Laughter In Hell (1933)

Film Review

LAUGHTER IN HELL

Release Date: 1933

Studio: Universal

Director: Edward L. Cahn

Starring: Pat O'Brien, Berton Churchill, Douglas Dumbrille

Related Discussion Topic: The Hays Code

Learn about the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, in the Discussion Topics section.

Synopsis

From childhood Barney Slaney has feuded with the slimy Perkins brothers, Grover and Ed. One afternoon, Barney, a railroad engineer, has stopped his train near the work site of the chain gang overseen by Ed Perkins. Perkins hints that Barney's beautiful wife, Marybelle, is seeing another man. One evening soon afterward Barney goes home early and finds Marybelle with Grover Perkins. Barney attacks Grover. Later that evening, Barney visits his father to tell him that he has killed Grover and Marybelle. At his trial the judge is merciful and sentences Barney to life on the chain gang rather than to hanging.

Ed Perkins, the boss of the chain gang, is sadistic and vengeful. Life on the chain gang is brutal. The prisoners spend their days digging up and breaking rock, and their nights confined in small cages inside a large cage. The chain gang is marched out to attend the hanging of four Negros. One by one the men are hanged, and when the rope breaks before the last man has died, he is shot to death. During a yellow fever epidemic, Perkins and the guards transport the chain gang to a small city to bury the fever victims. Under the threat of catching yellow fever themselves and cruelly worked at the burials, the prisoners riot and attack the guards. Barney beats up Perkins and escapes. A day later, Barney stops at a house to ask for food. He finds a young woman, Lorraine, who has been left alone by the deaths of her parents. After Barney burns the infected house, she leaves with him in her father's wagon. They stop for the night at a farm, and tell the farm couple that they are married. Although the farmer realizes that Barney has escaped from the chain gang, he does not turn him over to the sheriff. Eventually Barney and Lorraine reach the state line and cross over into safety for Barney.

Discussion

Except for the happy ending, this film about life on a southern chain gang is as brutal and shocking as the more famous I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). The film is based on a 1932 novel of the same name by Jim Tully (1886-1947), American reporter and novelist. Barney kills his wife and her lover without remorse. The men of the chain gang are subject to harsh and inhumane treatment. The hanging scene is particularly realistic and intense. In an ending that would not have been possible after the code, the double murderer escapes to a presumably happy life with his new sweetheart. Pat O'Brien has a forceful role as the wronged and vengeful husband and chain gang prisoner. Douglas Dumbrille, whose screen characters are often nasty and vindictive, has in Ed Perkins as mean and brutal a character as he ever played.