The Bette Davis Project: Hell’s House (1932)

Hell's House (1932)


Recently orphaned teenager, Jimmy Mason (Junior Durkin, Little Men), comes to live with his uncle and aunt in the big city. The naive young man immediately gets in trouble with the police and he’s sent to a reformatory. There he faces abuse at the hands of the staff and fellow inmates.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Hell’s House, written by Paul Gangelin (Tarzan’s Secret Treasure) and B. Harrison Orkow, directed by Howard Higgin (The Painted Desert), is a mildly amusing programmer that now looks like an after-school TV special.

The film has the heart in the right place. It’s trying to say something important about social injustice at the height of the Great Depression. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it does tend to go for the obvious. William A. Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road and William Wyler’s Dead End are better examples of this particular type of movie.

Pat O’Brien (Angels With Dirty Faces) plays the street hustler who gets Jimmy in trouble. He has the best written role in the film. Plus O’Brien has a lay-back style that has aged well. Both him and Bette Davis are essentially supporting newcomer Durkin, who is the real star of the movie. There is nothing special about the young actor. The kid made a few more films and then disappeared.

Hell’s House is not only notable for providing Davis with her first starring role, but also for being the last film she made under the original Universal contract that had brought her to Hollywood (the film was made on a loan out to independent producer B. F. Zeidman). Davis is okay, but the role of the girlfriend is uninteresting. She was disenchanted with cinema and was eager to return to Broadway. Universal wasn’t enthused with Davis either and they didn’t renew the contract.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Hell’s House is the stereotypical 1930s Great Depression programmer — nonsensical and pointless, yet fast-paced and kinda of entertaining. It’s a curiosity and mostly for Davis completists. B&W, 72 minutes, Not Rated.


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