A most welcome Blu-ray release, Hell's House (1932) is an obscure, pre-Code film likened to similar penal system exposÃ©s that immediately followed it, notably I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) and The Mayor of Hell (1933). However, Hell's House was produced independently, outside the studio system, and released on a spotty, states-rights basis. It eventually fell into the public domain, and until now the only way to see it was via public domain labels like Alpha Video.
Without ever having seen these public domain DVDs, I'd wager they can't hold a candle to this superlative Kino Classics release, which sources star Bette Davis's personal 35mm nitrate print, donated to the Library of Congress. A disclaimer on the packaging and preceding the movie warns, "The first reel â€¦ suffers nitrate decomposition and some missing frames. Otherwise, the film is essentially intact." However, in high-definition, even those first 11 minutes look to be in better shape than many legitimate studio releases of similar vintage, while the rest of the film is in outstanding condition. (The missing frames issue actually seems to occur throughout the film, with a couple of frames replaced here and there by what look like 16mm elements. They're not particularly distracting.)
Fatherless, 15-year-old Jimmy Mason (Trent "Junior" Durkin) loses his mother (Mary Alden) when she's killed in a hit-and-run accident on the street in front of their farmhouse. He goes to the big city to live with Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) and Auntie Em(ma) (Emma Dunn), an amusing coincidence to the later The Wizard of Oz, in which Grapewin plays a similar character identically attired.
The impressionable Jimmy is much taken with the couple's boarder, Matt Kelly (Pat O'Brien), a minor-league bootlegger boasting of his many celebrity friends and political connections, which the gullible Jimmy accepts at face value. Matt, his ego-stroked by Jimmy's hero-worship, offers the boy a job answering the phone at his secret storehouse, but minutes after Matt leaves Jimmy alone, police raid the operation and arrest Jimmy. Matt, watching the arrest from the safety of his automobile, parked down the street (good camerawork here), slithers away.
Even after his arrest, Jimmy's faith in his pal is indefatigable. He refuses to name Matt when Jimmy is brought before the judge, and is sentenced to three years at the State Industrial School for Boys. There he befriends ailing bunkmate Shorty (Frank "Junior" Coghlan, later Billy Batson in Adventures of Captain Marvel), whose "old pump, it ain't no good."
Life at the reform school, in fact a massive brick yard where the youths labor, is unremittingly harsh. Offered better conditions, Jimmy goes to work as a "monitor," only to discover the work entails watching over lads forced to stare endlessly at a white line on a blackboard, or stand along a line on the floor for many hours until they collapse from exhaustion.
Though it surely anticipates the grittier penal films to follow, Hell's House isn't really in the same league or as hard-hitting as those best films, instead falling somewhere between I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Our Gang two-reelers like Mush and Milk (1933) and Shrimps for a Day (1934), comedies that nonetheless presented incredibly bleak living conditions and rampant adult corruption.
Regardless, Hell's House is still pretty powerful thanks to Junior Durkin's remarkably believable, naturalistic performance. Though hopelessly naÃ¯ve, to the point where Jimmy's faith in shameless heel Matt remains unshaken even in the final reel, Durkin's performance is so authentically innocent and uncorrupted that watching Jimmy suffer so terribly is painful.
Durkin, then 16, had played Huckleberry Finn in both Tom Sawyer (1930) and Huckleberry Finn (1931). Under contract to RKO by 1934, Durkin was being groomed for adult roles when in 1935 he died in a road accident that also claimed the father of Jackie Coogan. (The younger Coogan was also in the vehicle, but survived.)
Bette Davis, top-billed, has a very supporting role as Matt's girlfriend, a character very fond of Jimmy and who gradually comes to realize what a louse Matt is. Davis, on loan-out from Universal (and soon to depart for greener pastures with Warner Bros.) is perfectly fine in her several scenes, but it's Durkin's film all the way, with O'Brien in the pivotal adult part.
Video & Audio
Hell's House is presented in 1920 x 1080p, in its original 1.33:1 format and sourcing, as noted above, Bette Davis's personal 35mm nitrate print. Though the first reel shows some damage, even it looks okay, considering, and the rest of the picture is way above average compared to most early-â€˜30s movies on Blu-ray and DVD. The audio also, English only with no subtitle options, is unusually clear, though I did hear strange, very faint electronic beeping-type noises in some shots. Whether this is some remnant of a computer program designed to clean up the audio or an original on-set noise emanating from camera or recording equipment I cannot say. It wasn't a major distraction, but it is a bit odd and mysterious. No Extra Features.
A fascinating pre-Code title, not a Bette Davis vehicle but a proto-penal system exposÃ© highlighted by Trent "Junior" Durkin's excellent performance, Hell's House is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.