills Home). Thirteen Women is an example of a female ensemble film yet oddly all the women in the picture are comprised of divorced and single mums – there are no husbands insight and even the one who is married shoots her hubby at the beginning of the film.

Thirteen Women doesn’t disappoint with those to be expected pre-code shocker moments from the circus acrobat accident in the film’s beginning to Ursula going as far as to send poisonous chocolate and later a bomb disguised as a birthday present to kill Laura’s child. The film’s atmosphere is also aided with an exotic score by Max Steiner (topped with plenty of gongs thrown in there for good measure) at a time when most movies seldomly used scored music. Steiner would go onto compose King Kong the following year at RKO and the rest is history.

Thirteen Women’s biggest claim to fame is the film being the only on-screen appearance of the elusive Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by hanging herself on the Hollywood sign, shortly before the Thirteen Women was released – ironically the only film she appeared in had suicide as a major theme. According to the book Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide, Entwistle’s role as Mrs Hazel Cousins was central to the first 22 minutes of the film in which she was involved in a lesbian love affair leading to the murder of her jealous husband. In the 59 minute cut of the film, Entwistle is only on screen for a few minutes in which during that time she locks arms with another woman (her love affair?) and later shoots her husband and then screams at what she has just done. Thirteen Women originally ran at 73 minutes however the likely watered-down 59-minute cut is the only version currently known to exist. Perhaps somewhere out there exists a 73 minute print of Thirteen Women, regardless of what we are left with is still an entertaining hour. Perhaps future cult classic status is still in the waiting for Thirteen Women.

Men In White (1934)

Medical Melodrama

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Initially I was skeptical at weather Clark Gable would make a convincing doctor but not only does he pull it off (even if he is the most gorgeous doctor ever *swoons) Men In White has to be my favourite performance I’ve seen him deliver portraying the young, idealistic and dignified Dr. George Ferguson; 60 years before George Clooney in ER. Men In White is a perfect showcase of what Gable is capable off while Myrna Loy, although not dominating the film as much still shares a mature romance with Gable, who must make difficult decisions between his profession and his love life. Rest assured I got the satisfactory amount of swooning I would expect from a pairing of these two.

I cannot stress enough just how astounding Men In White looks. This is without a doubt most stunning black & white film I’ve seen from the 1930’s. Every scene is light so immaculately with multi-layered and angled shots plus the widespread use of shadows giving the film shades of noir. Even the classic noir shot of the shadows created by blind shutters onto one’s face to show they have become imprisoned in life is present. Likewise, the art deco design of the hospital itself would likely not be practical in real life but it sure as hell looks good; needless to say the removal of eyes from the screen is easier said than done. The film’s set designer was Cedric Gibbons, a regular at MGM who helped create the distinctive look of their films in the 1930’s and surely Men In White is one of his greatest achievements.

Movies like this where common in the 1930’s, glorifying those who held jobs central to society (Tiger Shark, Night Flight, Slim). Call them propaganda but they were effective and informative. Although I don’t have any major interest in medicine or healthcare (despite both my parents being nurses) Men In White gives a real sense of awe and wonder to medical world such as when Dr. McCabe (Henry B. Walthall) the elder doctor who gives a rousing speech at the beginning of the film on all the medical advances in his lifetime (anesthesia, sterilization, surgery, x-ray) and the figures behind them. We’ve come much further since 1934, certainly when it comes to the etiquette of the doctors on display. In one scene a doctor hits on a nurse in the open for everyone else to hear while other doctors have no problem openly talking about their sex lives (“Being in love kills your sex life”). There is even one scene in which a doctor is running through the public area of the hospital wearing only a towel! If that happened today it would be all over the tabloids.

Men In White paints a picture of just how demanding a job being a doctor is, working round the clock; Dr. Ferguson works 16-18 hours a day for $20 a week (in 1934 or course). His finance Laura (Myrna Loy) has a selfish streak to her, getting frustrated with Ferguson when he’s only doing his job and one which is detrimental to saving the lives of others. Additionally Jean Hersholt (Hollywood’s great Dane and an actor who has that look of great intellect) as Ferguson’s mentor pressure’s George to put greater priority to his career than his love life. The film’s ending isn’t so predictable having me question whether or not George and Laura will still be together come the end.

Men In White also showcases corruption which can exist within hospitals when a superior doctor knowingly gives a child too much insulin, only for Dr. Ferguson to interfere even if it puts his job on the line. Once the child recovers from the insulin overdose, the superior doctor takes the credit – douche. The child, however, thanks and hugs Dr. Ferguson at the end of the film in what I feel is the movie’s most inspiring moment. Gable isn’t playing a brute here like he often does but rather someone who can project a level of warmth especially with his interaction with his child patient.

The scene in which Dr. Ferguson and the English nurse Barbara Den (Elizabeth Allen) are bonding over their loneliness and then start kissing is a breathtaking sequence. This leads to the most daring aspect of Men In White, the inclusion of abortion in the film’s plot. When I first watched the film I didn’t catch on that the big surgery scene itself was the result of a failed back alley abortion as the film’s hints are very subtle; it’s all in the undertones of the movie. That’s one reason why Men In White is worth re-watching; distinguishing what’s being said and shown versus what is really going on. If anything this is much more fun and satisfying having the movie simply spell everything out to the viewer.

When it is discovered Nurse Den attempted to get an abortion it is simply alluded to that she has a condition worse than a ruptured appendix and before the surgery itself Dr. Ferguson is questioned, “who is the man?”. It’s not made clear if the child being terminated is the result of the affair between Ferguson and Den, however, before their fling she is seen feeling unwell. Although I can’t comment of how accurate a depiction Men In White is of the medical profession I was still amazed at the level of detail in the movie from the terminology to the wide range of instruments used. One particular moment which stood out to me was the rigorously high level of sanitization the staff must go through prior to surgery. The film has an economic length of only 73 minutes but packs so much content. I’d happily become ill just to go to this hospital.