Home Video Hovel: Hell’s House, by David Bax
Howard Higgin’s Hell’s House, a film that has a place in the Library of Congress, comes to us on Blu-ray from Kino. The disc was created from a print that had been stored in co-star Bette Davis’ private collection. That’s a lot of credibility before you’ve set eyes on frame one of this thing but it quickly becomes clear that the film’s importance is historical, social and probably a few other things before you get to artistic .
Despite her top billing on the cover, Davis plays a relatively small part. The real lead is Junior Durkin as Jimmy, a fourteen-year-old farm boy whom we meet at the outset while he’s hanging laundry and doing other work for his dear old mother. Jimmy’s father is already dead because the film needs him to be in orphan in short order and two deaths in the first five minutes might sour the mood. So Jimmy’s mother dies and the young man heads to the city to live with his nearest relatives, an aunt and uncle (Emma Dunn and Charley Grapewin). When the uncle loses his job, Jimmy – being the most wholesome do-gooder in this man’s town – decides to find work for himself. He approaches the apartment’s other boarder, a well-dressed and seemingly well-connected man named Mr. Kelly (Pat O’Brien). Kelly puts Jimmy to work doing something the boy doesn’t realize is illegal and right away (seriously in like a minute), Jimmy is arrested and sent to a boy’s reform school.
Getting to this point has been a bit tedious but for the contributions from O’Brien and Davis as Kelly’s Main squeeze. That’s not to say they become any less tedious hereafter but at least now we’ve struck upon the movie’s reason for existing. Hell’s House was clearly meant chiefly to alert audiences to the dismal and abusive conditions to which boys in these institutions are exposed. It’s a commendable motive but the only sequence that’s truly effective is the one where a crusading newspaper reporter comes to shine a light on the matter and they dress the place up like a “Sunday school” to throw him off the scent. Other than that, it’s hard to see these boys any differently than you would a group of young men at a summer camp together, so phony is their hardboiled repartee.
Hell’s House is a movie possessed of such a liberal, conscientious and progressive agenda that when a jaw-droppingly casual and unremarked-upon racial slur is uttered in the first act, the cognitive dissonance is enough to make you dizzy. That’s an illustration of the film’s problem, though. Its concerns and points of view are so thoroughly stuck in 1932 that it’s impossible to see it as anything other than a curio.
Bette Davis completists will surely want to seek out Hell’s House since, even in her few scenes, it’s easy to see what made her a star. Her presence is stunning, not only because she’s beautiful but because she exudes an independence that is as monumental as it is nonchalant. I’m afraid there’s little other than that to recommend the film.
There are no special features.