US / 72 minutes / bw / Astor Dir & Story: Howard Higgin Scr: Paul Gangelin, B. Harrison Orkow Cine: Allen G. Siegler Cast: Bette Davis, Pat O’Brien, Junior Dirkin (i.e., Junior Durkin), Junior Coughlin (i.e., Frank Coghlan Jr), Emma Dunn, Charles Grapewin, Morgan Wallace, Hooper Atchley, Wallace Clark, James Marcus, Mary Alden.
Young Jimmy (Junior Durkin) helps Mom with the laundry.
After seeing his widowed mother Lucy (Alden) die in a hit-and-run, 14-year-old country boy Jimmy Mason (Dirkin) comes to the big city to throw himself on the mercy of his aunt and uncle, Emma (Dunn) and Henry Clark (Grapewin). They goodheartedly take him in, but Henry has just that morning lost his job so things look grim. However, the Clarks’ fast-talking lodger Matt Kelly (O’Brien) takes the boy under his wing, even offering him a job at $25 a week just to answer the phone at Kelly’s scabby center of operations. Unknown to Jimmy and the Clarks, Kelly’s business is as a bootlegger; the first morning that Jimmy’s there, alone, the cops raid the joint and drag the boy off to juvenile court.
Kelly (Pat O’Brien) explains the basics of the job to Jimmy (Junior Durkin). It’s just a matter of answering the phone. Really it is.
Despite the pleadings of Judge Robinson (Clark), Jimmy refuses to divulge the names of his relatives or the man who hired him, and is consequently sentenced to three years at the State Industrial School for Boys—reformatory, in other words, with hard labor in the brickyard. There’s he’s befriended by one of the other boys, Shorty (Coughlin), who’s supposed to be getting gentler treatment because he has a bad “pump.”
Superintent Thompson (James Marcus) lectures the new intake.
Meanwhile, famous newspaper columnist Frank Gebhardt (Wallace), aware of the dreadful conditions at the reformatory and mindful to bring about reform, persuades his old pal Charlie Thompson (Marcus), the reformatory’s superintendent, to let him pay an impromptu visit, one where the guards won’t have time to tidy up their act before his arrival. Of course, Thompson welches on the agreement and Gebhardt’s supposedly investigatory visit is a farce.
For all his big talk, Kelly is doing nothing toward trying to extricate Jimmy from the situation. His girlfriend, Peggy Gardner (Davis), who took a fancy to the lad, is curious as to what’s become of him, but Kelly just lies to her that Jimmy must have decided to go back to the country.
Peggy (Bette Davis) takes a shine to the boy.
After Shorty is caught trying to smuggle one of Jimmy’s letters out of the “school” and, rather than betray his friend, goes to solitary, Jimmy, determined to get Shorty freed, smuggles himself out of the place in a garbage can. He makes it home to his aunt and uncle, then finds Kelly at Peggy’s place. Peggy, who’s a far better woman than Kelly is a man, is horrified to learn the truth of Jimmy’s absence. She forces Kelly to take Jimmy to Gebhardt, and the boy spills his story to the journalist. News comes through that Shorty has died. Even then, Kelly refuses to make the confession that would save Jimmy from being dragged back to the reformatory . . .
This movie’s motives—to lay bare the barbaric conditions in which juveniles were being incarcerated—were estimable. Yet in order to hammer home this message the scripters and director seem determined to leave no string of the audience’s collective heart unplucked. On witnessing Shorty’s protracted near-death scene, his voice occasionally cracking plaintively as he tells Jimmy that dying surely won’t be so bad after all, it’s hard not to be reminded of Oscar Wilde’s famous remark about The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
In one dehumanizing punishment, the boys are forced to stare at a blank board for hours on end.
Stiffly acted in its opening minutes, Hell’s House gathers momentum satisfactorily; particularly bizarre early on is when Emma Clark, having just moments before heard that her dear sister Lucy has been killed, exchanges light-hearted banter with Kelly. O’Brien is probably too lightweight an actor to carry off a part that has similarities with James Cagney’s very roughly equivalent role in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), and Dirkin/Durkin gives the impression that he’s learning on the job; but Davis in the later stages shows some of the power of which she was capable, her eyes glittering and her glower almost a physical presence as Peggy forces Kelly to do the decent thing.
On Amazon.com: Hell’s House: Kino Classics Remastered Edition [Blu-ray]