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The normal pattern for Warner Bros. in the early talkie years saw them mostly recruiting new star talent straight from Broadway. The personalities either clicked and became the James Cagney and Joan Blondell we know and love, or soon spiraled away into oblivion. Bette Davis actually started at Universal and kicked around in (mostly) nothing roles for the better part of a year. After being dumped by the Laemmles and before being picked up by Warners, she earned a paycheck in this rogue independent for a producer named B.F. Zeidman. Davis received top billing (for the first time?) yet plays a featured supporting role opposite Pat O'Brien. The movie was filmed very quickly; it's possible that Ms. Davis was only on it for two or three days. Yet she makes a very strong impression... in her four or five scenes.
Bette Davis' part in Hell's House couldn't be compared to any of her later roles. In fact, the show is really a melodramatic exposé of the juvenile penal system. Davis is a lot more than decoration but her character is almost superfluous to the plot. Davis fans will be intrigued just the same. It's the kind of role that Jean Harlow might have been given a year or two earlier. Davis looks very blonde, slim and slinky.
The script and direction aren't exactly prizewinners, but neither is the film boring -- after it gets rolling, it introduces something new in each scene. His mother killed by a hit & run driver, fourteen year-old farm yokel Jimmy Mason (Junior Durkin) is forced to relocate to the big city, to stay with his Auntie Em and Uncle Henry (no kidding, Emma Dunn and Charley Grapewin). Henry loses his job, which prompts Jimmy to seek work with their roomer, the slick and self-aggrandizing bootlegger Matt Kelly (Pat O'Brien). Jimmy is impressed by Matt's classy girlfriend Peggy Gardner (Bette Davis) and jumps at the opportunity to help Matt mind a stash of illicit liquor, which he's 'holding for someone else.' No sooner is Jimmy on the job than he's nabbed by the cops. Still thinking that Matt is his friend, he keeps his mouth shut about Kelly and is sentenced to three years in the reformatory for not naming the adult that led him astray. For his part, Kelly simply pretends that Jimmy has run away. Jimmy is appalled to see how the kids in the reformatory are treated. His new pal Shorty (Junior Coughlin) has a bad heart and gets in big trouble when he's caught trying to sneak a letter to Matt, who Jimmy is still convinced will come to rescue him. As it turns out, a big newspaperman desires to reform the institution, but every time he visits the warden arranges to put on a show of benign treatment. Jimmy eventually realizes that he'll have to break out just to save Shorty's life.
Hell's House doesn't lack for quality actors. As always, Pat O'Brien is good with dialogue. He even drums up some mixed emotions when he decides to let Jimmy take the rap. Bette Davis acquits herself well, and it must be said that her 'stand, smile and look charming' presence may have made a better audition reel than some of the walk-ons she'd done at Universal (I'm thinking of the first version of Waterloo Bridge). To the extent that acting is asked of her, she's better than good. Young Junior Durkin and his juvenile pals are directed to deliver their dialogue slow and lame, with gaps between lines. The fake street slang falls flat, and his chummy relationship with Shorty sometimes gets too sentimental. Reactions are overplayed as well.
The prison boys do dangerous work making tall stacks of bricks for new construction. As there is no permanent doctor on the premises Shorty's heart condition goes untreated. Punishment is dished out in a study room where offenders must stare at a line on the wall for hours, without moving. We hear a scream from somewhere else in the prison. For a time Jimmy becomes a 'monitor' for the guards, and is expected to oversee and torment his pals like a trusty, or Kapo. As soon as he dons the armband nobody will talk to him.
The drama is eventually resolved by the intervention of decent men armed with a little information. But the real lesson kids would take away from Hell's House is that it's a good idea never to snitch, and certainly never to cooperate with the police. Even sweet little Auntie prefers to keep a tight lip when the bulls drop by. We hear promises that things at the institution will improve. Yet the social protest angle is abortive because there's no actual corruption on view. Later prison films explain that wardens or other bureaucrats siphon off operating funds to line their own pockets, but the old jerk in charge of this lockup apparently treats the kids mean simply because, 'that's the way things are.'
The real tension in the story is between Jimmy and the unprincipled Matt. Even after Jimmy makes it back from Hell's House, Matt doesn't want to come clean and admit his guilt. If we've learned anything, it's that Jimmy is not the brightest kid on the block. He still has faith in Matt. Frankly, we'd have preferred him to get wise much earlier, and return determined to knock Matt's brains out.
The direction by Howard Higgin is serviceable but nothing to write home about. All the interior rooms have that 'missing fourth wall' feeling and the blocking and compositions are mostly dull. The scene in which Matt must watch Jimmy be arrested is a nicely staged exception. This is also a good movie for spotting boom shadows, which can be spotted on sidewalks, walls, and falling faintly right across the actors themselves.
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of Hell's House is sourced from elements stored at the Library of Congress, and carries its original titles instead of the cards and explanatory text slapped on for later reissues. The title sequence is partially marred by nitrate decomposition, but plays intact. The rest of the show is in good shape, with a few flurries of scratches, a few soft shots and occasional printing light errors at cuts. The audio is quite good for a surviving Public Domain (?) title.
There are no extras or notes. The place to learn about this picture will probably be one of the many biographies of Bette Davis, where authors always seem in a hurry to change the subject to her professional friendship with George Arliss. Davis did well -- making the wrong movie at this time might have meant a stumble in her then- hardly begun career. But knowing the lady's personality she would surely have bounced back, one way or another.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hell's House Blu-ray rates:
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