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Hell's Highway vs. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang


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Both released in the same year, both expositions of the dehumanizing horrors of chain gangs, the two displaying curious contrasts. I Am a Fugitive, based on real events, the more idealized of the two, yet with a bleak ending, iconic in film. Hell's Highway, following a more conventional hollywood storyline, with a happy (relatively) ending, with justice done to the abusive guards and exploiting contractors, with the more realistic, stark depictions of conditions, the housing, the food, the punishment, the negro work songs, and the different personality types of the camps--the stool pigeons, the homosexual sycophants, even a decent guard.


One a monumental artefact of filmmaking, the other a raw, brutal condemnation of inhumanity.


Both Muni and Dix deliver powerful performances, Muni more of character, and ambition--at least at first; Dix more of emotion, and violent decency.

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That's a very good take on the two movies, slayton. As you note, the Muni movie was based on a true story, I Am A Fugitive From A Georgia Chain Gang!, written by Robert Burns, and it stands out as a movie for *NOT* forcing a contrived happy ending on the story. *"I STEAL!"* is an unforgettable last line, uttered in darkness as Muni steals off into the night, and you don't have to have seen the movie half a dozen times to remember it forever. You can count on one hand the number of Hollywood endings with that sort of final note.


Up until the end, the Dix movie is just as brutal and realistic, but then Hollywood steps in. The movies I'd compare Hell's Highway to even more than to Fugitive would be Wild Boys of The Road and Heroes For Sale. Those may be two of the best social dramas made in the entire history of movies, but both of them have those "now that FDR is in the White House, things like this will soon be a thing of the past" messages grafted onto the ending. In both cases you can see the filmmakers' motivation for not wanting to leave their audiences feeling nearly suicidal as they walk out of the theatre, but it does tend to lessen the impact of the message somewhat.

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Yes, Wild Boys of the Road, and Heroes for Sale are both stand outs. They don't involve chain gangs, so that's why they didn't come up. Heroes doesn't have quite the happy ending, with Richard Barthemess being forced to leave his wife and child, but at least he doesn't have his psyche destroyed.

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This doesn't have anything to do with either of the movies on this thread, but I've just been watching Road Gang, and I noticed that the judge (Edward J. LeSaint) who sentenced Donald Woods in that movie also played the judge in Reefer Madness. Since that's one of the great comedies and a longtime favorite of mine, I checked out his filmography and discovered he'd played judges in *26* different movies! I've got to believe that that's some sort of a record.

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What's amusing is your statement that REEFER MADNESS is one of the "great comedies".


It really wasn't supposed to be.


Of course, seeing it now, especially if you're familiar with the subject matter, it DOES come off as a wacky comic romp. But the producers were serious about it's "message".


Now, maybe you can help me out.


One of the guys getting high in the "dope house" was the same actor that can be seen in many of those silly but entertaining PETE SMITH shorts seen often on TCM. The good looking blonde haired guy who is the foil for comic mishap in the Smith reels. In RM, he's seen sitting in a chair, puffing on a "reefer", and laughing maniacally with each puff.


WHAT is that actor's NAME?



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You're quite welcome. He was also in THE DEVIL BAT with Bela Lugosi as well as a writer for Red Skelton. In addition, he had a good run as a B western hero., for a while he was billed as Dave "Tex" O'Brien.

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In fact a former GF and I (she's now a prof at Brooklyn Law School) were the first people to show Reefer Madness outside the AFI in the early 70's, before NORML and New Line Cinema picked up on it. We saw it at the AFI as part of a propaganda festival and were so taken by it we got the Library of Congress to make us a print, and then took it around to college campuses to packed houses. So yeah, I'm well aware that it originally wasn't supposed to be a comedy. ;) Between 1971 and 1972 I saw it so many times that I can recite my favorite lines in my sleep. . . .


*"Gosh! Hot chocolate! Thanks, Mrs. Lane!!"*


"Tell me, was the person killed?

"Fortunately he wasn't, but that's still no excuse for hit and run driving!"


"Why don't you get over that mother complex?"


"There are millions of two bit pieces just begging to be taken. Don't be a dope!"


" All right, Pete. You know what my policy has always been. If the boys aren't satisfied, I'm always glad to have them retire. . . .retire *permanently.* "


"Yes. I remember. Just a young boy... under the influence of drugs... who killed his entire family with an axe."


"What do you want?

" *Bring me some reefers!* "


And while Dave O'Brien later achieved mini-fame by playing in all those Pete Smith shorts, what also strikes me is the uncanny resemblance between "Hot Fingers Pirelli" (the permanently stoned piano player) and Cosmo Kramer in Seinfeld, at least during some of his zanier moments.

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It might be he's looking for evidence of hard work on her palms, but It seems most likely to me it's a gesture of affection, tinged with regret, due to her comment that he'd be the one that has to look after his younger brother, now he's followed in his footsteps to prison.

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In " I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang!", I can't believe the real life character played by Muni could had been that stupid. He lived during a time period in which one could have fell off the face of the Earth!


We got so accustom to living in this tyrannical big brother society this era in the movie is so far forgotten. He was born during the late 1800's where birth certificates were not issued, Social Security are years off. Why did he leave an obvious paper trail in the form of mail?


If he was smart, he would have broken any contact with his family, hard as that would be, changed his name and birth date (so easy back then), got a low profile job and kept his nose clean - in other words stay below radar.


Even if wanted posters are put up, who would took the time to memorized ALL of them unless your crimes i.e. John Dillinger stood out. Does anyone think a cop walking his beat is going to give 2 hoots what happened a thousand miles away? Even today wanted posters are in post offices but who reads them? LOL, the odds any of the wanted would be in your town are about the same as winning the Powerball.


We stand out (information database) because we divulge information they don't need. Jeeze, why do anyone need to know the value of your home when buying a cheap cordless drill at Wal Mart!


The second biggest mistake he made was to trust the government! His lawyer strongly advised him NOT to go back.



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