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Laughter in Hell USA 1933

Posted by keith1942 on August 9, 2016

obrien-muse-laughter-hell1

This film was part of the programme of Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year. The film and its director, Edward L. Cahn, were new to me. The film is from the period before the Hollywood Production Code came into full effect. It does not seem to have had a UK release. It is a film that followed on from the release and success of I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), and features the same notorious penal system. However, this is a far more brutal depiction and, I suspect, a more realistic one.

The basic plot line is structured around Barney Slaney played by Pat O’Brien, in one of his best performances. We first meet Barney as a young boy and the victim of bullying by the older and bigger Perkin brothers. Through hard study and graft Barney becomes an engineer on the railroad. He also wins the hand of Marybelle (Merna Kennedy) over the competition of Ed Perkins (Douglas Dumbrille]. Marybelle’s wayward behaviour leads to murder and Barney’s condemnation to the chain gang. The prison camp to which he is sentenced is run by Ed’s surviving brother Grover Perkins. So Barney becomes a victim of Grover’s persecution.

But what stands out in the film is the racist treatment of the predominately black prisoners. This is depicted in the film with both skill and quite shocking images. The prisoners are housed in wagons with metal bars, and this seems to be where they eat and sleep. The work routines are savage as is the enforcement of discipline. There is a powerful sequence where a black prisoner is hanged/lynched by Grover and the guards.

A cholera epidemic sees the prisoners forced to act as undertakers, collecting and burying the bodies of the victims. It is here that their pent-up resistance explodes in a powerful and fast cut sequence. This enables Barney to escape, though it appears that most of the black prisoners die in the episode. The later sequences of the films are quieter as Barney attempts to flee the state [and therefore the State jurisdiction] and make a new life. The ending here is ambiguous.

The film, especially in the prison camp sequences, offers striking black and white imagery, carefully controlled camera work and [for certain sequences] some very fast and effective editing. The Festival Catalogue notes:

“There is hardly a sequence in the film that is not marked by Cahn’s visual invention, which includes such innovations as a startlingly advanced us of slam zooms to portray Barney’s murderous rage.” (David Kehr).

Scenes involving violence and the chain gang also often use acute camera angles for emphasis. And there are also expressionist touches, as in the sequence of rebellion, and in some of the later scenes of Barney’s odyssey.

The film was adapted from a 1932 novel by Jim Tully, also known as the ‘hobo novelist’. It seems that the film softened the ending found in the novel. Tully’s autobiographical  ‘Beggars of Life’ was filmed in 1928 at Paramount and offered another subversive treatment of  crime and law and order in the period.

Edward Cahn had started in the industry in 1917 and worked as an editor before progressing to direction. This presumably accounts for the very effective editing in the film. The quality, and possibly the too close to real-life narrative,  of this film did not help his career. The Catalogue motes that,

“Cahn immediately vanished from Universal’s roster, resurfacing two years later at the Poverty Row studio Mascot – the beginning of a wildly prolific career as a B-director that extended into the early 60s.” (David Kehr).

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One Response to “Laughter in Hell USA 1933”

  1. popegrutch said

    Of course, to a long-time Psychotronics fan like myself, the name Edward L. Cahn is quite familiar. How typical for a film festival to snootily dismiss the genius of “Dragstrip GIrl” and “Invasion of the Saucer Men!”

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