Hell’s House (1932)

I saw this pre-code offering as one of a trio of films crammed on to a budget DVD misleadingly entitled Three Leading Ladies of the Silver Screen – with cover artwork  making it appear that Bette Davis is the star of the movie. In fact, she only has a very small part, as Peggy, the kind-hearted girlfriend of bootlegger  Matt Kelly (Pat O’Brien). I  gather the movie was rereleased after Davis and O’Brien had become stars, and repackaged to make the most of their names.

Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien and Junior Durkin

Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien and Junior Durkin

However,  this is the tale of a reform school for boys, and the lead role in fact belongs to  young actor Junior Durkin, who was 18 at the time the film was made. This contemporary review from the New York Times does give him top billing, though his name disappears from later posters. Watching this gawky lad with an expressive face, who dominates the screen whenever he’s present,  I wondered why he didn’t go on to become an adult star. Sadly, the answer is  that he died in a car crash at the age of 20. By contrast, the other teenager with a major part, Frank Coghlan Jr,  aka Junior Coghlan, is still alive, according to the small amount of material I found about him on the net. (He also played the young Tom Powers in the opening scenes of The Public Enemy.)

Since I’m interested in prison movies, I was intrigued to see a film which looks at the treatment of juvenile offenders. As the title suggests, this is a portrayal of a cruel institution where boys are exploited. Although the junior prison  at the centre is euphemistically known as an “industrial school”, most of the “lessons” consist of toiling in a brickworks. The half-starved youngsters are also made to torture one another, though  a system of appointing “monitors”.  The hero, Jimmy (Durkin) is at first pleased to be made a monitor, as a reward for good behaviour, but, when he discovers that he will have to make other boys stand to attention until they collapse with exhaustion, the smile soon fades on his lips. Not very much is shown of the ill-treatment at the school, but it’s made clear that the institution needs reforming.

Jimmy himself has been wrongfully convicted  – just as the central characters in adult prison movies are often innocent, to ensure they get the sympathy of the audience. His only crime is to believe all the outrageous lies told by Kelly, who allows him to carry the can for his bootlegging operation. Pat O’Brien gives an appealing performance as the silver-tongued gangster who claims to have a host of famous and influential friends, and it’s almost believable that he could  fool all those around him.

Since I’m always interested in portrayals of journalists in the movies, I enjoyed Morgan Wallace’s portrayal of gruff, ageing investigative reporter Frank Gebhardt, who is determined to get the real story about the reform school, and makes it clear he is not impressed when the principal serves him up a watered-down version of the reality for publication. Just a shame that his dealings with Kelly eventually tip over into sentimentality.

Although this movie stars Warner actors Davis and O’Brien, it was actually made by an independent production company and  feels rather weaker and  less gritty than Warner movies on similar themes.  It was directed and written by Howard Higgin – I don’t think I’ve seen anything else of his as yet.

Unfortunately, I found that the DVD copy I rented was almost unwatchable, as it didn’t appear to have been remastered and  had a great deal of surface noise, with a shaky grey picture.  Really one for Bette Davis completists (I’m fast becoming one of those!), or anyone who wants to see movies about reform schools.

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3 thoughts on “Hell’s House (1932)

  1. Hey Judy,

    This is a rarity, in all honesty I have never heard of it. Davis must of made this film prior to signing with Warners. Sounds a little similar to a film made the following year at Warners, “The Mayor of Hell” with Cagney.

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  2. Funny you should say that, John, I watched ‘The Mayor of Hell’ yesterday and there are quite a few similarities, though I think ‘The Mayor of Hell’ is a better movie. I’ll probably write something about that one too soon.

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  3. Pingback: Bette Davis Project #9: “Hell’s House” (1932) | She Blogged By Night

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