Saturday, March 26, 2016

Tonight's Movie: Hell's Highway (1932) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Last week the Warner Archive announced a new Forbidden Hollywood set is coming in April!

Forbidden Hollywood Volume 10 will contain GUILTY HANDS (1931), THE MOUTHPIECE (1932), SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE (1932), THE MATCH KING (1932), and EVER IN MY HEART (1933).

The Archive also said that Volume 10 will be the last in the series, adding "There are many more pre-code releases in the offing, but we thought it best to end this series on a high note, with a great 10th and final volume. We trust that fans will be pleased."

The news prompted me to return to the Archive's Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9 set. I've previously reviewed BIG CITY BLUES (1932) and I SELL ANYTHING (1934) from this collection, and tonight I watched Richard Dix in HELL'S HIGHWAY (1932).

I've gradually come to admire Dix as I've seen a number of his films over the past couple years, with favorites including THE PUBLIC DEFENDER (1931), IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD (1937), and TOMBSTONE: THE TOWN TOO TOUGH TO DIE (1941).

HELL'S HIGHWAY is a different kind of film altogether, with Dix playing a convict suffering inhumane conditions while working on a chain gang. The prisoners are building a "Liberty Highway," aka Hell's Highway.

Duke Ellis (Dix) plans to escape the chain gang, when his kid brother Johnny (Tom Brown) unexpectedly arrives at the camp as the newest prisoner...and Duke knows he needs to stick around to ensure his brother's survival.

In all honesty this movie, which purports to depict conditions which were still common in that time, is a gritty film which isn't especially pleasant to watch. A scene where an injured man is tortured to death in a "sweat box" had me hitting the fast-forward on my remote.

A card at the beginning of the film says it was made to call attention to such inhumane conditions, but while it may have served that purpose well, I'm not sure whether I'd call it precisely "entertainment." In fact, the original 1932 New York Times review said the movie "fails by being overeager to horrify audiences."

In its favor, the film's short 62-minute running time does help make it more bearable. And although I wasn't very enthused about the story, Dix is simply superb as the tough convict, and I was glad I saw the film for that reason. He completely sells his part as a man who can take the worst and dish it right back, but who has a soft spot for his little brother. Dix continues to grow in my estimation.

Brown is also good in the younger role; he's an appealing juvenile lead, in contrast with the annoying Eric Linden of the set's BIG CITY BLUES.

Charles Middleton has a good part as a somewhat loony preacher, channeling John Carradine. The cast also includes Rochelle Hudson, Stanley Fields, Fuzzy Knight, Clarence Muse, Louise Carter, and C. Henry Gordon. Watch for Louise Beavers in a one-scene role.

Also of note is the soundtrack of spirituals, sung by the Etude Ethiopian Chorus. The music gives the film a real sense of style, and setting aside my reservations about the plot, the music and Richard Dix are good reasons to see the movie.

HELL'S HIGHWAY was directed by Rowland Brown and filmed by Edward Cronjager.

The disc is a good print. There are no extras.

There are two additional films in this set, THE CABIN IN THE COTTON (1932) and WHEN LADIES MEET (1933), which will be reviewed at a future date.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD collection. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the WBShop.


Blogger KC said...

I'm so excited for Forbidden Hollywood v. 10! A great selection this time around. I'm sorry it's the last volume, but it's probably best to do that while they still have a lot great titles to release. Always go out on top! I know WA is good about regularly releasing individual pre-codes too. I've also come to admire Richard Dix over the past year or so, even searching out a few of his movies to see more of him. I enjoyed the first film in his Whistler series. I especially liked him in Hell's Highway, even though I agree that it is a tough movie to watch. It's his performance, and a couple of bits of humor that make it all mostly bearable.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

A real tempter here, Laura! I've never managed to see this film and your review really makes me want to! I kind of like 'gritty' and 'tough' films so it should appeal.
So glad also to see Richard Dix getting recognition now. Fine actor and a long-time favourite of mine.

12:58 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

KC, it's great to know you've also been discovering Richard Dix. I had hoped to see a couple of WHISTLER movies at UCLA in January but was felled by the flu. I have them on disc, though, thanks to Jerry, and will be checking them out!

I very much agree, though I found the plot a bit shocking -- I didn't even mention the targets on the backs of the uniforms! LOL -- I'm glad I saw it because it deepened my appreciation of Dix.

Looking forward to Volume 10! And I need to get Volume 6 at some point, it's the only one in the entire series I don't have yet!

Jerry, if you like gritty movies, you should really like this one, given how much you like Richard Dix. If you get the chance to see it I'd love to know what you think.

Best wishes,

3:28 PM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

By coincidence, I saw this one last week as well. Like you say, very fast moving, and well-acted. Dix is rather a powerhouse, Charles Middleton always adds that extra something to his characters, and I also find Tom Brown a likeable juvenile.

Interesting to note that while the age of Brown's character was given as 18 (in order for him to be tried as an adult, I guess), the actor was actually only 17. The IMDB uses the date (1913) Brown gave to the studio, but his birth, death, and army records give his actual year of birth as 1915. The reason behind these discrepancies is revealed in a 1970's interview Brown gave:

"I lied about my age because I didn't want to have a welfare worker on the set. You see, this law had just gone into effect at that time. Here I was doing young leading men's roles — love scenes and everything — and I just couldn't take it to make these love scenes and have a welfare worker sitting on the set because I was a minor, so I said I was nineteen."

9:02 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for adding your thoughts, Maricatrin, how great you just watched it also. I agree with you on all those actors.

Wonderful details about Brown's age -- thank you for adding that!

Best wishes,

1:18 PM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

You're welcome! And you can guess who I've been researching the last few days;-) There are only so many people I can share obscure trivia like this with, so... you were elected (lol).

7:08 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

:) :) :)


5:22 PM  

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