Hell’s House (1932) Review, with Bette Davis and Pat O’Brien

Jimmy Mason
Junior Durkin
Matt Kelly
Pat O’Brien
Peggy Gardner
Bette Davis
Released by Allied Artists (?)
Directed by Howard Higgin
Run time: 72 minutes

Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film

  • One early scene has Jimmy Mason (Durkin) trying to pick the right door to knock on, and he plays the classic game of “Eeenie meeney miney moe…”. Only this is back when the phrase used the n-word rather than tiger.
  • A boy in prison is constipated and gets some meds to deal with that.

Hell’s House: Mayor of Heck

“Nothing’s going to happen to me.”

“What do you mean nothing is going to happen? It’s happening!”

A social justice movie that preceded pre-Code classics like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, the very-similar Mayor of Hell and Wild Boys of the Road, Hell’s House is a sympathetic look at how the juvenile justice system is bent towards punishment and recidivism rather than reform.

While Pat O’Brien and Bette Davis are on the marquee, it’s Junior Durkin who is the star of the picture. His Jimmy Mason is a nice, sweet kid on a run of bad luck, from losing his mother in a sudden car accident to agreeing to be a watchman for an illegal distillery. He’s picked up by the police, and because he refuses to name Matt Kelly (O’Brien) as the bootlegger-in-charge, Jimmy is sent to a juvenile prison upstate.

There Jimmy makes a quick friend in Shorty (Frank McCoughlin), and Shorty promises to help Jimmy out in getting a letter back to Kelly, who’d promised to work to get him free. (Kelly, of course, is just happy the kid took the fall and keeping his head low; not even Kelly’s fiance, a sympathetic Peggy (Davis), has been told what happened to the poor boy.) When Shorty’s stint in solitary confinement results in his near-death, Jimmy escapes to get help with the police hot on his trail.

Hell’s House is kind of a mixed bag. O’Brien and Davis, who are fully ensconced in fast-talking, street smart acting of the era collides with Durkin’s quiet, less ostentatious style. Scenes between them feel like an odd mismatch in tones, which is interesting to watch but does take you out of the picture.

Luckily, those are only a fraction of the run time, with much of it focused on Jimmy’s merciless plight as he hopes, begs, and pleads his way through a juvenile reform system focused on gang rule and needlessly cruel punishment simply as a due matter of course. Some of it still seems a bit tame, especially in the era of private prisons drugging prisoners and kneecapping them so that they stay in the system, but director Howard Higgin still finds a handful of horrors to showcase in a visceral, unsettling way.

The most stunning comes in the form of boys lined up and punished by being forced to stare at a line in the board, which he films as if they are caught in a horrific revelry. The punishment is arbitrary and senseless, and Jimmy has at this point even become the one administering it, further pushing him out of his naivete.

Hell’s House is an independent production, and for this era that means the movie seems a little more creaky and a lot less technically competent than its studio fare. While it doesn’t hold a candle to many of the works Warner Bros. would soon churn out that shone spotlights at many of the other societal ills present in the era, the handful of effective moments and the easy-going lead performance of Junior Durkin make it a satisfying thought-provoker.

Screen Capture Gallery

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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links

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.’

  • Blu-ray.com has more screenshots, though they call the film “conventional and dry.”

Awards, Accolades & Availability

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One Reply to “Hell’s House (1932) Review, with Bette Davis and Pat O’Brien”

  1. Fun, as always. Glenn Erickson is daunting–when I’m trying to write a review for my blog I frequently make the mistake of checking his–and he ALWAYS has some angles that never occur to me, which double-fluster my attempt. I was lucky enough to finally get to meet him a few months ago—great guy. You have one of the best sites around. Cheers, Mark

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