US Release Date: 01-30-1932
Directed by: Howard Higgin
- Bette Davis, as
- Peggy Gardner
- Pat O'Brien, as
- Matt Kelly
- Junior Durkin, as
- Jimmy Mason
- Frank Coghlan Jr., as
- Emma Dunn, as
- Emma Clark
- Charley Grapewin as
- Henry Clark
Hell’s House was a low-budget, 13 day quickie from 1932. In a style that was popular during the depths of the Great Depression, it is a morality tale that shines a light on the deplorable conditions and abuses in the nations’ reform schools. Much as I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang did for Southern chain gangs that same year. Only that movie and its impact were far superior to this one.
Bette Davis is top billed but plays a supporting character. She was just 23 years old and newly arrived in Hollywood from the New York stage. This was just her sixth movie appearance but she already possessed her screen presence and many of her famous mannerisms such as the way she stood and walked. She plays Pat O’Brien’s girlfriend Peggy.
Pat O’Brien plays a bootlegger named Matt Kelly. He gives a recently orphaned teenaged boy named Jimmy a job but fails to tell him illegal whisky is involved. He then proceeds to let the boy take the rap for him when Jimmy is busted at Kelly’s “office”. When he refuses to give the police Kelly’s name Jimmy is sentenced to 3 years in a reform school. One thing this movie proves is that Pat O’Brien was no leading man. He seems stiff and uncomfortable. He was much better later in his career playing priests and cops in supporting parts.
Junior Durkin gives a heartfelt if slightly melodramatic performance as Jimmy. He bonds with another boy named Shorty while in the reform school. They have a friendship that borders on the homoerotic with Shorty constantly calling Jimmy his “Big Boy”. Shorty winds up in solitary confinement after getting caught trying to sneak a letter out for Jimmy that would inform Kelly and Peggy of the conditions and abuse they are being subjected to. They get lousy food and have to work at hard labor stacking bricks for long periods of time. Punishments consist of beatings and of being forced to stand in one spot and stare at a line on a wall for hours.
The main thrust of the plot consists of whether or not Kelly will do the noble thing and help Jimmy out by taking the rap for the bootleg whisky. There are two good emotional scenes, one between Jimmy and Shorty in the reform school and the other at the end of the movie between Kelly and Jimmy.
1932 produced many great movies but this isn’t one of them. The camera work is sloppy and the script weak. It’s an obvious rush job and not surprisingly flopped at the box office. Even the title is bad. Hell's House sounds like a horror movie. There is one unexpectedly amusing moment. Charley Grapewin plays Jimmy’s Uncle Henry, 7 years before playing Dorothy’s Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz. Guess what his wife’s name is? That’s right. In one scene Jimmy tells his friend to call Uncle Henry and Aunt Emma.
Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien and Junior Durkin in Hell's House.
This is possibly the only movie I've ever seen where I actually thought Bette Davis was attractive. She manages to make a strong impression in a small and thankless part and seeing an early performance by her is definitely the only reason to bother watching this movie.
Although, I actually thought that Pat O'Brien does a good job as well. He's a fast talking, slick-tongued low level criminal, who looks out just for himself and is quick to take advantage of young Jimmy.
The worst performance of all is Junior Durkin as Jimmy. His performance is hammy and sappy and the script only accentuates that. Patrick, you mention that you thought the relationship between he and Shorty bordered on the homoerotic, but I thought the big moment with homosexual overtones was the final scene between Jimmy and Kelly when they are talking so close to each other that you'd swear they're about to lean in and kiss each other.
I also have to whole-heartedly agree with you Patrick about the title. If there was ever a perfect title for a horror movie this is it. The bad title is in line with the rest of the bad writing though so perhaps it's no surprise.
One scene I must mention is the first scene where Jimmy's mom is hit and killed by a car. I actually laughed out loud when it happened. Not because I'm sadistic, but because Jimmy and his mom live on a country farm with a dirt road in front of it. The fact that his mom could some how have missed seeing the car coming is what I found to be so funny.
This one is pure melodrama that should only be of interest to diehard Davis fans.
Pat O'Brien and Junior Durkin in Hell's House
As my brothers wrote, the plot is simple and melodramatic. I too laughed when Jimmy's mom was killed. Not only must she have been blind and deaf to not know that car was coming, but the driver jumps back in the car and races off. How manipulative can a script get?
The version I saw on DVD had horrible sound quality. There was a constant hum and crackle the entire time it played. Often the actors mouths did not match the spoken words. This may have been the fault of my copy or the original print's. The direction is also terrible. The first scene that Davis appears in finds her face in shadows as they filmed the scene outside. The director needed to change where she stood.
As far as the homoerotic overtones go, I will add that Junior Durkin was in fact a homosexual in real life. At the time of his death, he was living with well known gay Hollywood agent Henry Wilson, who would later gain fame as the man who brought beefcake to the movies in the 1950s by starting the careers of such actors as Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter and John Derek.
Durkin died in a car accident at the age of 19 in 1935. He was returning from a trip with his friend Jackie Coogan, whom Durkin had befriended while making Tom Sawyer (1930). There were three other people in the car including Jackie Coogan's father who was driving. He drove off the road to avoid a head on collision. The car rolled down a hill. Durkin and Coogan were in the rumble seat. Coogan jump out to safety while Durkin was not so lucky.
Hell's House is a mere footnote in the annals of Hollywood history.
Photos © Copyright Capitol Film Exchange (1932)