|Laughter in Hell: Marybelle Evans (Merna Kennedy) and Barney Slaney (Pat O'Brien) and the precious watch that means much to him.|
US 1933. D: Edward L. Cahn. Based on: dall’omonimo romanzo di Jim Tully. SC: Tom Reed. Cinematography: John Stumar. ED: Philip Cahn. C: Pat O’Brien (Barney Slaney), Merna Kennedy (Marybelle Evans), Berton Churchill (Mike Slaney), Gloria Stuart (Lorraine), Arthur Vinton (Grover Perkins), Clarence Muse (Jackson), Douglas Dumbrille (Ed Perkins). P: Carl Laemmle Jr. per Universal Pictures Corp. [The film was not released in Finland]. 35 mm. 70’. B&w.
US © 1933 Universal Pictures
Print from Universal Pictures
Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna
Universal Pictures: The Laemmle Junior Years
E-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra
Cinema Jolly, 27 June 2016
Dave Kehr (Bologna catalog): "This astonishing film had been forgotten in the vaults until a new print was created in 2013 for an academic conference on the work of the ‘hobo novelist’ Jim Tully (Beggars of Life). A rising star at Universal, the director Edward L. Cahn (Afraid to Talk) had clearly earned the trust of Junior Laemmle, who allowed him to create one of the most radical works – politically and stylistically – to emerge from that adventuresome studio."
"Pat O’Brien’s Barney Slaney is a railroad engineer who, in an echo of La Bête humaine, murders his unfaithful wife when he catches her with her lover – one of three brothers who have tormented Barney since his childhood. Condemned to a chain gang (where he witnesses a brutal, racially-motivated lynching), he eventually escapes, only to find himself wandering alone through a bleak, lunar landscape – an Expressionist wasteland ravaged by plague and poverty. Redemption seems briefly possible when he meets another refurgee, a young woman (Gloria Stuart) who has lost her family to the spreading disease, but their happiness is only an interlude."
"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 use of slam zooms to portray Barney’s murderous rampage. The final sequences seem Bergmanese in their bleakness and despair, though the sudden suspension of the narrative at a key moment suggests that the end of Barney’s story, at least as Tully wrote it, was too desolate even for Laemmle. 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." – Dave Kehr
|Laughter in Hell. Lorraine (Gloria Stuart) heals the horse whip wounds on the back of Barney (Pat O'Brien).|
AA: Edward L. Cahn, whom Dave Kehr has been championing, is generally known as a director of Our Gang comedy shorts and 1950s exploitation films, most famously It! The Terror Beyond Space, but we have been also aware of his caliber as a director of distinguished work such as Law and Order, a tough Pre-Code version of the Wyatt Earp saga. Thus Laughter in Hell is a revelation as a film and a confirmation of Cahn's talent.
Like Dave Kehr states above there is an affinity with Émile Zola's La Bête humaine in the murderous rage of Pat O'Brien as the engine driver in a role similar to the film adaptations made later by Jean Renoir with Jean Gabin and Fritz Lang with Glenn Ford. There is even an earlier model for the train madness section: Abel Gance's La Roue, but Gance's lightning fast montages are superior to Cahn's.
There is an old family feud between the Slaney and Perkins families. We start with a prologue about Barney's childhood (Edison's Multiphone is introduced as a novelty, and Barney's mother is buried), and then cut forward to the young man Barney who receives a valuable watch as a sign of manhood and his promotion to an engine driver. He is married to his sweetheart Marybelle, but soon the happiness is disrupted by a lover, Grover, one of the Perkins brothers. In a murderous rage Barney kills both Grover Perkins and Marybelle and surrenders to the sheriff expecting to be executed. Instead, he faces a fate worse than death in the chain gang, in hard labour, with Ed Perkins as boss warden.
Immediately Ed crushes Barney's watch with a ball and chain. "You won't be needing to know what time it is any longer". When a fellow prisoner escapes and though he is caught and killed also Barney is punished brutally as a suspected accomplice with a horse whip by Ed Perkins personally. During a prisoners' mutiny on a graveyard worksite Barney manages to escape. He meets a lonely girl called Lorraine (Gloria Stuart) on a desolate farmhouse where everyone has died of plague (qf. the introduction of Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life, also based on a story by the hobo novelist Jim Tully). "I'm from nowhere" is how Barney introduces himself.
They start on their way on a horse driven cart and find shelter with a family. Everyone notices that Barney has no experience with horses and carts. The old man is a veteran of the Civil War. Among their dinner guests is the sheriff who is aware of an arrest warrant for escaped prisoners. In the thrilling sequence probably everyone senses what Barney is. But nobody stops him, and Barney and Lorraine continue to the north. The film ends abruptly.
Whatever happened to the film and why the career of Edward L. Cahn at Universal suddenly ended after it remains a mystery, but much of the film is exceptional and alarming. The storytelling in Barney's saga is not completely believable; there is much that is abrupt and without full development. Among the remarkable features of the film is the account of the black prisoners. Their story is a saga of slavery and brutally hard work. They are deeply religious, and they are treated like animals. Suspected of having poisoned a bloodhound three of them are executed by hanging in a forest of falling autumn leaves.
There is no credited composer, but the music in the opening credits and the trial sequence is powerful and impressive (stock music? themes from the classical repertory?). There are also extended passages of negro spirituals, including, most memorably, in the hanging sequence where the convicts face death singing. I was not able to identify the spirituals except "Goin' Home" from Dvořák's New World Symphony. There is also an engine driver's song; and Marybelle sings and plays the piano.
The cinematography by John Stumar is strong and bold, also in sequences shot in the dark.
The print is first rate.